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No. 42 paid the price, but who will follow?


What happens when you’ve pried the door wide open with courage and persistence, and those for whom the deed was done lose interest in walking through it?

The new movie “42” (a very good piece of work, by the way, that should be seen by everybody) depicts the story of Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s first year in major league baseball (1947) as the major character in the glorious experiment of integrating modern professional baseball.

The most intense examples of the racial hatred spat at Robinson were thankfully not shown in the movie (they could have caused riots by some moviegoers), but the deep love shared between Robinson and his young bride, Rachel, was priceless in the movie. So was the relationship between the Robinsons and aspiring journalist Wendell Smith, who was instrumental in recommending Robinson to Branch Rickey for this historic drama.

Smith became a highly accomplished sports writer and reporter himself during the Robinson era, and well-known sports journalist Brian Gumbel recently noted that Smith was the inspiration for Gumbel’s career in sports.

As is well known, Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers for 10 years, and had a Hall of Fame career in spite of every attempt to undermine him (including winning the first league Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, winning the league Most Valuable Player twice, etc.). In 2004, major league baseball implemented (the decision was made in 1998) the now-famous and completely unique ritual of annually getting all major league baseball players to wear number 42, Robinson’s retired number, in all April 15 ball games. No other sport does that, and no other baseball player, White or Black, has been so honored.

The problem now is that though legions of African American baseball players have been magnificent stars since Robinson’s heroics, in today’s major league baseball, the percentage of African American ballplayers is barely above the rate during Robinson’s first two years in the league. In fact, the percentage is nearly the equivalent of African Americans in professional hockey!

Major league baseball currently has 45 African American players out of 750 on 30 teams; while the NHL has 29 African Americans out of 690 players on 30 teams.) The world champion San Francisco Giants, for example, at the start of the 2013 season, had not one African American ballplayer on its roster. Most of the Black ballplayers are concentrated on three teams–the Dodgers, the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals.

What’s happened? Don’t Black youth ache to play baseball anymore?

A great many still do, according to the latest studies. The principal problem, however, is the costs of developing young talent who will stay the long course from grade school through the baseball minor leagues to get a shot at the bigs. Not only is the route to financial rewards and stardom much shorter in basketball and football, but effective youth development leagues for baseball players in America’s urban areas is almost nonexistent. (Compton College has a great baseball youth development program, but it has not been duplicated elsewhere.) Baseball is not a cheap sport over the long haul, while sandlot football and basketball preparation activities simply do not require the consistent capital outlay from families that baseball does.

Major league baseball has a highly effective program for recruiting and developing talented, poverty-stricken players from Latin American and Caribbean areas, but has not yet found a way to translate that to the urban neighborhoods of the USA. And this is not a new problem. Baseball participation by African American players has been on a steady decline since the 1986 heyday of 19 percent.

Partially, this reflects the waning interest in major league baseball by Black American fans since Robinson retired from the profession in 1957. Smaller and smaller numbers of Black Americans watch baseball, either in person or on television during the 21st century. So, this will be an uphill battle to win, and simple solutions will not suffice.

Even with several very highly placed baseball executives as part of modern baseball–including general managers like Kenny Williams of the White Sox; Tony Reagins, formerly of the Los Angeles Angels, and five African American big league managers, including Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker–the sports’ attractiveness has continued its downward plunge unabated.

Some analysts say Robinson would be most surprised today by baseball’s better diversity record at the executive level than at the player level.

It was a long, tortuous battle to get baseball to open its doors to African American players, but what good was it if we are not going to utilize it and expand it? As America’s game continues to change from baseball to basketball and football, are we allowing our own historic strides to be ignored in the process?

What say you Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bobby Bonds and Frank Robinson? We need some spiritual guidance here. You built it, but to our shame, we, so far, haven’t come.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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