Monday, April 16, 2007

Jackie Robinson's Legacy and the Decline of African-Americans in Major League Baseball

Jackie Robinson would expect better

April 15, 2007

Major League Baseball has proclaimed today as Jackie Robinson Day, but if he were alive, Robinson would surely be sad to see how much baseball has lost touch with the black community.

There's no doubt that Jackie Robinson deserves to be honored. The sports legend and civil rights pioneer broke baseball's color barrier when he first stepped onto the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Robinson integrated the sport more than a decade before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

Although Robinson opened the major leagues to blacks six decades ago, today fewer and fewer blacks are participating in baseball.

In 1985, blacks made up 27% of the league's baseball players. Twenty years later, the number had dwindled to just 8%.

Observers have cited many reasons for the decline: increased popularity of sports like basketball and football among inner-city youth, failing infrastructure of baseball facilities in many urban areas, fewer games available for viewing on free network television, and escalating ticket prices to big-league games, to name a few.

All of those factors have undoubtedly played a role in the sport's declining interest among blacks, but Major League Baseball must also take some of the responsibility.

For years, Hall of Famer and veteran broadcaster Joe Morgan has expressed frustration with the big league's apparent lack of interest in developing black talent at home. While the NBA and NFL were figuring out creative ways to market their sports to urban youth, pro baseball instead focused on scouting talent and increasing audience in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

As America's pastime has become a global game, the black community has been taken for granted.

Baseball is now trying to reconnect with the black American community, and Jackie Robinson Day is a step in the right direction. Robinson was an amazing athlete, and a courageous man who endured a level of unfettered racism that few of us can probably imagine.

But if baseball really wants to be recognized for playing a valuable role in the struggle for racial justice, it must do more than honor the accomplishments of one great man.

Take, for example, the inaugural "Civil Rights Game" played on March 31, on the eve of the baseball's Opening Day. It was supposed to remind fans of baseball's role in the civil rights movement. But when the Cleveland Indians were invited to participate in the game, fans were instead reminded of how much racism persists in baseball.

Although Cleveland was the first American League team to sign a black player (Larry Doby, who joined 11 weeks after Robinson), the Indians' team name and its logo of the grinning Chief Wahoo are overtly racist and utterly offensive icons.

To be true to Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball should, once and for all, ban these bigoted symbols and rededicate itself to bringing black fans and ballplayers back to the game.

As Jackie Robinson once said, "The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time."

Sixty years after Robinson made professional sports history, his words are truer than ever. Baseball, are you listening?

ANDREA LEWIS is cohost of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. Readers may write her at: Progressive Media Project, 409 East Main Street, Madison, Wis. 53703, or at

Copyright 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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