On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves—breaking the decades-old “color line” in Major League baseball.
Tomorrow—on the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s first game—MLB will pay homage to the man and his courageous achievement in a special way. All players, managers and coaches in both leagues will wear uniform number 42, as they annually do, but for the first time, in Dodger Blue.
But as Baseball remembers Robinson for unlocking the “Whites Only” door to the Majors—observing his “diamond jubilee”—it seems fair to ask:
Where are all the black ballplayers today?
One answer, given recent Rockies history, is, “Not in purple.” Consider:
Had it not been for Lucas Gilbreath and Robert Stephenson going on the 10-day Covid list after making the Opening Day roster, when the Rockies opened the 2022 season against the Dodgers last Friday not one player among their 28 would have been African American.
Since 2014, only nine of 364 players listed on Colorado’s active rosters at any time during those nine seasons was African American. That’s 2.47%.
It hasn’t always been this way in Denver.
From 1993 through 1999, the Rockies averaged almost six African American players per year—17.2% of their active roster. The decline began in 2004. Since then, they haven’t had more than five in any season, two or fewer in each of the last eight.
Across Major League Baseball, the percentage of African American players reached its peak in the early 1980s at 19%. But it has hovered between 6% and 8% for more than a decade—which, surprisingly, isn’t much different than 65 years ago. In 1956, Jackie’s last season, it was 6.7%.
Meanwhile, 70% of National Football League players today are black, and the National Basketball Association is 81% African American. The NBA didn’t exist as we know it today when Jackie Robinson took his position at Ebbets Field that historic April 15, and the modern NFL didn’t begin to desegregate until after World War II.
Before pro basketball and football gained the popularity they enjoy today, baseball truly was the “National Pastime.” Practically every little town in America had a baseball team, and nearly everyone, white or black, played on one (usually, separate ones).
Why, then, are so few black baseball players going through that door Jackie Robinson opened, while at the same time the NFL and NBA are now dominated by his race?
Major League Baseball seems to feel that part of the reason is contemporary baseball’s lack of a Michael, his successor Lebron or a Patrick. There’s no Hammerin’ Hank, Mr. Cub or Say Hey Kid in the sport today, no Aaron-Banks-Mays racial equivalent.
But that ignores, or at least minimizes, the real issues. They’re money and, in my opinion, the diminishment of the sandlot.
When I was growing up, we played ball virtually every day, usually on neighborhood fields at nearby parks or schools but also in empty lots or side yards if no field was available. All comers were welcome; we chose up sides. We wore blue jeans, t-shirts and our “play” shoes. Whoever had a ball was a popular guy.
A few years ago, our granddaughters wanted to see where my wife and I grew up. As part of this tour, I thought I’d show them the fields where I played sandlot baseball. To my amazement and sadness, not one of the half-dozen fields I tried to show them still existed. I’m sure mine weren’t the only ones lost to “progress.” Today, everything is organized, and playing fields are maintained by various organizations.
In Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other countries “south of the border,” sandlot ball is alive and well. In fact, it’s the ticket to a better life, which explains why “Latin” blacks outnumber Jackie’s heirs by roughly 10-to-1 in the Big Leagues 22 years into the New Millennium. (Latin players make up slightly more than one-third of this year’s Rockies roster.)
What does this have to do with money? Sandlot ball in America is the victim of “travel teams” that can cost parents a few thousand dollars to enable their kids to participate. Travel teams today prepare the future generations of American Major Leaguers. Need I tell you that most such parents are white?
What about the “ticket to a better life” that baseball represents in other places? Well, in the States, minorities are most often those seeking it, and that ticket more often than not is basketball, which can be played—and is—on any paved space with a rim attached to a backboard.
Basketball and football have the additional appeal of a high-speed “ticket to a better life” for those who excel. There are dramatically more college scholarships in football and basketball than in baseball, where most players receive, at best, partial aid. And the path to the top can be immediate, rather than four to six years of bus rides in the minor leagues—often despite starring in college.
And if parental support matters, it’s far easier for mothers and fathers to attend their sons’ basketball and football games, which usually are played at night or on weekends, than after-school baseball during the workday.
Major League Baseball will continue trying in various ways to increase the percentage of its players who are African American. But with minimal success. The “money problem” likely will persist for countless Jackie Robinson Days.
Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 14 books, eight of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at email@example.com.