The 34th day without baseball in 2020 is one of my favorite days to go to a baseball game, and I rarely miss the opportunity. It is the day we commemorate the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first game in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
On April 15, 1947 Robinson broke the color line in baseball. It was seven years before the Supreme Court would rule against segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education, 10 years before nine black students would integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, and 17 years before President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act.
As fans we are often told a simplistic story of baseball being ahead of the times. We are rarely asked to look at what life was like for the black players who integrated the game or the inequities that persist to this day. Shakeia Taylor wrote a brilliant piece about this three years ago for Complex - you should read the whole thing, but I wanted to highlight this:
While history is always very kind in hindsight, Robinson wasn’t exactly met with unanimous cheers and affection. He endured an alarming amount of racial abuse: beanballs, insults, hate mail, and death threats from players and fans alike. Enos “Country” Slaughter of the St. Louis Cardinals deliberately spiked Robinson, causing a seven-inch gash. The manager of the Philadelphia Phillies told his players to scream racial epithets at Jackie during a game. Some of his own teammates passed around a petition to boycott the team if he remained.
Every year, MLB makes a big deal about celebrating Jackie Robinson Day. And every year, MLB misses the point by decentering the true hero of the story. Jackie’s triumph is often told in a way that frames Branch Rickey as the savior. A better way to honor Jackie would mean being more inclusive in hiring practices, both on and off the field. This would in turn encourage a culture of acceptance among fans. Black players, both professional and amateur—and the black fans who love them—still face some of the same pushback that Jackie did 70 years ago.
Whenever arguments about the greatest ballplayer who ever played come up my friends offer names like Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, or Ted Williams. I always counter with Jackie Robinson. The other players are singularly great at the sport. Robinson was great at the sport and societally paramount in baseball history.
But it is worth remembering that 73 years after Robinson stepped on the field the lack of diversity among managers, front office staff and team owners is still striking, as ESPN’s Marly Rivera noted in 2016:
But the dismissal of Gonzalez highlights the critical issue of the lack of ethnic diversity in MLB at the top coaching levels.
The shortage of managers of color in MLB has been a growing concern in recent years. The 2016 season began with only three minority managers, one Latino and two African-Americans, seven fewer than the high point of 10 minority managers in 2002 and 2009.
Additional evidence comes from Richard Lapchick, the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. In that role he oversees the annual Racial and Gender Report Card. While they noted improvements in middle management front office roles in 2019 there is still work to be done at the owner and general manager level:
Like the other leagues, MLB has a poor record of diversity among its team owners. The same is true for general managers, who are among the key decision-makers for their respective teams and are recognized leaders in their communities and across MLB. They have considerable influence on the development of these communities and the future of baseball. It is imperative to have diverse thought, experience and opinions at the highest levels.
Perhaps even more alarming is the relatively low number of African American players, from the same study:
Though progress was made this year, I still have concerns about the low number of African-American players. In 2017, African-American players represented only 7.7 percent of the players in MLB. That increased to 8.4 percent of the 2018 Opening Day rosters. That was the highest number of African-American players in MLB in the last six years. It is, however, a far cry from the all-time high of 18 percent in 1991.
MLB, like the other professional sports leagues, makes considerable efforts to foster and develop programs focused on improving diversity and inclusion within the league and its communities. Many of the diversity and inclusion issues that plague our professional sports leagues start with providing our youth with access. Access to facilities. Access to uniforms and equipment. Access to coaches and mentors. Access to education. This lack of access dramatically impacts our youth who grow up in urban areas that often have a disproportionate number of underserved neighborhoods. It is hard to imagine a lack of access if our influential sports leaders in these communities could offer diverse thought, experience and opinions on how to enrich the lives of the members of these communities.
Like the rest of society, baseball clearly still has a lot of work to do on access and equity. We should commit to that work as we reflect on Robinson’s legacy. Which brings me to the Cubs small part in this story.
I will never forget my first trip to Wrigley Field in 2002. I cried when I saw the field, and I wanted to know everything about it. Some kind season ticket holders on the third base line told me everything they knew. While many things left me in awe that day the single story that impacted me most was the explanation of the JR 42 flag on the roof (it has since become a white and blue 42 on the right field foul pole) and how Wrigley Field was the only ballpark left where Jackie Robinson had played baseball.
In fact, the largest paying crowd to ever see a game at the historic park on the North Side of Chicago was on May 18, 1947, Jackie Robinson’s first game against the Cubs. Legendary newspaper columnist Mike Royko was a child in the standing room overflow of the grandstand on that day. His recollection of that game captures that game set against the politics of segregation in Chicago in 1947.
Today, on the 34th day without baseball, I recommend you read Royko’s whole piece, but I’ll leave you with an excerpt of the feeling in the stands during Robinson’s debut from the eyes of a child:
Usually, we could get there just at noon, find a seat in the grandstand, and watch some batting practice. But not that Sunday, May 18, 1947.
By noon, Wrigley Field was almost filled. The crowd outside spilled off the sidewalk and into the streets. Scalpers were asking top dollar for box seats and getting it.
I had never seen anything like it. Not just the size, although it was a new record, more than 47,000. But this was twenty-five years ago, and in 1947 few blacks were seen in the Loop, much less up on the white North Side at a Cub game.
That day, they came by the thousands, pouring off the northbound Ls and out of their cars.
They didn’t wear baseball-game clothes. They had on church clothes and funeral clothes·suits, white shirts, ties, gleaming shoes, and straw hats. I’ve never seen so many straw hats.
As big as it was, the crowd was orderly. Almost unnaturally so. People didn’t jostle each other.
The whites tried to look as if nothing unusual was happening, while the blacks tried to look casual and dignified. So everybody looked slightly ill at ease.
For most, it was probably the first time they had been that close to each other in such great numbers.