“42,” Jackie Robinson & Race in Baseball

Since this is Jackie Robinson Day and I saw “42” on Friday, I’ve been thinking a lot about race in baseball these past few days.

jackie robinson(My quick review of “42”: good, not great. It is obviously a compelling story, but it is basically a one-note movie — “we don’t want to play with a black guy” — for two hours. The biggest failing is that you never really learn anything about Jackie Robinson; what made him tick, that sort of thing. The acting is very good, even Harrison Ford chewing the scenery as Branch Rickey. The best part was the CGI of the old stadiums. You really thought they were filming in Ebbets Field, Polo Grounds and other long-gone ballparks.)

It is amazing to consider, but more than 60 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the number of black players in major league baseball has actually been dwindling over the past few decades. About 8% of big leaguers are black. Compare that to 27% in 1975. Latinos have filled the void — 25% of rosters are Latino.

This is because it is easier to scout and sign kids from Latin America. You just have to scout them, and sign them. If a team finds a black kid in the U.S., it has to scout him, then hope he is still available in the draft. Then you have to deal with a Scott Boras to sign him.

Baseball has also done a poor job over the past 20 years or so of promoting itself, while the popularity of the NFL and NBA has skyrocketed. So many kids — white and black — have gravitated away from baseball to those sports. Imagine how many potential baseball superstars — the next Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, or Frank Robinson — have been lost.

MLB has responded by setting up training facilities in inner cities to attract black kids back to the game. Hopefully it will work.

Another race issue I have written about in the past is almost an amusing one, but it kind of shows how our minds work. Whenever a baseball announcer or team official compares a young player to a player in the past, it is almost always along racial lines. I don’t think it is being done on purpose. I like to think of it as Unconscious Racial Profiling.

I mean, when do you ever see a white player compared to Roberto Clemente? Or a black player compared to Mike Schmidt? It almost never happens. White players are compared to Chipper Jones, blacks to Willie McCovey, Latinos to Manny Ramirez.

This was on full display in the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue earlier this month. They were writing about four rookies who might make an impact this season. White outfielder Wil Myers was compared to Dale Murphy. White pitcher Gerrit Cole was compared to Stephen Strasburg. Latino outfielder Oscar Taveras was compared to Vladimir Guerrero. And shortstop Jurickson Profar was compared to Tony Fernandez. Profar, by the way, is from Curacao. I don’t know if that counts as Latino, but for comparison purposes it does, for baseball people, anyway!

Now, I’m not saying these comparisons are not valid. I’m just saying it probably never dawned on anyone to compare Taveras to, say, Ken Griffey, Jr. or to compare Myers to, well, Ken Griffey, Jr.

It’s just funny how our minds are programmed to see race first. The point of Jackie Robinson’s struggle was that we would someday stop judging people based on their race. Sadly, that day has not yet come.

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