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Honoring #42

The first few weeks of the baseball season have been dominated by abysmal weather conditions (cue the Al Gore jokes) and preparations to celebrate today’s (Sunday) 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game as a Brooklyn Dodger. (These two items have unfortunately collided today, with a number of rainouts on the East Coast.) George Will reflects on that event. In 1997 major league baseball permanently retired Robinson’s jersey number, 42, for all teams. With the permission of the Robinson family, a number of individual players (primarily but not exclusively African-Americans) such as Ken Griffey, Jr., and some entire teams, notably the Dodgers, will wear #42 on Sunday. The jerseys will then be signed by the players and auctioned off to benefit the Jackie Robinson Foundation. The original idea was that only one player per team would wear #42. A few, such as Minnesota’s Torii Hunter have complained that this proliferation dilutes the honor paid to Robinson. The general view, however, is – the more the merrier.

Robinson’s groundbreaking step in America’s game, one year before President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces, led to the racial and ethnic transformation of the game. By 1975, 27 percent of major league ballplayers were African-American. Waves of Hispanic and Asian athletes have further transformed the game, so that roughly 40 percent of the players are now “minorities.” But African-American participation has declined steadily, to just 8 percent this season. The apparent contradiction has been a cause of considerable puzzlement – and concern, as I have noted here previously. Two explanations are generally given, as
Michael Wilbon considers. First, young American black athletes are attracted increasingly to other sports, especially basketball (due to the marketing of superstars such as Michael Jordan) and to football (because there are many more college scholarships available). Second, the decline of the inner city and the inability or unwillingness of local authorities to maintain baseball parks and leagues. It’s much easier to hang up a basket on an asphalt court, grab a ball and play.

Should this be a cause for concern? The second suggested cause often has racial, if not racist overtones. Has the inner city declined because of white indifference or hostility; misguided government policies; or the disintegration of the black family? Are fathers necessary to teach the skills of baseball and the love of the game, in a way not necessary for basketball (i.e., is baseball an acquired taste)? Is baseball -- otherwise flourishing -- the canary in the coal mine for more than just America’s game?

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Discussions - 3 Comments

Or might the decline in inner city and urban baseball parks because of disuse? I see many a municipal baseball diamond sit empty. Or, more frequently, used as an ad hoc soccer field.

Baseball in general has been declining for years, and the multi-year gap from the strike hasn't helped that at all. Rather than look at racial indicators, perhaps the biggest problem with the sport is that it isn't as telegenic as football.

Baseball looks great from a stadium - crisp lines, players surrounded by negative space, and the action is easy to understand from a distance. But on TV it's as slow as golf, and has the added disadvantage that the players are too young to resemble the demographic.

This doesn't fully explain the lack of African American baseball players. Maybe the cooler atheletes are attracted to the more camera-friendly sports?

Baseball is as much a skill as it is a sport. It is cerebral and deliberate in a way that not many other sports--excepting, perhaps, golf--are. If it declines in its fortunes and appeal, I believe that the character and the quality of our Republic will follow suit.

I have enjoyed few things as much as I have enjoyed the introduction to this game my young son is now getting. He is 5 and playing T-ball this year--having only known anything about this sport in the most abstract of lessons from my father. (I am afraid that neither my husband nor myself are anything like athletes.) But my father was a first-class south-paw pitcher in his day and even played minor league ball for a number of years. When I enrolled our son for little league this year, I was a bit thunderstruck by the amount of time and commitment (and money!) the thing would require. It seemed to be a bit oppressive at first and it cut into the entire family's schedule and budget in a way that I did not imagine I could appreciate. But my feelings in the actual doing of the thing have been quite the opposite of my initial distress. It has been a great joy for all of our family. All of us have struck up delightful new acquaintances and even made some potential good friends. I have seen my son grow as he learns new responsibilities and discovers his own capacities in ways that I could never have replicated at home.

I am reminded that on opening day at our kick-off ceremonies, we were treated to a very nice (if occasionally self-promoting) speech by a local baseball great whom I will not name only because I cannot remember his name--though I know he would be well known to those who follow such things. This famous man told us that he understood and sympathized with the great sacrifice and commitment that was required of parents supporting sons (and daughters) in baseball. But lest we ever question whether the endeavor were worthy of the time and commitment we must offer to it, he mentioned that one of his closest friends is Lee Baca--Los Angeles County sheriff. Lee Baca gave our speaker a tour of the local youth prisons and this man reported with assurance that the one thing virtually none of those prisoners had in common with our kids were parents who took that kind of devotion seriously. He said that when he asked an assembly of these prisoners how many of them had played Little League, almost none of them raised their hands.

I do not know if he asked the same questions about soccer leagues or violin lessons or dancing class--but I'm more or less certain that the answer would have been the same. Still, I think there is a kind of wonder and delight that attends the baseball season that simply does not compare with the spirit I have found in any other activity with which my kids (or myself) have ever been associated. I do hope we stick with the game. It has improved us all.

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