Integration Crippled Negro Leagues
But perhaps the biggest reason baseball has declined in the African-American community is the most ironic reason of all: Jackie Robinson. Once the MLB was integrated, the Negro Leagues collapsed. While white executives who opposed integration worried that black players would scare white fans away, instead white fans stayed, and black fans came in droves.
“Jackie Robinson allowed the Brooklyn Dodgers to set attendance records,” said Ruck. “The Pittsburgh Courier, the black newspaper, said, ‘Jackie’s nimble. Jackie’s quick. Jackie makes the turnstiles click,’ ” a testament to Robinson’s popularity with fans.
“Major League Baseball ends up profiting immensely in terms of fans, in terms of great players,” Ruck continued. “But they don’t bring in black teams — they could have brought in the Newark Eagles or the Homestead Grays or the Kansas City Monarchs [Negro League teams]. They don’t bring in black ownership. They don’t bring in black managers or front-office people, and for the next 40 years, the front office and managerial ranks and ownership ranks are almost exclusively white.”
Ruck went on to explain that by not incorporating Negro League teams into the minor-league operations, where the MLB continued to groom, nurture and recruit its future stars for years, major-league integration essentially gutted the Negro Leagues, leaving them with no audience. Worse, it left black players who were not superstars like Robinson with no infrastructure like the sandlot community clubs, which operated as the minor-league equivalent to the Negro Leagues; those clubs disappeared, too.
That left aspiring black ballplayers with few options for training and being discovered, particularly since, as demonstrated in the film 42, the minor leagues were concentrated in the South. This made pursuing a career there not a particularly attractive proposition for African-American men, especially those who did not have a high-profile sponsor and protector like Robinson did in Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey.
Ruck did say, though, that ultimately there might be more important issues to focus on than the lack of diversity on baseball diamonds. “I don’t think this is a big problem for black America not to have as many baseball players as it once had. I think African Americans in this country are well-represented in athletics. I think I’d like to see more ownership, more front office. I’d like to see positions of power off the field increase the ranks of African Americans. But I think if anything, one could argue that there’s too much of a focus on sports in black America, to the detriment of education and vocation.”
Keli Goff is The Root’s political correspondent.