Sixty years ago, Jackie Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball history. He broke the color barrier and started a chain reaction that resulted in racial sports integration.
MLB is honoring Robinson this weekend, and many baseball players have jumped at the chance of wearing No. 42 to personally honor the hero. Many baseball columnists have talked about this in many varieties from the dilution of the honor with so many players wearing No. 42 to the concern of so few black players in professional baseball. Is this low number destroying Jackie’s legacy?
Robinson playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 15, 1947 transcended baseball. A black person was being accepted in the white world, and today that racial divide is much smaller. Robinson helped that.
But according to these figures, African-Americans comprised of only 8% of all major league baseball players. A racial divide seems more like a black hole.
On the surface, it seems like an epidemic. Baseball must be more active in recruiting the black athlete. It has for years failed to advertise itself to the black community as aggressively and as efficiently as the NBA and the NFL. In recent years, basketball got Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade, football got Vince Young and Reggie Bush, while baseball got Ryan Howard.
Howard is a star, but he was drafted in 2001. Wade was drafted in 2003. Bush was drafted in 2006. One of the problems marketing baseball is the usual long road from the minor league to the major league. Jumping from high school to the pros is unheard of in baseball where the occurrence in basketball, for a time, seemed yearly (until the recent bargaining agreement which stipulates players must be at least one year removed from high school and be 19). Football players spend two or three years of college before possibly entering the draft.
Stardom can be attained faster in basketball and football (college basketball and college football are also more popular than college baseball). And who doesn’t want both at a younger age?
But the idea that most people are forgetting to mention as the root cause of baseball’s lack of black talent is the simplest: baseball is too expensive to play.
In basketball, all you need is a ball and a hard surface to play on. A basketball court is readily available at any park and even a basket can be crafted from a box and placed on one’s garage. In football, all you need is a ball and a long stretch of grass. Soccer is the same. In baseball, you need more: a bat, a ball (preferably more than one), and a glove for every player on one of the teams. Also, try catching behind the plate without proper equipment.
Latin America isn’t the richest part of the world, but a high percentage of baseball players come from there. David Ortiz from the Dominican Republic; Johan Santana from Venezuela. Sidney Ponson from Aruba. How? Baseball (the league and former players) invested in baseball academies to help promote the sport and develop kids. How many academies are there in the United States? Africa? Playing the sport requires a lot of equipment that some people just can’t afford. Hockey suffers from this as well.
You also need a baseball field or that constant fear of breaking a window is always on your mind. And you need a lot of people to play with. You need at least nine players on each team. Any number less than that and you’re limiting the way you play. In basketball, you can play one-on-one to nine-on-nine if you want. Hell, you can even play by yourself with only the ball and a hoop.
You can grab a few people to play a pick-up game in football on some patches of grass.
You can’t really do that in baseball. Organization is very key.
But is 8% really a problem? It is for baseball because the talent then has to come from elsewhere. It really isn’t for blacks because there are other sports outlets like basketball and football. Racial discrimination isn’t much of an issue in sports as much as it was when Jackie played.
Lack of diversity? Baseball is very diverse with players coming from Latin America and Asia. Basketball is exploding with European talent. American football could do better, but there are so many regional leagues like Canada and Europe that the sport itself can really be considered global.
Jackie Robinson should not only be remembered for opening the door for blacks in baseball. He should be remembered for opening the door to all sports for all non-white races. And I don’t think he would be sad to see baseball only 8% full of blacks if he saw Wade and Shaq win last year’s NBA Final or LaDainian Tomlinson score 31 times.