Sports Editorial

Steve Trader

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It’s hard to describe how I felt as I sat and watched the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball on April 15. With a steroid controversy that has become as analogous with the game as the bat and ball, it’s become harder to be enthusiastic, but I’ve remained a fan. I couldn’t help but feel excitement for the unfolding of the current baseball season. The events of that day only seemed to rejuvenate my baseball spirit.

I can’t express the immense amount of respect that I felt for Robinson and what he did for the game. I felt chills as Robinson’s former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, took the field in the spotlight game of the day with each player wearing Robinson’s retired No. 42. I felt a small sense of pride in the fact that I knew and understood the history of the day and its importance. The memories of Little League summer games and big league dreams of my youth came rushing back. I felt proud to be a fan.

But in celebrating Jackie’s historic inaugural game, it brought to the forefront yet another growing baseball controversy, the amount of African Americans playing baseball. It never even occurred to me until ESPN interjected the game with an interview with Robinson’s widow, Rachel Robinson.

During the 1990s African Americans made up nearly 20 percent of major league players. That number has declined to eight percent in 2006. Rachel Robinson, when asked about how Jackie would react to the declining status were he still alive, replied that he would be disappointed, that the changes he sought to make seem to be unapparent. It was these comments that led my joyful spirit to make a u-turn and head south.

And it wasn’t just Rachel Robinson who felt this way. Her point of view was echoed by a number of players throughout the league.

I was unaware that the number of black players in the league was a controversy. How can I argue with Robinson’s widow? After all, she was married to him and knew him better than anyone. But her comments disappointed me and I seriously have to question what she thought.

What was the motive of Jackie Robinson when he first took the field in 1947? It’s no doubt that what he sought was lasting change, lasting equality for African Americans in the sport. But isn’t that what he got? I’m sure he envisioned a day where the major leagues would be filled with blacks playing side by side with whites without controversy and hatred. Isn’t that what the majors have become? I couldn’t help but feel that Rachel Robinson’s comments only reduced Jackie’s motives to something less important than what they were.

It’s unclear why African American participation in baseball is diminishing while in other sports such as football and basketball it seems to be growing. There are a number of theories as to why. But my question is, does it matter how many African Americans are playing baseball? As long as they are playing as equals, isn’t that the more important issue to look at here? And it’s not just black players but Asians, Latinos and other minorities that make up the 40 percent of professional players that are playing together with whites.

In no way am I trying to reduce to terrible tragedy of segregation in American history. But it seems like comments about baseball lacking enough black players is only keeping segregation alive in an area where it no longer exists, thanks to the courage of one man.

Rosa Parks, by refusing to give up her seat on a bus, and later Dr. Martin Luther King leading the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, fought and won a small but important victory over segregation just like Robinson did. Does anybody point their finger and say, “Hey, there aren’t enough African Americans riding buses in Alabama anymore. Dr. King would be disappointed”?

It’s a sad fact that racism and segregation still exist. It’s still a sore and complex issue. The positive to look at is that America has moved forward in the fact that it’s no longer a point of view that is accepted. Keeping the issue alive is important for the fact that we can learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen again. But pointing a finger at baseball’s lack of black participation and implying that the sport’s heading in the wrong direction seems inaccurate. There may be a problem, but equality is not the source of it. Would pointing a finger at the NFL or NBA and making a problem out of the lack of white participation seem necessary and fair? Such comments would seem absurd and ridiculous

Maybe Jackie Robinson would be disappointed, but I doubt it. Baseball is full of flourishing African American athletes. And the fan-base of the sport is full of people who see them not as a lower class, but as fellow human beings lucky enough to live out the dream of nearly every Little Leaguer in America. There was once a time when black players like Robinson were cursed, threatened, spit on, and put through unthinkable tribulations. As terrible as that is, it is no longer the circumstances of African American players in the game today. So how can you label black participation in baseball as a regress? How can we say that the changes Jackie sought seem unapparent?

It shouldn’t matter if Major League Baseball has two or 2 million black participants. If, by the time my children or grandchildren are around, there isn’t a single African American professional baseball player, they’ll still know that the color of someone’s skin doesn’t make them any less of a human being. That’s what I believe Robinson and others like him fought for and that’s what we have to recognize here as what makes his accomplishment so important.

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