Sunday, April 15, 2007

Jackie Robinson 60th Anniversary

April 15 is not just the day you pay Uncle Sam any taxes you owe. (by the way, you have until midnight Tuesday to do that)

Today also happens to be the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson stepped onto the diamond at Ebbets Field and broke major league baseball's color line. He went hitless that day, but did score the winning run in his debut game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In that first season he endured racial epithets, flying cleats, pitchers throwing at his head and legs, catchers spitting on his shoes, hate mail and death threats but let his on the field play speak for him. He won over his teammates and his opponents with his unselfish team play and was named Rookie of the Year. Two years later he was the National League MVP. He compiled a lifetime batting average of .311 and was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

It's a bittersweet moment as well. Since 1975 the percentage of African-American ballplayers has gone from 28% to 8%, the lowest figure since Major League Baseball was fully integrated in 1959. I started noticing the trend courtesy of Ebony Magazine. Every April they would do a baseball feature story that would list every team by league and division, have photos of all the African-American members of those teams including coaches and predict how the teams would finish. They stopped doing it in the late 80's. Major League Baseball is also alarmed at the declining numbers of African-American fans attending games.

I think part of the problem is that baseball has spent so much time investing in overseas development complexes in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Asia that they've forgotten to show some love in this country as well.

When I played Little League ball, in my neighborhood alone we had two organized leagues to play in, Southeast and Freeway National. Their ballfield complexes were right across the street from each other. The last year I played in 1977 they added two teams in the minor division because they had an explosion of kids in that age bracket wanting to play.

In 1999 I drove by those complexes and was saddened to discover that Freeway National Little League no longer was in existence. Freeway's old complex was also in a state of disrepair. Southeast was considering taking it over but they don't get the amount of kids they used to. Most of the kids are either playing football or at Crestmont Park trying to be like Mike. (or in the case of my old neighborhood like Clyde Drexler.) Yes, TransGriot readers, THAT Clyde Drexler.

African-American major league ballplayers are alarmed about that downward trend. That concern is shared by Jackie's widow Rachel Robinson and the commissioner's office. Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter has started a program with the goal of increasing the number of African-American kids playing baseball. Another program with the same objective called RBI (Reviving Baseball In Inner Cities) is the most widespread with over 200 affiliates in various cities around the country.

I hope these programs are successful in reversing that negative trend. It would be a travesty for the suffering that Jackie Robinson heroically endured so future generations of African-Americans could play major league baseball to be wasted.

No comments: