This year marks the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, and MLB doesn’t seem to give AF
OPINION: At a time when baseball’s appeal among African-American athletes is at an all-time low, the league-imposed lockout may blow an opportunity to celebrate a historic milestone.
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners he represents obviously don’t give a damn about the sport, its players or its fans.
There’s no other explanation for imposing a lockout on Dec. 1 and waiting 43 days to make a proposal, before hastily pitching a weak offer they knew the players couldn’t swallow. The owners seem intent on finally breaking the players’ union, historically the most powerful among pro sports leagues.
The 2022 season was set to begin March 31, but Manfred & Co. canceled the first week of games Tuesday after failing to reach a new collective bargaining agreement. Now they need to hurry up and stop screwing around before the second week is canceled, too, because that threatens the only baseball thingy many of us might care about:
Seventy-five years ago, on April 15, 1947, Robinson broke baseball’s longstanding color line when he debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. His legacy has been celebrated on that date annually throughout MLB since 2004. Starting in 2009, all players and on-field personnel began wearing Robinson’s No. 42 during games on that day. It’s the only time you’ll see “42” on a major league uniform, as the number was retired across all teams in 1997.
When Robinson trotted to his position at Ebbets Field, he helped move the nation—kicking and screaming for the most part—toward a more inclusive society. He became a virtual one-man civil rights movement, years before sit-ins, freedom rides, boycotts, and protests became fixtures in the news cycle.
“He’s the most important person in American sports and one of the top 10-15 most important people in all of American history,” noted filmmaker Ken Burns told me in a phone interview as his “Jackie Robinson” was set to debut in 2016. “The first real progress in the modern world in the 20th century was African-Americans playing baseball. It wasn’t Joe Louis or even Jack Johnson. It was Jackie Robinson walking through that door. Baseball has accompanied almost every decade of our national narrative and it’s the sport that everyone paid attention to.”
It ain’t that sport anymore, and a lockout during the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s milestone won’t help.
Baseball’s appeal among Black athletes has declined significantly since 1975 when African Americans constituted about 27 percent of major leaguers. Last season, the number failed to crack 10 percent. The game’s appeal to Black fans is just as iffy, with many longtime followers giving up on the sport in recent years.
It might as well be hockey in some respects.
Melanin is peppered throughout the current product, thanks mostly to Latino brothers who use baseball—not the NBA or NFL—as their lottery ticket. They replaced African-American players as the sport’s second-most dominant racial group in 1993, and their ranks have continued to swell toward 30 percent. By MLB’s own account, Latinos represent 31 of the game’s top 100 players.
But whether we’re talking about Nashville-born Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers or native Dominican Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals, every player of color can tip a hat to Robinson. Ditto for white players, whose forebearers couldn’t call themselves the absolute best until taking their measure against Black counterparts.
Now, all of that is on hold indefinitely, perhaps a long while.
There’s never a good time for leagues to cancel games, but baseball couldn’t have picked a worse moment. Even white fans are tuning out. The sport suffers from a rack of serious problems, including length of games, pace of play, lack of action, and an aging fan base. Not surprisingly, attendance and TV ratings bear witness, and nothing suggests an infusion of young fans will come to the rescue.
MLB has made a few efforts to cultivate interest in the African-American community, notably the longstanding Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program (RBI), and a new initiative launched this year, The Nine. The latter is named for Robinson’s uniform number during his lone season in the minor-league season (1946) with the Triple-A Montreal Royals.
Good for MLB.
Better would be having ballparks open within six weeks for a big celebration on Jackie Robinson Day.
If necessary, close again right after.
An award-winning columnist and a principal of BlackDoor Ventures, Inc., Deron Snyder is a veteran journalist, stratcomm professional, author, and adjunct professor. A native of Brooklyn and an Alpha from H.U.-You Know, he resides in metropolitan DC with his wife, Vanessa, mother of their daughters, Sierra and Sequoia. To learn more, please visit blackdoorventures.com/deron.
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