50 years later, baseball still has miles and miles to go

April 16, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

NEW YORK -- Nice touches, the evening was full of nice touches. Jackie's grandson throwing out the first pitch. Tevin Campbell singing "The Impossible Dream." Bud Selig announcing the retirement of Robinson's No. 42.

Nice talk, we heard a lot of nice talk, too, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier.

Selig saying that Robinson was "bigger than the game."

President Clinton thanking Robinson, Branch Rickey and the 1947 Dodgers for making America better.

And, finally, Robinson's widow, Rachel, calling for a more equitable society.

It was all very moving, all very inspiring.

And, in the opinion of one Hall of Famer, all very fleeting, too.

"The sad part is, all of this will only last tonight," Reggie Jackson said before the tribute. "It will be gone tomorrow, the next day, the next three or four days, and nothing will happen."

Of course not.

This is a sport that can't even reduce the lengths of its games. It's not going to accomplish something truly significant, like hiring more minority executives or recapturing its African-American audience.

The Mets didn't sell out last night's game, even after giving away almost 20,000 tickets. The demand for seats among blacks should have been intense, but many no longer feel a connection to the sport of Jackie Robinson.

Granted, it was cold.

Granted, the Mets are terrible.

But how could this game not sell out?

"Somehow [baseball] has lost its relationship with the [black] community," Selig said, "and we've got to get it back."

Fat chance.

Former Negro leagues stars recall crowds as large as 30,000 attending their games. Branch Rickey surely wanted to tap into that audience when he signed Robinson. But 50 years later, most major-league crowds are lily-white.

The inner cities are such a baseball wasteland, a writer for the Washington Post recently spoke with 19 kids near the 22-story Ebbets Fields Apartments in Brooklyn, and only one could name a major-league player.

But MJ? Shaq? Rodman?

The kids knew all about 'em.

"Michael [Jordan] has taken over," said Joe Black, Robinson's former teammate with the Brooklyn Dodgers. "I have to admit it. Michael has taken over.

"[Back in the 50s], you'd say, 'Jackie,' you'd say, 'Say Hey,' and everybody knew who you meant. If Griffey Jr. played here in New York or maybe in Chicago, maybe then they'd be coming here."

But probably not.

The problem goes deeper than poor marketing, deeper than high ticket prices, deeper than anyone imagines. Blacks not only are turning away from the sport at the box office, but also on the playgrounds of America.

Baseball actually has a lower percentage of U.S.-born black players than it did in 1959, the first year every team was integrated, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Half the teams began the season with three or fewer U.S.-born blacks (the Orioles started with seven). The Dodgers had none in the starting lineup or pitching staff for the first time since Robinson's debut. Utility man Wayne Kirby is their only U.S.-born black.

Part of this is the inevitable result of the sport going international -- players now come from 17 countries, and there is also a lower percentage of white players than there was five years ago.

But ask any scout -- baseball is losing athletes of all races to other sports, basketball in particular. Black said the sport got "complacent," and will need five to 10 years to regain its popularity among African-Americans.

Life moves at a faster pace now. Kids crave action, dig the NBA image. And moody stars like Albert Belle and Barry Bonds don't seem nearly as accessible as Jordan.

"We have to do a better job of marketing ourselves at all levels," Selig said. "But I'm not quite as concerned about that as I am about our problems in the front office."

How's that for an indictment?

Clifford Alexander, a hiring consultant to Major League Baseball, says the sport's minority-hiring record is twice as good as an average Fortune 500 company, and eight to 10 times better than networks and newspapers.

But everyone knows it's not good enough.

"I can't help thinking that if Jackie Robinson was here with us tonight, he would say we've done a lot of good in the last 50 years, but we can do better," Clinton said.

"We have achieved equality on the playing field, but we need to establish equality in the boardrooms of baseball and throughout corporate America."

Or, as Selig put it earlier, "There's a legacy here that needs to be perpetuated for all the right social reasons. Anything that can be done to do that should be done."

Talk, talk, talk.

But no action.

Reggie Jackson said Robinson would be "enormously disappointed" by the lack of progress in appointing minorities to decision-making positions.

And he doesn't expect the "heady environment of unity" described by Rachel Robinson to result in any long-term change.

This is baseball, remember?

Even on a night saluting a true American hero, it was best to hold your applause.

Pub Date: 4/16/97

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