Jackie Robinson Day passed through town like a cool spring breeze, leaving little behind besides a chilly reminder that black kids don’t play baseball anymore.
“Tomorrow,” Cubs great Billy Williams said, settling into a seat in the shade of the home dugout, “you won’t even know any of this happened.”
In the sunshine nearby, members of the Cubs marketing department scurried from place to place, setting up microphones and herding schoolkids taking part in the pregame ceremonies into position. An hour later, a few scholarships would be announced while the four Chicago ballplayers and two coaches who donned Robinson’s No. 42 posed alongside Ken Griffey Jr., Cincinnati’s lone representative, for a photo.
Robinson once said he avoided looking at the crowd during most of his at-bats in that fateful first season of 1947 “for fear I would see only Negroes applauding.”
The good news is that now everyone would have been cheering because his accomplishments shamed America’s sporting public into severing ties to its spiteful past. However, there weren’t many more African Americans to be glimpsed in the announced crowd of 39,820 than the handful the two clubs combined to put on the diamond.
“We look at the problem, read about it, talk about it and nothing much changes,” Williams said.
A sweet-swinging outfielder with an unusually discerning eye at the plate, Williams didn’t make it to the majors until 1959, three years after Robinson retired. But he was part of a treasure trove of ballplayers who lived in and around Mobile, Ala. – where Henry Aaron and Willie McCovey hail from – who weren’t “discovered” until big-league scouts began mining historically black ballfields in search of another Jackie.
He can’t bear to think what scouts would find there today.
“Empty diamonds, for the most part,” Williams said. “Kids, specially talented kids, don’t want to wait. They think baseball is ‘slow,’ whether you’re talking about the game itself or the time it takes to get the payoff. We’re talking five or six years to get established, but because of the longevity, you can get those back at the end of your career.”
Despite Robinson’s many virtues, patience is the one precious few of his heirs bothered to master.
“Try selling that to a generation that grew up on Michael Jordan,” Williams said. “Their motto is: ‘I want it now.'”
Baseball spent much of Sunday in a self-congratulatory mode, harkening back to the day when it held such a central position in American society that Robinson breaking the color barrier 60 years ago had a much more significant impact outside the game than between the lines. From that day, the percentage of African Americans in the major leagues climbed steadily until about 1975 – peaking at 27 percent – then began falling precipitously. They have been replaced gradually, by Hispanic ballplayers, and more recently by Asians.
Today, the number of African American players in baseball hovers around 8 percent, roughly the same as the percentage of black adults who list it as their favorite sport.
“I didn’t appreciate baseball. I was just bored,” recalled Cliff Floyd, one of four Chicago players who wore Robinson’s number. “And that’s what these kids are: They’re bored. …
“A lot of times in baseball you strike out, you pop up, you roll out to first. In basketball, you’ve got dunks. You’ve got guys flying through the air. You’ve got balls flying off the backboard. That’s fun for these kids,” Floyd added. “You’ve got kids looking at the basketball rim going, ‘Man, that’s me one day.'”
Basketball continues to collect much of the blame for siphoning off all those would-be Jackies, thanks to an assist from the sneaker companies. But baseball’s poor marketing overall, as well its late recognition that black youngsters were turning away from the game, get plenty of scorn, too.
“Go to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or Venezuela and you’ll find baseball academies bought and paid for by teams,” Williams said. “We’ve got one up and running in Compton, and we’re renovating a few ballfields in a few other places.
“But it won’t be until we get people and former players who aren’t afraid to go back to the neighborhoods where they came from and do some serious scouting and selling that we’re going to make a dent.”
Floyd, for one, said he was prepared to do his part.
“It’s going to take a huge effort – not so much when you’re playing, but when you’re retired. I’ve got to go back home and not just sit on my butt,” he said. “I think you should get out there in the community and show these kids how important the game is, show them video of how you laughed and smiled because that’s what they don’t see.”
After Cincinnati won Sunday’s game 1-0, Griffey sat in front of his locker in the visiting clubhouse working over a plate of food. His father was a Reds star when baseball was still the No. 1 game in black communities. Asked what he would like to see happen, Junior didn’t opt for more U.S. baseball academies or a better marketing campaign.
“Just him, Jackie, being here,” Griffey replied.
Asked whether Robinson would have liked what baseball has become, Griffey shook his head slowly.
“I have no idea,” he replied. “But I would have liked having him around.”