As has been customary since 2009, all Major League Baseball players, managers, coaches and umpires wore No. 42 on April 15 — Jackie Robinson Day — to commemorate the pioneer's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ceremonies were held in every stadium, with video tributes and on-field celebrations to honor Robinson's legacy. His family, former teammates, former Negro Leaguers and NBA great Bill Russell were among those who took part in the celebrations.
But another custom has evolved over the years since MLB retired Robinson's number in 1997, the 50th anniversary of his debut. The day is also used to highlight the dwindling number of African-American players in the big leagues. USA Today reported that the percentage has dropped to 8.05 percent, the lowest since the earliest days of the sport's integration.
That represents a dramatic decline from the peak of 1975, when 27 percent of all rosters were African American, according to the newspaper, adding that the percentage was 19 percent as recently as 1995. "Baseball likes to say things are getting better," said agent Dave Stewart, a former pitcher and front-office executive. "It's not getting better. It's only getting worse. We've been in a downward spiral for a long time, and the numbers just keep declining."
At least one player is tired of the same old narrative every year. Chicago Cubs center fielder Marlon Byrd said that the focus on Jackie Robinson Day shouldn't be on the decrease in the number of black players but instead on the increase in the number of black professionals.
"If you want to take polls, then take polls asking how many black lawyers do we have now, or how many black judges or black doctors there are now," Byrd told the Chicago Tribune. "Just because we're black doesn't mean we have to play sports. You can go through other avenues. If the decrease [in baseball] is because they're going into academic fields, so be it. More power to them."
Bryd is correct in pointing out that Robinson's impact went far beyond the baseball diamond. And there's certainly an overemphasis on sports within segments of the African-American community, often at the expense of education. So the plummeting rate of black major leaguers is far from a national crisis. But the downward trend definitely should concern baseball officials and fans.
Baseball officials are responsible for promoting their sport and competing for those youngsters who think it's lame and don't ever try it. That's what advocates of so-called minor sports do, always on the lookout for prospects to introduce to their game. Baseball fans should be longing for the great black athletes who once flocked to the diamond but who now prefer the basketball court or football field. Conceding the top athletes to other sports leads to a diminished product and shouldn't be shrugged off.
"We're trying to get better," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig told USA Today. "It won't happen overnight. And we're very comfortable saying it will be better. We are doing great work with our baseball academies and working in the inner cities. It's getting better."
Baseball — like other sports — offers fun and valuable experience in commitment, sacrifice, perseverance and sportsmanship. Forget about the pro contracts and college scholarships that go to a select few; baseball is another worthwhile option for organized physical activity, even though others are considered way cooler.
The lack of black players isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But within the sport itself, trying to attract more black players should be a legitimate goal.