In less than two weeks, baseball will celebrate Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of America’s pastime by having every player don the No. 42 jersey. Yet more than 70 years later, this pastime has been — and remains — an opportunity for predominantly white men.
In 2017, only 7.7 percent of Opening Day rostered players were Black. Of the 30 teams, 11 had one or none, according to The Undefeated.
This statistic starkly contrasts baseball’s legacy in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr. credited Robinson with igniting civil disobedience before protests and sit-ins.
Some of the greatest baseball players immediately followed Robinson: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks, just to name a few. In the 1990s, big names such as Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas continued their legacy.
Today? The most prominent Black player is probably Derek Jeter, and he retired in 2014.
The declining prominence of Black players leaves fans with an uncomfortable truth: Black heritage in Major League Baseball has stagnated in recent years, while MLB has failed to address and provide the resources for Black communities to pursue the professional league.
It is easy to dismiss the small proportion of Black players within a superficial argument of baseball as a dying sport: the game is too long, too boring and unflashy, and top prospects take years to make it to the league.
All of these factors certainly contribute to the problem, but to focus solely on these pretenses overlooks the consequences of structural systems that have disproportionately impacted Black communities throughout the last 70 years.
Facing a national housing shortage, the government created the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 to increase — and segregate — American housing through a process of redlining, providing loans to white Americans and discriminating against Black communities.
White Americans with higher incomes could move to the suburbs with the space, time and resources to develop Little Leagues, while Black families were forced into inner cities, where the aforementioned becomes increasingly harder to attain. Today, only 44 percent of Black people are homeowners, contrasted with 75 percent of white people who are homeowners.
The treasured, classic image of the sandlot pickup game becomes a little tougher to envision on asphalt and concrete.
Another common — and increasingly outdated and sexist — narrative is that it “takes a father to make a professional baseball player,” the argument correlating the increase in Black children born out of wedlock to the decrease in Black baseball players.
Besides racist undertones of nuclear familial expectations of this argument, blaming Black men for being absent fathers ignores a history that disproportionately imprisons and murders Black men.
These systematic barriers are coupled by the transformation of elite travel teams throughout the United States that exclude players who do not have the financial ability and social mobility to play competitively and develop skills.
Major League Baseball attempted to correct its path in 1991 through the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which introduced the sport in local Boys & Girls Clubs. Yet after spending more than $30 million, Black representation in MLB is still under 10 percent.
While introducing the sport in these communities is a valuable program, without structural changes to socially, financially and economically empower these children in the same way as their white counterparts, the problem will persist.
If we are going to make players wear No. 42’s jersey and pat ourselves on the back in celebrating baseball’s crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement, we owe it to Robinson to ensure that his legacy exposes injustices of the Black community, on and off the field.
Alicia Sadowski writes the Thursday column about the intersection of sports and politics. Contact her at [email protected]