Last week Major League baseball celebrated former Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier. Across the nation, players and umpires wore Robinson’s “42,” now officially retired throughout the big leagues, in honor of the Dodger whose triumph over adversity preceded the celebrated Supreme Court Brown decision by almost a decade. A special element in this year’s festivities was the New York Mets unveiling the Jackie Robinson Rotunda in their new home, Citi Field, with Rachel Robinson, the legend’s wife, in attendance.
Still, even with all the commotion over Robinson’s exploits Major League baseball’s relationship with the Black community is becoming a distant memory. When the cry of “Play ball!” resounded throughout stadiums last week, in most cities the teams carried rosters with few Black players and Black fans are becoming scarce in many stadiums. It is a far cry from the day when baseball was the sport of America’s inner cities. There was a time when Black youth – boys for the most part – had sports heroes named Mays, Robinson, Gibson, Wills, Robinson (Frank), Aaron and Banks, all representing teams on the diamond in a major city. Given the emergence of basketball as the sport of choice for many inner city Black youth, it almost seems impossible that even Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson took a back seat to the boys of summer.
Baseball was important to America because it also defined social relations and foreshadowed racial possibilities. When Robinson walked onto the field in “Dodger Blue,” it meant more than his ability to hit, run the base paths or steal home. His presence on the field, and not much later that of Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians in the American League, was a direct challenge to America’s racial caste. Both men became heroes in the Black community as much as for their civic triumphs as for their athletic exploits. It is why baseball, already embraced by Blacks due to the Negro Leagues, took on a life of its own in the Black community. As the Great Migration pushed Blacks northward into cities, the sport became synonymous with urban living and Black success. The sound of a rubber ball hitting a broomstick was commonplace in cities as stickball approximated baseball diamonds in places were space was limited. By the early 1960’s the bona fide star on most teams in Major League cities was African American and Blacks dominated a sport that still had the likes of a Mantle, Maris, Koufax, Drysdale and Yastrzemski.
It is why the current dearth of Black players is disturbing. What may be true is that the abandonment cuts both ways. In the 1970’s baseball began to leave America’s inner city neighborhoods for concrete multipurpose stadiums in fortress like settings. When the game became more “suburban” in nature, replete with fake grass and polyester uniforms, many of its Black fans began to look elsewhere for their athletic fix. Football and basketball were the big winners, as the NFL and the NBA, and to a great extent the now defunct ABA, became more closely identified with the Black community. The identification of baseball with urban life eroded at the same time that the nation’s cities were in decline. In some cities in the 1970’s, decay hit neighborhoods and ailing ballparks at the same time. Meanwhile, racial progress also seemed to stall in America.
Ironically, the great American pastime has been trying to return to its urban roots. A new wave of retro ballparks seeks to recapture the spirit of the Robinson era. The New York Mets new home includes design elements that mimic Brooklyn’s legendary Ebbets Field and features of Detroit’s old Tiger Stadium. Retro seems to be the word these days except in the sport’s connection to the Black community. While racial dynamics have certainly changed since the day number 42 made history, as is evident in the election of a Black President, conditions for many Blacks in our cities still approximate the impoverished conditions faced in 1947.
Perhaps baseball can once again be that great equalizer. The sport where Black players no longer have to struggle to be “firsts,” but could once again lead by example on the field, in our cities, and by extension, in our communities. The real legacy of Jackie Robinson is that he was seen as part of our community, playing a sport that we claimed, through him, and Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and many others. The triumphs on the field were matched by triumphs off the field; all played out in our cities that became a living social experiment. In a day and age when our cities – neighborhoods and not downtown entertainment zones like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor – are on life support, could a resurgence of baseball and the re-emergence of Blacks on the diamond serve once again to motivate our community to greater heights?
There is no doubt it would not be that easy nor should anyone fool themselves into believing that the environment today is as clear cut as it was during Robinson’s heyday. Still, if Major League Baseball would make a serious effort to rediscover its urban roots and re-connect to the Black community, the lessons of success on the field – practice, discipline, teamwork, perseverance – might take hold among a new generation who once again might find joy in the sound of a rubber ball meeting a stick on an empty lot.