Saturday marked the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut as a Brooklyn Dodger, the first time an African American had ever put on a Major League uniform. On Sunday, Robinson's legacy was celebrated during the entire telecast of Sunday Night Baseball between the Dodgers and Padres.
During pre-game festivities, broadcaster Vince Scully addressed the baseball world with a tribute to Robinson's widow, Rachel. Scully, now in his 57th year as play-by-play voice of the Dodgers, was around for seven of Robinson's seasons in the big leagues.
Hank Aaron, baseball's Home Run King, as well Frank Robinson, the first-ever black manager, threw the ceremonious first pitch. Hall of Famer Joe Morgan provided color commentary, while Aaron, Robinson and Dave Winfield visited the booth to offer their appreciation for the tremendous courage Robinson displayed. In addition, each was concerned that equality is still a far-fetched idea.
And they should be.
During the Jackie Robinson era, the solution to the problem was crystal clear. Then, all that was needed was a man like Robinson. Today, fewer than nine percent of Major Leaguers are African-American. Today, answers to this issue are few and far between.
First black coaches to meet in the Super Bowl; first black golfer to win a major; first time two black quarterbacks to meet for the National Title; first black women to win a major tennis tournament. The list goes on and on, but attitudes stay the same. There are still black pioneers in the world of sport, but to accept that this nation has come as far as possible would be ignorant. Robinson's debut 60 years ago Sunday somehow carries the implication that what Robinson did for the game is isolated from the present.
Then why is this issue so much more dynamic than what Robinson faced? Today in America, baseball suffers at the expense of the glamorous NBA and NFL, while the game has diffused south to the Caribbean and Latin America. Current Major League rosters have more players who originate from the Dominican Republic than African Americans, rather ironic because of baseball's title as America's game.
We have absolutely no rationale to call the game racist, as it once was. The Red Sox invested $100 million in a Japanese pitcher. Fans of baseball, Japanese or American, are infatuated with this young stud and his gyroball. Latinos are finally making their way onto rosters and contributing. And yet, African Americans are left out of the discussion.
Winfield was particularly concerned with the state of the game from an African-American's perspective.
"If the trend goes unaddressed and you just follow the trend line, in 10 years there will be one guy left," Winfield said. "I wonder where the kid would be from. Why would baseball have been of interest to him? What did he have to go through to get to where he is?"
We must be careful to judge this perspective. Racism isn't the issue, as it once was. Baseball was proclaimed America's greatest pastime as it diffused from New York to Los Angeles before the 1958 season. The pattern of diffusion has spread to other nations, shrinking the talent pool once wide open for blacks when Robinson changed the game forever.
Winfield notes the new relevance of other sports, diminishing baseball's popularity and increasing the cost of participation.
"It didn't [cost] anything to play," he says. "You could play until you were drafted without having to pay. Now, if you want to get better, you start paying. "And now the external competition has risen where 40 years ago you didn't have as many other sports competing. They thought the Super Bowl would fail and look at it now. How about basketball, soccer, extreme sports? Everybody has grabbed a piece of the sports and entertainment pie now."
While some suggest that racism is the culprit, the real influence is a new direction to diffusion of the game, in combination with the economic realities of competition.