Occasional Days Of Remembrance Are Not Enough To Address Issues Blacks in Baseball Faced Or Their Future In The Game

Major League Baseball’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the “color” line has come and gone. We all patted ourselves on the back and congratulated ourselves for our historic achievement and the distance we’ve moved from the time when major league baseball enforced its corrupt, cruel, and corrosive system of segregation and exclusion of black ballplayers.

But, if we peel back MLB’s annual celebration of Jackie Robinson, it is becoming less and less about the struggles he and other black ballplayers endured in integrating baseball than about a celebration of Major League Baseball as a shining, glorious emblem of America’s integrated and colorblind society.

All players wearing No. 42 – in Dodger Blue this year! – is meant to convey that we’ve reached racial harmony. Have we? It just feels contrived and papered over, given all the racial issues of injustice and hatred that infuse our society today.

Yes, the barriers were lowered. But it took time. Remember, another 12 years went by before the Boston Red Sox became the last team to add a black player -Elijah “Pumpsie” Green- to their roster (Side note: He would go on to be my assistant coach at Berkeley High in the late ‘70s).

If the true history were told during our celebration of Jackie Robinson, we would hear the struggles of black ballplayers who came after Jackie -in the 50s and 60s, if not later. Even after the successes of Mays and Aaron and Robinson and Gibson just two generations ago, hatred and bigotry remained in some places and forces remained stacked against black ballplayers’ efforts to make it to the major leagues. Scouting of black ballplayers was scant and done so begrudgingly by many big league organizations. Those entities also offered little support for black ballplayers who had to start their professional careers in the racist Deep South, forcing them to fend for themselves. How many stars did we lose to racial stresses that they had to endure as they began their professional careers? Once black players made it to the major leagues, vestiges of remaining racial biases forced black players to exist under a double standard.

I highly recommend Jules Tygiel’s “Baseball’s Great Experiment – Jackie Robinson And His Legacy, published in 1983 but remains an unsurpassed historic accounting of the issue of blacks’ struggles for equal treatment in baseball.

Through it all, baseball’s black presence reached a peak at nearly 19 percent in 1975, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. But it’s been in a steady decline in the 47 years since, dropping to 7.4 percent this year. Just 70 of 950 players on the 2022 Opening Day rosters were black. This is despite some efforts to draw black kids to the game. The allure of the NBA and the NFL, with greater chances of young black athletes earning college scholarships that lead to professional careers, has far surpassed MLB’s ability to compete for talent. Check out the rosters on college baseball teams today and you will count on one hand the number of black ballplayers per school, if any.

One reason is the prevalence of travel ball. Many black children do not have the opportunity to participate, simply because they can’t afford to. In a 2021 article for Global Sport Matters, Jon Solomon goes into detail about the identifies the problem that those of us who are in Little Leagues already know. If you don’t pay, you don’t play.

Major League Baseball has begun to address the problem.

“…you have to pay $10, $15, or $25 just to go out there and play, or you’re being pushed off the field because you don’t have parental supervision or didn’t sign up on a website for that block of time. We’re reducing kids from organically playing,” said Jeffrey Hammonds with the Major League Baseball Players Association in 2020.

In many school districts, lawyers are the problem. Schools are reluctant to risk a lawsuit should a player be injured on campus in a non-school event.

And if you sign up for Little League, chances are decent that the travel ball coach will be coaching one of the teams. Though there are rules mandating playing time for all players, it is still very easy to put Jimmy and Pedro in a two-player platoon in right field while the other 10 players rotate through the other eight positions.

So many factors are involved; so many solutions have been offered by those interested in continuing Jackie Robinson’s legacy in the major leagues. There is one more: reduce ticket prices. Slash them so that everyone can go to a ballgame if they have time in their schedule. Bring back $2 bleacher seats and $15 box seats. If you want to re-create a connection with black fans and fans of all economic levels, bring them back into the park. Sadly, MLB has gone the opposite direction with no sense of irony. The return from Covid has only fueled what was a disturbing trend. In a recent Dodgers/Giants matchup, tickets that would have sold for $20 20 years ago were now $160-$200.

Since the first of the new-age gleaming, modern ballparks went up in Baltimore 30 years ago, we’ve had a systematic gentrification of baseball stadiums, where people of color and lesser financial means were edged out as gates opened up and closed around more affluent (and usually much more white) fan base.

There’s no reason to have high ticket prices: gate receipts are not the driving force of baseball economics. It’s TV and streaming rights, TV advertising, naming rights and other factors. The only reason I can tell that prices were jacked up was to appeal to (and gouge) a more casual and affluent fan base. If that meant that black and non-affluent fans were shut out, too bad, seemed to be the attitude of baseball.

If MLB wants to do justice to Jackie Robinson’s legacy, they would do well to stop whitewashing the history, acting as if the story ended in 1947. And, MLB would do small but important things to bring back the connection to black fans so that the interest spreads to the talented among us. There are some great projects out there, including the Hank Aaron Invitational https://www.mlb.com/hank-aaron-invitational, which offers opportunities to some 250 black players to get together for elite-level training and competition. That’s a good start, but it’s only two weeks in Florida and for a very elite group of players.

There are other efforts that have been undertaken, but you do have to hunt for them. MLB has also posted material for people interested in the issues at hand with video from many people, including Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, Derek Jeter, Clayton Kershaw, Bob Gibson, and two current black players: Anthony Alford and Jonathan Davis.

“I’m tolerated by a lot of people, but not necessarily accepted,” Alford says in a video chat about his experiences with racism and inclusion.

“I got a rope and a tree with his name on it,” were the words Jon Duplantier says he heard coming from an opposing dugout during a scrimmage in Houston when he was in high school.

These men aren’t that old and these experiences didn’t happen that long ago. There is obviously still work that needs to be done to bring people together.

Let’s take a real look at the issues blocking black kids from participating, let’s spread the wealth and let’s use the positives of Jackie Robinson’s historic breakthrough to make more breakthroughs of our own.

Editor’s note: Bob Moffitt contributed to this column.

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