The same week Jackie Robinson’s story opens in movie theatres, Major League Baseball announced that the percentage of black players on opening-day rosters has sunk to 8.5, the lowest in many years, prompting commissioner Bud Selig to appoint an 18-person task force to study diversity on the field.
As the movie 42 chronicles, Robinson withstood verbal abuse and physical threats early in his career, following promotion from the minor-league Montreal Royals. Selig retired Robinson’s number, 42, in 1997, and it’s posted in white characters at Comerica Park on a brick wall in right-centre field as a permanent tribute to Robinson breaking the colour barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
But the decline in involvement by blacks in the sport comes as no surprise to Torii Hunter, an outspoken African-American outfielder for the Detroit Tigers. He predicted the slide years ago.
“If Jackie Robinson had quit, we’d probably be in this [numbers] situation we’re in now, but he didn’t, so why are we in this situation?” Hunter said Thursday.
Frequently cited data put the peak of African-American membership on major-league rosters at 27 per cent in 1975. Recent research by Mark Armour of the Society for American Baseball Research has revised that peak to 19 per cent. Either way, involvement has tumbled.
“Years ago, I said, 10 years from now, it’s going to be worse, and people said, no way,” Hunter said. “They cursed me out, said I was racist. I’m telling you, [it’s got nothing] to do with race and it’s got nothing to do with Major League Baseball. It’s a cultural thing, an economy thing. ”
Baseball just isn’t “cool” in the inner cities like NBA basketball, Hunter said.
“A lot of kids, especially in the inner cities, they don’t even know black player names in baseball,” Hunter said, while with slick marketing, basketball players such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are identified by their first names alone.
Even if kids were interested, he believes the cost of participation is becoming prohibitive for inner-city families – “black, white, Latino, whatever” – due to the expansion of the season and growth of travel teams.
“I hear a lot of black people say – no, say African-Americans, because people go crazy when you don’t say African-Americans – I hear a lot of them say it’s a white boy’s sport, nothing cool about it, it’s boring,” he said. “There’s a perception of this sport as a rich man’s sport, a country club.”
Inner-city kids, he said, “just can’t afford to play year-round baseball.”
Hunter’s son has signed a letter of intent to play football at Notre Dame on full scholarship. He points out that unlike football, NCAA baseball programs don’t have full rides. Parents are responsible for the remainder of room, board and tuition. Annual costs at many private universities in the United States exceed $40,000, putting it out of reach for many families.
Hunter created a firestorm of controversy three years ago when he called Latin players “imposters” in an attempt to explain that fans may misinterpret the presence of dark-skinned Dominicans, Venezuelans and other Latino players as evidence that the number of African-American players was on the rise. He has also pointed to the significant investment in player development made in Latin countries rather than in American inner cities.
“I refuse to talk about that ever again,” Hunter said Thursday. “I got in trouble for that. Now I’m the bad guy. But it was always true. Just nobody wanted to hear it. … What you see, it is what it is.”
The Toronto Blue Jays’ roster includes two black players, Rajai Davis and Darren Oliver, and nine Latin players.
Five years ago, Hunter and Oliver appeared at a school as part of a Breaking Barriers program in Huntington Beach, Calif., with Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon. Oliver said at the time that he had to hold back tears, listening to some of the stories of the middle-school students.
Darren’s father Bob preceded him as a pro player, coming through Gastonia, N.C., in 1963, prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He’s listened to his father’s stories about the discrimination he felt 16 years after Robinson broke through, and he has spoken with older African-American players who endured similar trials. He looks forward to watching 42, the movie.
In one scene, Robinson retreats to the tunnel behind the dugout to avoid verbal abuse at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. He vents his frustration by smashing his bat against the walls and the floor until it’s in shreds. Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey comes into the scene, and encourages Robinson to get back on the field. When Robinson calms down, Rickey asks what he needs.
“Another bat,” Robinson says.
“I’m hoping it portrays what really happened,” Oliver said. “That’s hard to do in two hours, but hopefully it gives everybody a good synopsis of what he went through. People think it’s heroic, what he did. The hardest thing was to keep your mouth shut, that was the thing.”
As in Robinson’s days, when the team bus of Oliver’s dad stopped at a diner, the white players were allowed in, but the black players had to stay on the bus.
“They wouldn’t let him off the bus to eat, so one of his teammates had to go get him something,” Oliver said. “He told me about it. I just don’t share it with everybody. I know what happened. … Most people probably wouldn’t believe it anyway, or care.”
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s – he graduated from high school in California – Oliver felt the sting of discrimination, too. He says it has subsided today, though he and his wife have endured incidents. Still … today?
“What? Are you kidding me?” he said Thursday. “How can you be a black person in America and not?”
Bob Oliver runs a fall program that he says Darren supports financially. He appreciates Hunter’s comment about the sport lacking a “cool” image, saying that a well played game is absent of the “glamorous” 360-degree basketball dunk. Still, he thinks there’s enough talent in the sport at the lower levels, but the players aren’t getting sufficient exposure to scouts at elite tournaments. MLB and past and present players could help by supporting the sport at the developmental levels.
“If they were to come up with a program where these kids could be seen,” Bob Oliver said. “We need to get guys out there to coach and run programs in a disciplined way, to say this is how the game is played the right way, and how it will be played if you want opportunity. But it will never happen because all I ever hear is, ‘We don’t have the money.’
“I would ask, what are you doing now and what have you done in the past to get more black players on the field? Not just into the major leagues but in the colleges, junior colleges and down lower.
“Then I would get together a group of guys, black players who have played in the league, and go out and recruit.”