Jackie Robinson would be proud of Ron Washington, Lloyd McClendon and African-American managers who have served in the dugout. He’d be proud of Michael Hill, Ken Williams and African-American executives who have made major decisions in the front office. He’d be pleased that the commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, and the owners have opened their ranks to minorities in the 22 years since the Rev. Jesse Jackson criticized the sport for having too many white faces in high places.
But 67 years after he broke the color barrier, Robinson might be stunned and saddened by what is happening on the field. Once the domain of black stars who ruled the sport and secured their legacies in the Hall of Fame, Major League Baseball now sees 67 as the symbol of an alarming, two-decade pattern — it’s the number of African-American players in major-league uniforms this year, comprising only 7.7 percent of the collective 30 rosters. When Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record in 1974, baseball was in the beginnings of a 25-year period in which black players accounted for 16 to 19 percent of the player ranks, per USA Today and the Society of Baseball Research.
Now? Three respected franchises — Giants, Cardinals and Diamondbacks — don’t have a black player on their rosters.
Kids, for the most part, have stopped playing baseball in urban areas. One reason: It’s much easier to play basketball, where all you need is shoes and a pickup game, than baseball, which requires equipment and at least 17 others to fill out two teams. Another reason: College football and basketball offer more scholarship opportunities than college baseball. Football’s concussion crisis would seem to offer a window for more participation, but do young kids — of all shapes, sizes and races — even understand the intricate strategies of an old, slow, dawdling sport when football and basketball are more prevalent and popular? Do kids even want to play baseball?
The pattern appears irreversible. And while baseball has improved its minority hiring performance among executives and field managers, it’s still very much a sport owned and operated by the white elite. Aaron spoke to that last week when he told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that the world hasn’t changed much since his historic home run. He says he has kept hate mail from the ‘70s. Why?
“To remind myself that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record,’’ Aaron said. “If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed. We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.
“We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country.’’
More than a few bigots proved his point in recent days, flooding the Atlanta Braves’ offices with more hateful correspondence made available to USA Today. Wrote a certain “Edward,’’ omitting his last name in an e-mail: “Hank Aaron is a scumbag piece of (expletive) (racial slur). … “My old man instilled in my mind from a young age, the only good (racial slur) is a dead (racial slur).”
Baseball can go right ahead and have all its tributes on Jackie Robinson Day, when every major-league player wears No. 42. Selig can spin the subject his way, as usual, saying, “I guess if you’re commissioner long enough, things can turn around.’’
As the great Aaron said, the only turn is downward. If the ceremonies are for show, the numbers tell the harsh truth.