Jackie Robinson’s legacy impacted MLB more than just on the field
All day Saturday, at every ballpark hosting a major-league game, including Rogers Centre, it was a chance for players and coaches to proudly wear No. 42, celebrating the 76th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1947.
Granted the percentage of African-American players is at its lowest total since the early ‘90s, with just 7.2% spread around 30 teams on Opening Day of ’22. But this is not a day for finger wagging, assigning blame for the disappointing numbers of young African-American athletes that choose to sign onto their futures in pursuit of the baseball dream. This is instead about Jackie’s accomplishments and the positive changes to baseball and society.
In fact, the key to this, thanks to Jackie Robinson’s efforts, is that young athletes today, no matter their ethnicity, have the choice of sport upon which they wish to focus. In the first-half of the 20th Century, existed a despicable, unwritten agreement among the 16 MLB owners to keep African-Americans out of the game. That all changed when Dodgers’ president and GM Branch Rickey reached out to a young infielder from the Negro Leagues named Jackie Robinson.
After a triumphant MVP debut at Triple-A with the Montreal Royals in 1946, he was ready for the MLB challenge that would face him. Civil rights wasn’t yet a movement when Robinson reported to spring training with his young wife, Rachel in ‘46. It’s no coincidence, then, with the adversity he overcame, that the Civil Rights movement virtually parallels the integration of baseball in post-war America.
The Boston Red Sox, 12 years after Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, was the last team in MLB to promote an African-American player to the major-league club, a young utility infielder named Pumpsie Green. That was, disgraceful. It was 1959.
From the ‘60s through the ‘80s, the percentage of Black players in the game was at an all-time high. In 1966, for instance, a total of 84 African-Americans played for the 20 MLB teams, led by superstars like Henry Aaron, Dick Allen, Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Willie Davis, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, Willie Mays, Blue Moon Odom, Frank Robinson, George Scott, Willie Stargell, Bob Watson, Maury Wills and Jimmy Wynn. As time went on, enter factors like the immediate fame of basketball and football compared to the daunting years expected to be spent in baseball’s minor leagues before arriving at The Show.
Now, with baseball trending analytic, valuing different skill sets, and with basketball and the NFL opening up the rules to imagination and creativity, young athletes this 21st century have been responding to the Sirens Song of shoe deals, other lucrative endorsements and national notoriety.
But back to the impact that Jackie Robinson had on the game … and on the culture of baseball clubhouses, which, in pro sports, seem to reflect the society of the day. That impact Robinson had on clubhouse cultures in baseball, with regard to diversity and integration may be almost as important as the talent boost from which major-league baseball benefitted since Robinson’s arrival on the scene in ’47.
“When you think about him, you think just the courage and the relentlessness that he had to display to do what he did,” Jays’ manager John Schneider said in the pre-game. “It’s awesome that you can look in any clubhouse and see such a diverse background of people.”
“I think it’s just normal, now,” Schneider said of the clubhouse changes he has seen in the Jays organization over the years, with a diversity many players may not have seen growing up. “It’s now the norm to have teammates, friends, roommates with different backgrounds than you.
“I remember with (young prospects) from Latin America when I got into pro ball. You get really interested in their backgrounds, what they did to get to where they are. It’s great that it’s diverse.”
The celebration of Robinson and the Dodgers has repeated every April 15, since 1997. From a personal standpoint, Jackie Robinson Day is special to me for three reasons. First is my late father used to tell of watching Jackie play for the Royals in Montreal. Second is the link below, which is one of the favourite features I wrote in my 25 years at The Toronto Star. Third, is my memory of interviewing Rachel Robinson in the lobby on the Queen Elizabeth Hotel. Mrs. Robinson remains the most charismatic and memorable personality I have interviewed. Here's to you. Enjoy the feature by clicking the link.