Major League Baseball is continuing what has been viewed largely as a successful promotional opportunity, historical reminder, and semi-nostalgia trip/pat on the back with Jackie Robinson Day coming up again on Tuesday. After last year’s unretiring of Robinson’s #42 for use among ballplayers for the day (those not named Mariano Rivera, who was grandfathered in because he wore the number when Bud Selig retired it) was a good PR bump, plenty of players will once again participate, and entire teams (like the Mets) will wear 42.
The problem now is that Jack Robinson would probably look at the fact that baseball is now 7% African-American and might see an issue. I would like to point to D-Wil at Sports on My Mind on this one, but he’s had to move to a temp home and his archives aren’t available right now. You can’t explain the 7% (half of the percentage of the population of black people in the U.S.) by just saying, “well, basketball and football are cheaper to play and appeal because it’s a more straightforward path to the pros.” That doesn’t quite wash any more. There are and have been advances — more black managers in the league than ever before, but the player drop must be questioned.
Baseball makes its cursory attempts through programs such as RBI, which is in its 20th year, in efforts to bring baseball to the inner cities where basketball reigns supreme. But the sport has largely decided, whether intentionally or not, to cede the Afrcan-American athlete to other U.S. sports leagues in order to have a lock on Latin and Asian baseball talent. Remember last year when Gary Sheffield got in trouble for saying that teams liked to go after players from Latin American countries because they were easier to control? He wasn’t wrong, because you can get them in your own academies and sign them at age 16 for a quarter of the cost of an American player acquired through the draft.
Even in the NBA, the teams have to draft the rights just to negotiate with the most desired European players. MLB simply develops them in camps on the cheap — essentially outsourcing America’s pastime. Let’s not forget that countries like the Dominican Republic and others in South America are a bit more lax about child labor and the regulation of performance enhancing drugs to begin with.
(Note: I’m not xenophobic in the slightest. I just find the dissonance here interesting.)
It also stems from the NCAA as well: since baseball is a non-revenue sport in many schools due to the existence of MLB’s minor leagues, there are only something like 17.5 scholarships available for an entire team — and one of the biggest ways of developing American talent that isn’t of high school phenom status is to have the major college ranks available, and they simply aren’t.
There are a talented number of young African-American players right now: Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder, C.C. Sabathia, among others, to go with the veterans like Jimmy Rollins, Ken Griffey, Derrek Lee, and many others that are still in the game and thriving. But last year the Houston Astros couldn’t find a black player to wear Robinson’s #42, and this year, it’s the Braves who have Mark Kotsay wearing it.
I’m not going to say that Jack Robinson didn’t make the careers of all the Latin players possible. That bridge had to be crossed with a black player before a Hispanic one would even be considered. So the majority of this players in the game owe Robinson a major debt; that much is obvious. But it appears clear that Major League Baseball has the intention of celebrating just how far it has come in race relations while ignoring how far backward it’s actually slipping.