Why so few Black MLB gamers 75 years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour line? Eric Foster

ATLANTA — Last week, Major League Baseball celebrated “Jackie Robinson Day.” The day recognizes April 15, 1947, when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers and thereby integrated Major League Baseball, This year marked the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s historic start from him.

Jackie Robinson’s start is heralded as the breaking of the color barrier in Major League Baseball. However, that isn’t quite true. Moses Fleetwood Walker was the first African American to play in the big leagues when he started as catcher for the Toledo Blue Stockings in the then-major league American Association (which would later become the American League) on May 1, 1884.

Still, Robinson’s start in 1947 — 63 years after Walker’s — was historic and deserving of recognition. Before Robinson’s signing, there was an unwritten agreement among club owners that banned African American players from the Major League. Under that agreement, no contracts were extended to African American players between 1888 and 1945. Thus, Robinson’s signing and subsequent start marked the end of racial segregation in Major League Baseball.

As you can expect, Jackie Robinson Day, first celebrated on April 15, 2004, involves a bit of pomp and circumstance. On that day, every player on every Major League team wears Robinson’s number 42. In addition, Major League Baseball officials issue press releases marking the historical significance of Robinson and what it meant for the sport and our country.

If I’m being completely honest, the celebrations ring a bit hollow for me. ESPN reported that just 7.2% — or about 70 of the 975 major league players on opening-day rosters this year — were African Americans. It seems odd to me to celebrate the integration of African Americans into Major League Baseball when there are so few current African American players. In essence, what you have is a party celebrating the inclusion of Black people thrown in a room with relatively no Black people. It’s hard for me to see the joy in that.

On the one hand, you can argue that such celebrations are evidence of progress. As you can imagine, Robinson’s 1947 start was not met with widespread retirement. Some of his teammates of him had organized a petition opposing playing with him. Major newspapers downplayed the event, with The New York Times barely mentioning him at all, instead focusing on the game. The fact that Robinson is recognized now, both as a player and as a historical figure, is surely evidence of how much society has changed for the better.

I can’t reasonably disagree with that position. In 1947, Robinson faced death threats, players deliberately sliding with the spikes of their shoes up to potentially injure him (known as “spiking”), and a constant barrage of racial epithets from fans and opponents. To see him honored now for what he endured is indeed a sign of progress. The fact that such hateful conduct would be frowned upon today is also further evidence of progress.

However, on the other hand, it is important to remember that there is no destination called progress. The word itself implies movement. So when we celebrate progress, we should be celebrating how far we have come on the journey, not the completion of the task. Said another way, the top of one mountain is simply the bottom of another.

I’m not sure that Major League Baseball’s celebrations of Jackie Robinson Day are done with this context in mind. I draw this conclusion from the numbers. Since Robinson’s 1947 debut, the percentage of African American players eventually rose to a peak of 18.7% in 1981, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. Now, as previously stated, it is just 7.2%.

During a 1972 ceremony honoring his Major League debut, Jackie Robinson said, “I am extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but admit I am going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a Black face managing in baseball.” At the time, there had never been a full-time Black manager in Major League Baseball. In 2018, it was reported that there had been just 16 Black managers since Robinson’s statement about him. Over that period, there had been 470 manager openings.

The pomp and circumstance surrounding Jackie Robinson Day, despite such abysmal numbers on Black representation, reminds me of the Martin Luther King Day celebrations. Americans all over this nation celebrate Dr. King’s legacy and highlight the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act as evidence of our nation’s progress. At the same time, states are passing voting laws which are statistically shown to disproportionately harm Black voters. Researchers who studied the impact of strict voter ID laws in Texas concluded that the results indicated that such laws would stop a disproportionately minority, otherwise-willing set of registered voters from voting. The relationship between the Black church and the Black vote has a long and well-documented history. “Souls to the Polls” refers to the well-known practice of Black churches to take congregants to early voting locations on Sundays after service. Lawmakers in both Texas and Georgia proposed legislation that sought to limit Sunday voting. The top of one mountain is simply the bottom of another.

To be clear, I am not trying to rain on the Jackie Robinson Day parade. Or the Martin Luther King Day parade. Or the “America Has Made Progress” parade. All of these things are worthy of recognition. Jackie Robinson’s efforts under supreme duration for the ultimate benefit of all of us deserve recognition. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and legacy deserve recognition. It is undeniable that America has made progress around race relations. That progress deserves recognition.

Eric Foster is a columnist for The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com.

I just want us to remember that our nation still has so much further to go. And when we hold these celebrations, we should always that truth in the midst. Doing so is not a disservice at the moment. On the contrary, doing so is the ultimate act of service at the moment.

Jackie Robinson knew that truth. That truth is what compelled him to say what he said during the 1972 ceremony held in his honor. He appreciated the moment, but in the midst of the celebration, he also looked to the road ahead.

If Major League Baseball, and America in general, really want to honor Jackie Robinson, they should follow Jackie’s lead.

Eric Foster, a community member of the editorial board, is a columnist for The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com. Foster is a lawyer in private practice. The views expressed are his own.

To reach Eric Foster: ericfosterpd@gmail.com

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