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?