By Ron Wynn
Last Sunday was Jackie Robinson Day across Major League Baseball, as the sport celebrated the 71st anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier in modern day pro baseball. But what should have been a special national day of commemoration instead became one where MLB’s continual problems in the areas of diversity and inclusion were again on display. For openers, Robinson’s daughter Sharon spoke about the fact only one professional baseball player, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell, joined NFL protestors in speaking out about racial injustice issues.
She linked that unwillingness to the fact African Americans are such a low percentage of MLB participants. “I don’t think they have much choice,” Robinson said. “They are in the minority and where in football and basketball you have a group and therefore you can take group action. So players, if they speak out individually, they could be the only African-American players on their team and it could be a difficult spot for them to be in.”
Accenting the point was the fact she was speaking at Citi Field in New York. The Mets currently have zero Black American players on their roster, one of two MLB teams in that situation. While Mets’ ownership and management insist this is merely a coincidence, and they are constantly seeking talent everywhere, there’s no question it is a sore spot for both the Mets and the sport as a whole that a New York team can tout a roster minus any Black Americans in the same city where Robinson once was a trailblazer.
MLB also continues to have a nagging problem with field managers. The Dodgers’ Dave Roberts opens the season as the lone Black American manager in either league. Dusty Baker, unceremoniously bounced from the Washington Nationals despite winning the Eastern Division again, has rejoined the Giants in a coaching position, but is now viewed as too old and not willing to be part of the ongoing move towards analytics in baseball.
There remain those who see that trend as partly responsible for the lack of Black involvement at the managerial level. Increasingly front offices are seeking either Ivy League grads or management types with backgrounds in statistics or economics for positions as field managers, and even more for general managers, presidents or player personnel directors. The days when field managers were largely plucked from the ranks of former players are declining. Some teams don’t even want scouts without some analytics background. Considering how few Blacks play college baseball due to its glaring lack of fulltime packages vs. football and basketball only adds to the problem.
The continuing absence of Black players weren’t the only embarrassing thing on Jackie Robinson Day. The Cleveland Indians organization also came in for its fair share of ridicule when it bought out a load of merchandise with the ugly racist caricature of Native Americans. Tne Indians announced before the season began that they would be phasing out that logo after this season, but for reasons only they know, they still opted to present a bunch of hats with that caricatured logo for sale on Jackie Robinson Day.
Making matters worse, when a group of Native Americans showed up to protest the hats, they were greeted with a flurry of racist chants, taunts and even some threats from supposed “fans” at the ball park in Cleveland. Indians management was quick to rush in with apologies and disapproval of those actions and sentiments, but the question was rightly asked why they couldn’t just immediately dispense with the merchandise rather than keep profiting off a racist image.
Baseball also is suffering from some rather stunning attendance drops in the early season, including one game with the Chicago White Sox where actual attendance was less than 1,000 people, though they reported a crowd of over 11,000 who had purchased tickets.It was just the biggest indicator of a problem that has been accented by unseasonably cold weather in the South and the usual problems of trying to play a warm weather sport in the Midwest, an area where it’s been known to snow as late as May.
All these problems masked one bit of actual good news. The percentage of Black players from either America or Canada has actually gone up overall. It’s now at 8.4 percent, the highest level since 2012, and an improvement over last year’s 7.7 percent. Now it’s nowhere near the 19 percent that represented the peak of Black American participation in the sport in 1986. The numbers have been decreasing every year since that time.
“It’s definitely a small representation at this level,” Pittsburgh All-Star second baseman Josh Harrison told USA Today.”For younger guys coming up, if guys with 10 years or so in this league haven’t really done much, you lean on those guys for advice. If you don’t have anybody telling you one way or the other, you’ll keep your mouth shut. You don’t want to ruffle any feathers. If you don’t have anybody to help you in that regard, you’ll see a lot of guys be quiet.”
“Guys feel it’s a lose-lose situation for them,” Harrison said. “It sucks because you want to have a voice, but some people feel they can’t.”
Hopefully, the numbers will continue rising, and players like Harrison will see more mentors, and also feel less afraid to stand up and speak out on social issues.