The most beautiful day in all of each baseball season is Jackie Robinson Day. For one day only, the number 42 become eligible again to be used in current Major League Baseball games, and not only for one or two guys…but for everybody. This past Sunday was 2012’s installment of the rounding reminder of Robinson’s life on the field, and the still very current impact it holds. The body count of players that were dressed as Jack would appear in their respective team garb was extensive. From White to Dominican to Jewish players all suited up bearing the 42 issue. However, like many other games that happen on the daily, there were very few players that could do a spot on imitation of Robinson. And this is due to the still dwindling number of African-Americans that are at the Major League level.
This number has gone from decreasing gradually, to outright plummeting as of late. The current 2012 level of the game is the lowest it’s been since Robinson was nearly still an active player. Of the 750 active MLB members, a 50 year low of only 8% currently. This is the continuation of a dramatic shift in the game towards basically everything except of Black players. While the consistent majority is still White American ballplayers, Hispanic-born players have flown past African-Americans in comprising the dominant minority presence in the game. Overall, foreign-born players makeup 28% of all rosters currently.
Major League Baseball has long attempted to support and implement programs that spark a renewal in baseball, yet the results aren’t happening. The popularity of the NFL is tremendous; the league had unwavering success in a season that nearly didn’t even happen. The basketball is America’s answer to soccer, as it is the easiest game for both suburban and urban youths to play. Its interest carries over to the NBA, which despite having a rougher, lockout-ridden, beginning to its year, is still riding a high in popularity and viewership.
All while this is occurring around baseball, a game that hit a peak of 27% of its population being African-American in the mid-70’s, is struggling to find any real answers or fixes to its steadily growing irrelevance within the nation’s second largest minority. Discussions on the topic closely resemble the conversations you will hear in political circles about methods to turn around the financial recession around the country; plenty of propositions, hope and spoken initiative, yet little actual outcome from any of it.
There is no shortage of commentary on “What would Jackie think of this?” in response to the falling relevance of the National Pastime and the participants within his culture. And his reaction very may have been contrary to what he would see in an average MLB game today. However, what is indisputable is that the quality of African-American players is still high and frequent in the most elite levels of the game. In 2011, there were eight All-Stars that took to the field in the Mid-Summer’s Classic (although this was down from the 13 in 2010’s game), and four of them continued on to finish in the top 10 in each league’s MVP voting.
The individual performances were spectacular as well, headlined by the flat out ridiculous year of Los Angeles Dodgers centerfielder Matt Kemp. He became only the second player to hit at least .320 with 35 home runs, 35 stolen bases and 125 RBI, and the first to do it since 1920. He also was the first player since Hank Aaron in 1963 to finish in the top two in home runs and steals in the same season. Overall, he hit 39 homers & 126 RBI, leading the National League in both marks. He went on to finish in the top three of nine other categories.
Kemp was not alone in making a major impact. Prince Fielder bashed 38 homers and was the most feared hitter in the NL, with a league-leading 32 intentional walks. At only 23 years old, Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton led his club to last-to-first ascension in the NL West, and nearly notched an MVP Award for himself. Overall, three of the top four MVP finalists in the National League were African-American.
In the American League, the Yankees lead the way in African-American impact. Curtis Granderson became the first player to ever hit 40 home runs and 10 triples, while stealing 25 bases in one season. CC Sabathia was second in the AL with 19 wins and notched his 2,000th career strikeout. Last but not least, one of the most decorated African-American stars ever joined one of the game’s most exclusive clubs, when Derek Jeter homered for his 3,000th career hit in July.
So, while the game is suffering for participation amongst the culture, as you can clearly see, those that are showing up are showing out, like always. And the historic impact of Blacks on the game stretched off the field in this newly began season’s start early on. Cincinnati Reds great Barry Larkin was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and will be enshrined this summer. And in an even more impactful moment, basketball great Earvin “Magic” Johnson became a majority owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, making him the first African-American owner in MLB history.
That gives him ownership of the same team that Robinson gave the first, solo shove to by manning the number 42 jersey for the first time back on April 15, 1947. So even when progress is slow in one area, it’s managed to take off flying once again in another. That’s something that I’m sure Jackie would approve of with no reservation.
Of the 30 Major League Teams, 26 currently feature African-Americans on their roster. Here is the breakdown of how the culture’s presence is dispersed around the game (current of posting morning):
Arizona D’Backs (2): Justin Upton, Chris Young
Atlanta Braves (2): Michael Bourn, Jason Heyward
Baltimore Orioles (2): Adam Jones, Darren O’Day
Boston Red Sox (2): Carl Crawford, Darnell McDonald
Chicago Cubs (1): Marlon Byrd
Cincinnati Reds (2): Brandon Phillips, Willie Harris
Cleveland Indians (2): Michael Brantley, Grady Sizemore, Tony Sipp
Colorado Rockies (2): Dexter Fowler, Eric Young Jr.
Detroit Tigers (3): Austin Jackson, Price Fielder, Delmon Young
Houston Astros (1): Justin Maxwell
Kansas City Royals (1): Lorenzo Cain, Jason Bourgeois
Los Angeles Angels (5): Torii Hunter, Howie Kendrick, Vernon Wells, LaTroy Hawkins, Jerome Williams
Los Angeles Dodgers (5): Matt Kemp, Dee Gordon, Tony Gwynn Jr, James Loney, Jerry Hairston, Jr.
Milwaukee Brewers (2): Nyjer Morgan, Rickie Weeks
Minnesota Twins (1): Denard Span
New York Mets (1): Scott Hairston
New York Yankees (3): Derek Jeter, CC Sabathia, Curtis Granderson
Oakland Athletics (3): Coco Crisp, Jemile Weeks, Tyson Ross
Philadelphia Phillies (4): Juan Pierre, Jimmy Rollins, Lee Mayberry, Ryan Howard
Pittsburgh Pirates (2): Andrew McCutchen, James McDonald
San Diego Padres (3): Kyle Blanks, Orlando Hudson, Cameron Maybin
San Francisco Giants (1): Emmanuel Burriss
Seattle Mariners (1): Chone Figgins
Tampa Bay Rays (3): BJ Upton, David Price, Desmond Jennings
Toronto Blue Jays (2): Rajai Davis, Darren Oliver, Eric Thames
Washington Nationals (1): Edwin Jackson
This figure brings the total to 62 active African-American MLBers. The St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox and Miami Marlins do not have an African-American on their roster currently. In addition to this figure, there are two Black managers, as well as two General Managers and an African-American owner. As a note, three of the teams that do not have an active Black player on their roster, are lead by African-Americans in one capacity or another.
Managers: Dusty Baker (Reds), Ron Washington (Rangers)
General Managers: Kenny Williams (White Sox), Melvin Hill (Marlins)
Owners: Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Dodgers)
Top 100 Prospects [According to Baseball America]: Taijuan Walker (#20, Mariners), Jonathan Singleton (#34, Astros), Gary Brown (#38, Giants), Anthony Gose (#39, Blue Jays), Billy Hamilton (#48, Reds), Josh Bell (#60, Pirates), Andrelton Simmons (#92, Braves), Tyrell Jenkins (#94, Cardinals)
This is where we stand today and a bit of tomorrow as well. It is still an amazing game that is far from a lost cause from a cultural relevance standpoint. However, questions and actions will need to have answers before the significance of Robinson’s breakthrough becomes more currently ceremonial than actually visual.
So what are “we” going to do?
For more on the daily exploits of the African-American culture on the game, follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan