Baseball has come a long way since Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947. Robinson’s courageous desegregation of the game now serves as an inspiration to all Americans. And those ballplayers who followed in Robinson’s large footsteps — all-time greats like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson — provided evidence of the greatness that African Americans could accomplish if given a fair shot. Baseball now celebrates the anniversary of Robinson’s breakthrough every season on April 15, when every player wears Jackie’s number 42.
The occasion has usually also been a time for head scratching, however. African-American participation in baseball has been on the decline for years, recently reaching a figure of just over 8 percent. And although it has increased marginally since then, this year just 9.5 percent of players on opening-day rosters were of African-American descent.
Major League Baseball has not sat on its hands. It has boosted the visibility of a program called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or RBI, that has provided baseball equipment and instruction to youngsters who might not otherwise play the game. Major leaguers like New York Yankee ace pitcher C.C. Sabathia credit RBI with his interest in the game. Major League Baseball also has several entries in the influential videogame market in hopes of duplicating for the diamond the success the Madden series brought to football.
And most important, there is a new wave of African-American stars. Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price, 25, started in the All-Star Game this summer, and he is leading his team in a close battle with the New York Yankees in the American League East. One of the hitters on the opposing team at this summer’s classic was Houston Astros outfielder Michael Bourn, 27. The Astros are at the start of a long-overdue rebuilding campaign, but they have made the fleet centerfielder one of their cornerstones.
Bourn was joined in the National League’s All-Star outfield by Atlanta Brave Jason Heyward, 20, who homered in his first major league at-bat, then endured the usual struggles of a 20-year-old in the big leagues. However, since the All-Star Game, Heyward has lived up to his advance billing; he is hitting .333 and is a leading candidate for National League Rookie of the Year. Meanwhile, in the American League, Detroit Tiger outfielder Austin Jackson, 23, is a contender for Rookie of the Year.
In September, baseball rosters expand from 25 to 40 players, and many top prospects get their first taste of major league ball. This year’s influx includes some future black stars: Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown, who is 22, and Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings, 23.
These young players will get their chance to make an impact on the pennant races right away. The Phillies have had Brown targeted for the 2011 starting lineup for years, but the young outfielder pummeled minor league pitching at a torrid .327 clip this season, with 20 home runs in 93 games. The Phillies had to bring him up to the big leagues earlier than planned, and he is playing regularly. This month marks some high-profile on-the-job training for Brown as both an outfielder and a pinch hitter.
Jennings is the product of a Tampa Bay farm system that is the current gold standard in player development. He is a speedster who stole 37 bases in 109 minor league games this season. He is already penciled in as starting left fielder for the Rays on opening day 2011 to replace Carl Crawford, another African-American standout who is expected to depart via free agency. For now, Jennings will be a feared base runner inserted into the late innings of close games.
Why more African Americans aren’t playing baseball has been a staple of sports journalism and the winter Hot Stove Leagues. Explanations have run from the lack of baseball diamonds in the inner city to a lack of visible stars. But now, with the influx of so many new and future stars, conventional stories about race and baseball will have to find new angles, such as sales of jerseys with names like Price, Jackson and Heyward on the back.