- John Helyar, Sports Business
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As the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut is marked, Major League Baseball is sure to give itself an extended pat on the back. We'll hear much this month about the breaking of baseball's "color line" as a civil rights milestone. We'll be reminded that the national pastime opened its doors to blacks way ahead of many other American institutions. The sport will bask in the righteous recounting of Robinson's courage and Branch Rickey's wisdom.
But to focus on events of 60 years ago is to dishonor No. 42. Jackie Robinson wasn't one to dwell on the past. After leaving baseball after the 1956 season, he devoted himself to blazing new paths -- in business, politics and the civil rights movement. He was all about today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Proud as he was of changing the game in 1947, Robinson biographers and contemporaries agree he'd be more interested in assessing the game of 2007.
The Robinson salute culminates April 15 with pregame ceremonies at Dodger Stadium, where dignitaries will exchange verbal high-fives about how far the game has come in the past six decades. But towering above the rhetoric, like a major league popup, remains a central major question:
What would Jackie think?
If he checked the starting lineups of that night's game, Robinson's first thought would probably be, "What happened?" The Dodgers will likely have one black starter (Juan Pierre), and the visiting Padres two (Mike Cameron and Terrmel Sledge).
Robinson would have found this inconceivable. At the time of his death in 1972, about 20 percent of big leaguers were black and their numbers were rising. Some teams' rosters particularly weighted toward players of color. In one game in 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates (winners of that year's World Series) fielded a starting lineup with six black and three Hispanic players.
MLB's African-American population crested at 27 percent in 1975 and then began to decline, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. By 2006, according to the latest figures compiled by that University of Central Florida organization, only 8.4 percent of big leaguers were black. According to U.S. Census estimates as of July 1, 2005, African-Americans make up 12.25 percent of the U.S. population.
What would Jackie think?
Robinson would heartily approve of the diversity of today's game. It's not as if MLB has resegregated. In 2006, according to the institute, 29.4 percent of big leaguers were Hispanic and 2.4 percent Asian. Add in African-Americans, and major league rosters are more than 40 percent nonwhite.
"A whole lot of Hispanics are now getting the chances blacks got in the 1940s," says Doc Graham, a onetime Negro League player and a longtime friend of Robinson. "Jackie would be pleased at anyone who hadn't been able to play in organized baseball now being allowed to."
Indeed, Robinson not only threw open the gates to MLB for African-Americans, but hugely widened it for Latin Americans. Before 1947, a smattering of light-skinned Hispanics played in the majors. Since 1947, players like Roberto Clemente and Minnie Minoso starred and paved the way for the Alfonso Sorianos and Carlos Delgados of today.
What would Jackie think?
Robinson would also appreciate that the declining number of black players partly reflects growing opportunities in other sports. Vast tracts of big-time college athletics remained segregated even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. No blacks played in the legendary Arkansas-Texas football championship game of 1969. Things changed in college basketball after the all-black Texas Western team beat Kentucky for the NCAA title in 1966. Things changed at the college football factories of the Southeastern Conference, too. Bear Bryant saw the light on integration in 1970, after Alabama was trounced 42-21 by the University of Southern California, whose touchdowns were all scored by black players.
The black talent pool for baseball began to dry up in the 1970s, as college basketball and football opened up to black athletes. The allure wasn't just being recruited for scholarships; it was getting into sports with quicker potential payoffs and no minor-league apprenticeships. About 30 percent of NFL players were black in the 1970s; today, they comprise 66 percent of league rosters.
Baseball was the youth sport for Los Angeles blacks in the 1960s, recalls John Young, who played for a Connie Mack team that produced eight major leaguers. But between the time Young signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1969 and turned to scouting after a 10-year professional career, everything had changed. Baseball once provided the main professional role models and opportunities for young black athletes. Now it was just another option.
"They saw a lot more kids who looked like them playing college baseball and football," says Young, who in 1989 founded the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City) to reseed the game among African-Americans in Los Angeles.
What else would Jackie think?
He would believe that baseball's longtime failure to break the color line in its off-the-field jobs contributed to today's dearth of black players. In his lifetime Robinson often scolded MLB for its all-white cadre of front-office executives and field managers.
In his autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," he wrote: "Baseball moguls and their top advisers seem to earnestly believe that the bodies, the physical stamina, the easy reflexes of black stars, make them highly desirable but that, somehow, they are lacking in the gray matter that it supposedly takes to serve as managers, officials, and executives in policy-making positions."
At Robinson's last public appearance, throwing out the first ball at the second game of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati, he chided MLB even as he accepted a plaque commemorating the 25th anniversary of his entry to it. He said he was pleased and proud of the recognition, but "I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball."
In 1975, Frank Robinson became the first black manager, with the Cleveland Indians. But no other African-American got a shot at managing for a full season until 1989, when Cito Gaston was hired by the Toronto Blue Jays. (Larry Doby and Maury Wills managed for parts of seasons, with the White Sox and Mariners, respectively.)
The paucity of black skippers was just the most visible way MLB signaled that African-Americans -- in the unfortunate words of former Dodgers executive Al Campanis -- "lack the necessities" when it came to nonplaying jobs. In a 1982 survey of 24 clubs, blacks held only 32 of 913 front-office white-collar jobs. The survey also found only 15 of 568 full-time scouts were black.
It apparently didn't occur to lily-white baseball execs to market their teams to the black community. They took for granted African-Americans, who flocked to major league parks to cheer the early black players. Commissioner Bud Selig likes to recall traveling from Milwaukee to Chicago with his best friend -- and now U.S. Senator -- Herb Kohl for one of Jackie Robinson's first games against the Cubs. They were among the few white faces in the upper deck.
"The black fans went to baseball games because of the black pioneers -- the Jackie Robinsons, the Larry Dobys gave them a lot of pride," says Bill White, a black player in the 1950s and 1960s and later a Yankee broadcaster and National League president. As those pioneers retired and as sports like basketball and football ascended, White believes, baseball's hold on African-Americans weakened.
He also believes MLB didn't do enough to market the game to black fans or black players.
"The average salary was higher in baseball, the pension was much better, but I don't think baseball was selling that," White says.
Caucasian scouts were disinclined to bird-dog the declining number of inner-city ball fields when college baseball programs had so much talent. These were cushier environs -- also whiter. Since 1992, the NCAA has limited college baseball teams to a mere 11.7 scholarships, so their rosters are heavy on Caucasians with fewer financial considerations. Just 6.5 percent of Division I baseball players were black in 2005, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics.
Even baseball teams at historically black colleges and universities (known as HBCUs) are now often comprised of mostly whites and Hispanics. Bethune-Cookman University, currently the No. 2 ranked HBCU baseball team in the country, plays its home games at Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Fla., site of Robinson's first exhibition game in the Dodgers organization. Only seven of Bethune-Cookman's 31 players are black.
This is not what Jackie had in mind, rues Graham, a Daytona Beach resident who lays a wreath at the ballpark in Robinson's memory each year on his friend's birthday, Jan. 31.
"I'm concerned," he says, though he doesn't lay all the blame on MLB. "I don't think enough of us African-Americans have gotten together to maintain kids' interest."
What would Jackie think?
Jules Tygiel, a leading Robinson scholar, believes Robinson would demand bold strokes from MLB to restock with black players and reconnect with black fans.
"Baseball integrated because Branch Rickey took a chance on affirmative action, on going outside the usual way of business," says Tygiel, a professor at San Francisco State University who has written and edited three books about Robinson. "Jackie Robinson would say baseball has to go out and take affirmative action again."
Baseball has taken some steps in the right direction. Approximately 16 percent of clubs' senior administrators and 24 percent of senior administrators at MLB headquarters are people of color, according to the diversity institute's 2005 study. As of Opening Day 2007, there were five field managers of color, but just two minority general managers.
Since 1991, MLB's RBI program claims to have subsidized urban youth-baseball leagues serving 120,000 players in 200 cities. The program has also produced major leaguers Carl Crawford, Coco Crisp, Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis. But the $16 million it's spent on RBI over 16 years is unimpressive in the context of modern baseball economics. In addition, the program's effectiveness has varied from city to city, acknowledges Young.
"But what it's done everywhere is raise awareness," says this former major league scout. "Now if kids don't want to play it's their choice, but they have that opportunity."
MLB undertook another new initiative in 2006, opening an "urban youth baseball academy" in Compton, Calif. But the $10 million spent on the facility to produce more black players pales besides the $50 million to $60 million MLB clubs spend each year on scouting and player development in Latin America. Virtually every team has an "academy" in the Dominican Republic, the richest source of Hispanic players (81 of them in the majors last year).
William Forrester Jr., whose minority-oriented Richmond, Va., youth league has received all of $8,000 from RBI, and who has failed in efforts to get MLB to aid struggling HBCU baseball programs, believes it's pretty simple. Baseball's economics trump baseball's pieties. Bottom line: It's much cheaper to develop talent offshore, independent of the amateur draft.
"They're just taking the big-business approach of getting the most bang for their buck and making more money," says Forrester, who finds it ironic that black players and fans deserted the Negro Leagues for MLB -- only to have MLB eventually desert them. "If I were in Jackie's shoes, I would wonder if I had been bamboozled."
"I think Jackie would say there has been some progress. I think Jackie would also say it hasn't been enough."
-- Former NL president Bill White
Forrester expresses the dimmest view Robinson might take of MLB 2007, but not necessarily No. 42's definitive approach. There are developments of which he'd greatly approve, beginning with the average player salary of $2.94 million. He and Branch Rickey were joined at the hip by history in 1947, but jousted each year thereafter over salary. Robinson believed he, and other major league players, were underpaid and he chafed at their lack of bargaining power. In 1970, he testified on behalf of Curt Flood in the outfielder's landmark anti-trust suit challenging MLB's reserve clause.
"Jackie would be very pleased with free agency and all the money players are making," Tygiel says.
And just as Robinson took a broad view of his role in the world after his baseball career, he would also take a broader view of today's sports world.
"He would be thrilled at what's happened in a league like the NBA," says Pat Williams, an executive with the Orlando Magic and author of a book on lessons to be learned from Robinson. "There are so many GMs and coaches of color that you can truly say it's no longer about black and white; it's about wins and losses."
Robinson would be delighted that it's now possible to see teams with a tandem of minorities as general manager and field manager: Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen with the White Sox, Omar Minaya and Willie Randolph with the Mets. But he'd be angry that hiring minorities for top baseball jobs is still about as rare as stealing home.
White, who knew Robinson during his playing days and was the first African-American to serve as a league president, believes Robinson's overall assessment of baseball's integration would be mixed.
"I think Jackie would say there has been some progress," White says. "I think Jackie would also say it hasn't been enough."
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."