Where Have You Gone Jackie Robinson…?

Last Sunday, something important happened. If you aren’t a sports fan, you might not have realized it, but you should have. On April 15th, Major League Baseball celebrated the 60th anniversary of the breaking of the color barrier.

It’s hard to believe that 60 years have really passed since April 15th, 1947, when Jackie Robinson went 0-3 while playing first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson’s debut made Major League Baseball the first public institution to break the color barrier. Yes, I called Major League Baseball an institution, and no, I didn’t misspeak. It would be a full year later than the United States military, which became the second institution to integrate. Robinson undoubtedly set of a domino effect.

And so I, as a sportswriter, can’t help but wonder if Robison would be proud of Major League Baseball today. I suspect that he would tell us that he is proud, but we might also hear a bit of sorrow in his voice. He would smile when he saw that 40% of ballplayers are Hispanic, African American, or Asian. But he would also be a bit saddened at the falling rate of participation by African Americans players currently in the big leagues.

Only 8% of major league players today are African American, and the number seems to be dwindling. This is not Major League Baseball’s fault, nor is it anyone else’s.

The reasons for the decreasing number of black youths playing baseball are numerous. The rise of basketball as the most popular urban sport can be traced to the days when Julius Erving made it cool to play basketball. And Michael Jordan (who ironically loved baseball enough to take a break from his historic NBA career to try to play in the Show) picked up where Dr. J left off. Jordan’s game was so spectacular that Nike jumped into the picture and created an entire generation of young black men that wanted to be like Mike, and not like Tony Gwynn.

There are also more logistical reasons for young African Americans turning to basketball, and football rather than playing baseball. It takes a lot of land and money to maintain a baseball field (not to mention the equipment costs), while a basket and a ball are enough to keep a whole neighborhood of kids entertained. So, when it came time to cut spending in schools and parks and recreation departments, baseball was often the victim. Other reasons for baseball’s declining popularity among young black men might include factors such as at a Division-I college, football is allocated 85 scholarships while baseball only gets 11.7. The fact that athletes are able to make more money between the ages of 18-25 playing football or basketball than they could playing baseball might also be a contributing factor. This isn’t that surprising since baseball players typically have to play in the minor leagues before they make it to the show, while Lebron James signed a $90 million endorsement deal with Nike before he ever played an NBA game.

So how does baseball draw young black men back to the sport? It needs to start by marketing young black stars like Ryan Howard and Dontrelle Willis. Baseball has also launched several inner-city baseball academies across the country. But even still, regaining the interest of young African Americans will be an uphill battle. Baseball is a generational game that must be passed on from father to son. Baseball lost a generation, and so now the challenge that presents itself to Major League Baseball is to find a way to draw young men to the sport in other ways.

In the meantime, the fans, should sit back and thank God for Jackie Robinson. We should be thankful that #42 had the guts to go out and play even though he was getting death threats. We should be grateful because if Robinson hadn’t played, we not only would have been deprived of his brilliance, but we might never have gotten to watch “Say Hey” Willie Mays, and “Hammering Hank” Aaron might never have broken the Babe Ruth’s home run record. If Jackie hadn’t had the courage, Ernie Banks might never have been “Mr. Cub”. If it weren’t for Jackie, Don Imus might not have been fired. If it weren’t for Jackie…

Thank God for Jackie.