Commentary

MLB's diversity would have Jackie shaking his head

Originally Published: April 15, 2008
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

Tuesday is Jackie Robinson Day, commemorating the 61st anniversary of Robinson's 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, which broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. A few weeks ago, I sat with Rachel Robinson, Jackie's elegant and extraordinary wife who works to carry on his legacy, at the Jackie Robinson Foundation Banquet at the Waldorf in New York City. She knew that the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida was about to publish the 2008 MLB Racial and Gender Report Card, as we do annually near the start of the baseball season, and she asked how it looked.

[+] EnlargeJackie Robinson
Getty ImagesJackie Robinson would be confused by the declining numbers of African-Americans in baseball uniforms these days.
We released that report Tuesday morning. MLB received its highest grade ever for racial hiring practices (an A-minus) and an improved -- but hardly great -- grade for gender (C-plus).

I think Jackie Robinson would be pleased that at least part of his dream of increasing the numbers of African-Americans in baseball, on and off the field, has been achieved. When he passed away in 1972, African-Americans were growing in numbers on the field, but front offices and league offices were run almost exclusively by white men. Jackie no doubt would have figured that growth on the players' side would continue, although he likely would have had a less clear picture for the prospects in management. So he'd be surprised that now, more than three decades later, the trends in African-American presence in MLB have taken the opposite direction. In 1972, Robinson could not have foreseen how the emergence of Latino, and to a lesser degree, Asian ballplayers has changed the game. But since Robinson was all about inclusion, I believe he would welcome that development.

As Rachel is now, Jackie would be concerned about the declining percentages of African-American players in Major League Baseball. The game has the lowest percentage (8.2) of African-Americans in the two decades that we have published the Report Card. That number is less than half what it was in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Dodgers, when African-Americans made up 17 percent of the players, and less than the percentage of blacks in the general population of the U.S. (12.3 percent).

The reasons for the decline are complex. MLB has struggled with an image problem that it hasn't welcomed African-Americans into front offices since Los Angeles Dodgers VP Al Campanis went on "Nightline" on the 40th anniversary of Robinson's debut in 1987. In an answer that stunned host Ted Koppel, Campanis responded to Koppel's question about why there were so few African-Americans running the game by saying blacks might not have "the necessities" to do more than play the game.

Baseball's Report Card

In many ways, these are the best of times and the worst of times for Major League Baseball's diversity push. The University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports released its 2008 MLB Racial and Gender Report Card on Tuesday, the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers. And the reviews for Bud Selig's league are mixed. Story

Another contributing factor, perhaps, is that Barry Bonds, arguably the biggest African-American baseball star of his generation, is one of the most vilified athletes ever -- deservedly or not -- in spite of the fact that he broke one of the most revered records in the history of Major League Baseball. The media paid far more attention to Bonds' widely assumed steroid use than it has to other African-American stars such as the Indians' C.C. Sabathia, who won the AL Cy Young Award in 2007 and who has been outspoken about the decline of African-American players.

If you are a young African-American athlete trying to decide what sport to pursue, you find superstar role models far more often in the NBA and NFL who may inspire your decision. You may also struggle to figure out how and where to play baseball, if you come from an urban area where there are few fields. If your family doesn't have the resources, you might not be able to buy the equipment or pay the fees to join a youth travel team. And if you want to win a college baseball scholarship, these numbers might stop you in your tracks: NCAA Division I-A programs average 100 full scholarships for football, 13 for basketball and only 11.5 for baseball. Many of the latter are split into partial scholarships to share among several players.

The overall effect is that the pipeline feeding African-American players into the major leagues is even less populated than Major League Baseball itself. Less than 7 percent of the players at the college level are African-American, and the numbers decline even more at the high school and youth sport levels. Meanwhile, African-Americans make up nearly 80 percent of the players in the NBA and nearly 70 percent of the players in the National Football League, and they dominate as well at the college level.

The economics of the game might also be a factor. Baseball teams often sign three or four Latin American players for every young African-American prospect. Baseball has made significant efforts to try to fill the void. The new Compton Academy, modeled after baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and other places, should be helpful, as will MLB's longstanding Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. But in spite of those efforts, it appears that baseball will virtually skip a generation of African-Americans. If there are to be increases, they will come in the future and not in the short term.

[+] EnlargeRachel Robinson
Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesRachel Robinson, Jackie's wife, is working to carry on the legacy her late husband started on April 15, 1947.
Jackie Robinson was about opportunity for all, so I am sure he would like the fact that 40 percent of MLB players now are players of color (29 percent Latinos), which is near baseball's all-time high. He wouldn't be content, but he would see it as progress that there are four African-Americans and four Latino managers at the helm of their teams. That is two more African-Americans than started the 2007 season.

However, there is no doubt Jackie would be dissatisfied that there are only two African-American and one Latino general managers at the major league level, in spite of the fact that that is an all-time high for MLB. The only Latino GM is the New York Mets' Omar Minaya; Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox and Tony Reagins of the Los Angeles Angels are the only African-American GMs. This is baseball's worst area, and MLB is way behind both the NBA and NFL.

Robinson might have a smile on his face if he showed up at Major League Baseball's offices today and saw that 28 percent of the staff are people of color and 42 percent are women. Likely, he would give commissioner Bud Selig a pat on the back for that. But he would be on Selig's case about the fact that those percentages are significantly lower at the team level. And in a nod to Rachel and the issue of equity for women, he would surely tell the commissioner that he would never accept a C-plus as a grade from one of his own children, and that he hopes MLB will soon fix the lack of opportunities for women.

We are fortunate that the Robinson legacy is alive today. He changed America. Baseball, like America itself, is not perfect, but it is surely better because he helped inspire it to be. Thank you, Jackie and Rachel.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 13 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com