Yesterday was Jackie Robinson day in MLB.
The culmination of MLB's media campaign this spring promoting Civil Rights was last evening's Dodgers game which was broadcast on ESPN. I intermittently watched a handful or perhaps several innings of the broadcast. It was an evening of African American civil rights nostalgia. A parade of great African American ballplayers, Hank Aaron, Don Newcombe, Frank Robinson, Dave Winfield & Joe Morgan, reminiscing and paying tribute to their hero # 42. Rachel Robinson, Mr. Robinson's widow was also featured prominently. As circumspect as I have been about MLB's motives behind this media campaign, I don't doubt for one moment the sincerity of the words and tributes of the aforementioned ballplayers and Mrs. Robinson as they relate to the importance to them of the American Civil Rights movement and the importance of Mr. Robinson in that movement.
African American NY Times reporter William Rhoden writes in his book Forty Million Dollar Slaves, " For many of us over fifty who were born in the United States, the idea of a player - any player - not knowing the story of Jackie Robinson is blasphemous. It's like not knowing about Rosa Parks, the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, or the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycotts. For people of my generation, the wide spectrum of black resistance and conflict are carved into our hearts. Those events remain so vivid, and represent such powerful emotional benchmarks in the ongoing struggle, that it is inconceivable to us that anyone could forget."
So, that's the easy part, the nice part, MLB at the forefront of the American Civil Rights movement, Branch Rickey, Mr. Robinson, Pee Wee Reese etc.
Now for the uneasy parts.
Why did MLB racially integrate the game when they did? Joe Morgan was grateful for having the opportunity to befriend former MLB Commissioner Happy Chandler. Mr. Morgan told us that Mr. Chandler integrated the game because it was the right thing to do, that he wouldn't have been able to live with himself had the opportunity been passed up ( I'm paraphrasing ). I'm a cynic and I'm more inclined to believe that the motive behind the racial integration of MLB was, as always, money. Again, from Forty Million Dollar Slaves, " By the late 1940's, Major League Baseball was hungry for new blood, fresh blood. Black blood. Negro League owners had failed to grasp the implications of Major League Baseball's manpower shortage, it's slumping attendance, and its desparate need for new talent, which the black leagues held in abundance." The racial integration of the game was great for business. White fans were presented with a better product, the black players raised the talent level and changed the nature of the game. The all white game had been a plodding "station to station" game, while the injection of black players introduced more speed, base stealing, daring baserunning etc. As well, the integration of MLB killed the Negro Leagues and their fans started clicking through the turnstiles at MLB games.
William Rhoden's opinions on Branch Rickey's motives for signing Jackie Robinson are hardly new or unique but they certainly are in the minority. What was promoted last evening in LA and on ESPN and in ballparks around North America ( we have to include Toronto ) was a vision of America and baseball's place in it, that probably never existed. I don't know for certain, I'm a 44 year old Canadian but as I've written before, this entire campaign is not meant to appeal to African Americans of any age. This feel good civil rights nostalgia appeals to the mainstream MLB fan, guys like me, white, middle aged and middle class. White guys who will feel enlightened and just and principled because they buy a # 42 official MLB jersey. White guys who want to feel hip and progressive because they like Spike Lee ( whom MLB has provided a very prominent role this entire campaign, including last evenings broadcast ). None of us old enough to remember when the game was integrated but eager to feel good that it was and chauvinistic enough about our game to think that it happened in our sport first because of heros, because baseball is good.
The parallel story to the MLB & Civil Rights campaign has been the story of the vanishing African American in MLB, on the field and in the stands. It was difficult to watch the crowd shots last evening and not look for black faces, I saw very few as usual. MLB and ESPN did not skirt the issue but nor did they get to the real roots of it. There was a lot of talk about MLB needing to reconnect with African American youth, going into their communities, about the importance of telling the Jackie Robinson story to these kids. MLB has been spinning this all spring, the Compton Academy, the RBI ( Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities ) program, the 2 day MLB & Civil Rights confab in Memphis, the first Jackie Robinson Society Community Recognition Award....Again, it's me, I think money is responsible for the change.
The numbers have been well documented in many articles this spring. In 1975 the percentage of African American players peaked at 27%, by 1995 it had declined to 19% and by last season or 05 ( I see conflicting reports ) it had sunk to 8.4%. It has been widely noted that 2 teams this season, Atlanta & Houston, have at present no African American players. ( According to the 05 US census 12.25 % of the US population is African American ). The popular arguments explaining the decline have been that baseball is expensive relative to other sports. I.E. Blacks can't afford to play. In order to play baseball you need the infrastructure of leagues, which have largely disappeared in "inner cities" due to "social" problems. In the "inner cities", basketball and football are more popular with kids. While I agree these are contributing factors, I think there are more fundamental, industry related explanations.
For starters, MLB faced less competition for African American athletes for many years because the other major sports in the US, basketball and football, integrated more slowly. For instance in the 1970's ( the peak period for African American players in MLB ) the percentage of black players in the NFL was in the 30% range, it is now 66%. In a nutshell, if you as an African American had the raw ability to play professional sports in the US, for many years MLB was the league you aspired to play in.
In 1965 MLB instituted an amateur draft of North American high school and college players. In 1965 there were few non American players in MLB. Since 1965 the industry, i.e. the teams, have learned that labor, i.e. players, are cheaper outside the US. Drafted North American players have leverage in negotiations, high school players can opt to go to college and re enter the draft later if they don't get the big cheque. High school players are more expensive to develop, i.e. train, they require years of tutelage and apprenticeship before they are major league ready. In Latin America, primarily the Dominican Republic, the muscle ( to borrow from William Rhoden ) is cheaper. Practically all teams have baseball "academies" in the Dominican Republic and many are / were ( there is the Chavez issue now ) making similar investments in Venezuela. It is estimated that teams spend $50 - $60 million annually on scouting and player development in Latin America. Even accounting for these investments, the labor is cheaper than in the domestic market. "Clubs do leverage their dollars much better if they develop a kid in a country not subject to the draft," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB executive vice president for baseball operations, who is black. "Those decisions are purely business decisions, very pragmatic business decisions." From Chris Isidore CNNMoney.com "In addition, the relative poverty of some of the countries, such as the Dominican Republic, made it relatively cheap to sign many of the players, although those signing bonuses are rising in recent years. So the percentage of foreign born players has seen a steady climb, to 29 percent this year, nearly double their percentage in 1995." See Chris's article here. From an ESPN article by John Helyar, here, ( thanks Jeff Blair ) "William Forrester Jr., whose minority-oriented Richmond, Va., youth league has received all of $8,000 from RBI, and who has failed in efforts to get MLB to aid struggling HBCU baseball programs, believes it's pretty simple. Baseball's economics trump baseball's pieties. Bottom line: It's much cheaper to develop talent offshore, independent of the amateur draft." Says Mr. Forrester "They're just taking the big-business approach of getting the most bang for their buck and making more money," says Forrester, who finds it ironic that black players and fans deserted the Negro Leagues for MLB -- only to have MLB eventually desert them. "If I were in Jackie's shoes, I would wonder if I had been bamboozled." If you don't already know, HBCU means Historically Black Colleges & Universities.
The industry has undergone a change in draft strategy. High school players have proven to be a risky investment in comparison to college players. ( Although the player development geeks at Baseball America might tell you that a disproportinate percentage of star players come from the high school ranks, but I digress ) Again from chris Isidore "In 2005, the most recent year for which figures were available, only 35 percent of players drafted were high school players, down from 56 percent when the draft started. And only about a quarter of drafted high school players now sign with a team, compared to about 70 percent of college players who are drafted. In 1965, about half of drafted high school players signed, compared to 55 percent of college players who were drafted." So the Industry is looking more and more for domestic labor from the college ranks, but there are few African Americans playing college baseball. We all know that as a group, African Americans are more economically disadvantaged than non African Americans. So how do black athletes end up in college football and basketball factories ( sorry, programs ) ? Scholarships is the answer. Because college baseball is not a " revenue sport ", there are fewer scholarships available and as a result fewer African American players. More quotes from Jimmie Lee Solomon. " It takes a certain amount of economic resources for a baseball player to go to college and whites, on average, have higher incomes than blacks in the U.S. So for a black athlete that needs financial assistance to attend college, it makes more sense to try for a football or basketball scholarship. This is a big reason why college baseball teams have even a lower percentage of black players than does the major league, said Solomon." "A Division 1 football program can give out 85 scholarships, and baseball teams only 11.7," said Solomon. "If you're an African American kid and you need help to go to school, do the math."
With an increasing amount of their labor coming from outside the US, MLB has required, and obtained, the assistance of the US government. This article by African American Diane M Grassi delves into that aspect and is notable as well for it's scathing criticism of MLB and Congress. I blogged about this article in February, you can read the whole piece here. Some excerpts.
"....MLB speaks only in platitudes about diversity, bypassing the inner city and working class neighborhoods, seemingly looking for talent everywhere but there." ".....MLB has gotten an even bigger break from the federal government in a recent change in the Immigration & Nationality Act....Amended by the U.S. Congress in 2006 and signed into law on December 22, 2006 by President George W. Bush, it is known as the “Compete Act of 2006”..." "The legislation changes the visa status of foreign-born minor league players to be able to use P-1 visas, formerly reserved only for major league players, and an upgrade from the H-2B visas, generally used by temporary foreign-born workers in numerous industries. Each team previously was limited to 26 H-2B visas per season for its minor leagues. Major leagues have no numerical limitations with the P-1 visa, valid for a period of 10 years."....."Given that over 40% of minor leaguers are foreign-born and that most of them are from the Dominican Republic, this will enable a continuous pipeline of Latin American players." ".....very few of these youngsters statistically make it to the major leagues and even prior to their new visa status, hundreds of minor leaguers were brought to the U.S. each year only to be relieved of their services. Hundreds of Dominican players also never return to their homeland and remain in the U.S. as illegal immigrants, primarily surviving in the underground economy of New York City." "...It has been said that Latin players in the Dominican Republic sign for contracts between 5 and 10 cents on the dollar compared to their U.S. counterparts." "...But it remains a lose-lose for communities across the U.S. which finance sky box stadiums, unable to afford tickets for their families, for games played on the backs of many exploited athletes who never make it to the big leagues and at the expense of our own children, who of little means, are never even encouraged to play baseball by its biggest profiteers." "...Department of Homeland Security, granted MLB its visa program, contingent upon foreign-born players only occupying positions on a team that could not be filled by U.S. citizens. Obviously, the U.S. government and MLB have come to the conclusion that playing baseball should be included among those “jobs Americans won’t do.”
Last evening on ESPN, Dave Winfield was asked about a comment in his new book that perhaps his son will be the last African American player in professional baseball ( or words to that effect ), the issue of the vanishing African American taken to its extreme conclusion. With that in mind, following is an excerpt from my blog March 07 on William Rhoden's writing in Forty Million Dollar Slaves on the evolution of the Negro Leagues, the racial integration of MLB and the demise of The Negro Leagues.
Mr. Rhoden tells the story of African American Arthur "Rube" Foster, who he describes as a "pioneer". Mr. Foster was a baseball player but is most important for founding the Negro National League in 1920. Mr. Foster is described as a "man of of clear, resolute, and uncompromising vision: He wanted a professional league of black baseball that was owned, organized, managed and played by African Americans." "Foster's Negro National League created a universe in which the black presence was accepted, nurtured, and celebrated. The league became a base of power for African Americans in the rapidly growing industry of baseball."
According to Mr. Rhoden, Mr. Foster realized that the integration of baseball was inevitable, however Mr. Foster's vision for integrating the game was a positive one for African Americans. "When integration came, Foster wanted the Negro League he envisioned to have a monopoly on the commodity that Major League Baseball would desperately need: black ballplayers." "He wanted......that when the national pastime was integrated, the NNL would be in a position to dictate rather than be dictated to. His theory was that the league's strongest teams would be absorbed intact, not picked apart like a carcass by so many buzzards." In 1926 Mr. Foster met with AL president Ban Johnson and Yankees manager John McGraw to discuss the possibility of his Chicago based American Giants playing "big-league teams that visited Chicago on their off days. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis apparently killed the idea...." Mr. Foster died in 1930 and his worst fears for the integration of baseball, that "white ball would take what it needed, then crush black ball to pieces and watch it die." were realized decades later.
Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League Baseball in 1947, a mythologized event not only in Amercian sports but in American popular culture. It was the beginning of the end of black baseball in America. "Black baseball owners could not agree on a strategy. The owners were torn between wanting integration and wanting to remain a viable business. These latter-day owners of Negro League baseball mistakenly felt that they would be involved - in a profitable way - with the "integration" process. Some felt that their teams might be purchased and incorporated into the Major League Baseball minor-league system. This was not part of the plan, however. The treatment of the Negro Leagues was brutal and disrespectful." "Baseball was unofficially integrated in 1945 when Robinson signed a contract with Montreal." "In 1947, Robinson's contract was purchased by the Dodgers. Just one year later, in 1948, the black leagues were in shambles." "The final blow for the Negro Leagues came in 1951 when the Southern-based network of minor-league baseball teams was desegregated. Now the major leagues had no use for the Negro Leagues, and they slowly died." "By the 1960's, black baseball was effectively dead: Major League Baseball had prevailed." "A black institution was dead, while a white institution grew richer and stronger. This was the end result of integration."
"..Rube Foster has become a mere footnote in the epic story of sports integration in which Jackie Robinson is a central character. In some ways, however, Foster is an even more significant figure than Robinson. Foster used black resources to build a baseball league that nurtured talents like Robinson while establishing an economically viable alternative to Major League Baseball. Robinson became a symbol of the process of integration, a process that ultimately enriched white institutions while weakening and in many cases destroying black institutions. White America determined the pattern of integration; the white power structure chose blacks who made whites feel comfortable, who more or less accepted the vagaries of racism. This was the Jackie Robinson model of how an integration-worthy African-American behaved: taking abuse, turning the other cheek, tying oneself in knots, holding one's tongue, never showing anger, waiting for racist sensibilities to smolder and die out - if your spirit didn't die first. This model was hardly progress for black athletes. It was, in fact, a reversal of the paradigm for black involvement in sports that Foster and others had created out of a hard necessity."
So, does it matter? Baseball's chattering classes have been on about this all spring ( me included ). But as I've said before, our community of geeks, bloggers and baseball writers is overwhelmingly white. Does it matter to African Americans? How would the hell would I know? I barely know any African Canadians for christ sake. Does it matter that they don't watch baseball or play it? Does it matter that they prefer basketball & football? Does it matter that there are no African Americans on the Astros or Braves?
In the end I feel sorry for Mr's Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron and Don Newcombe et al. Men who were victims of racism, men who overcame racism, men who remember and revere Jackie Robinson and the Civil Rights movement, men who are proud of their accomplishments, men who love baseball, men who are saddened that the younger generations of African Americans don't share in their memories of "the cause" ( as Frank Robinson put it last evening ) or love the game that they love. Ultimately I feel sad for them because I think they honestly believe that MLB is making a serious effort to reconnect with their community and I think they've been duped. Rightly or wrongly it's about the money, always has been and always will be, it ain't a game.