Once Again #42 Will Make its Way Onto the Diamond

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With the Retirement of Mariano Rivera at the end of last season, the number 42 jersey in baseball has “officially” been retired.  Rivera was the last player to be grandfathered in after Major League Baseball retired the jersey on this date in 1997. It was not due, however, to some prophecy of Mo’s future dominance that lead to the number’s retirement, but rather to honor the man who 50 years earlier broke Baseball’s color barrier.  Today, and every April 15th for the foreseeable future, every MLB player will be allowed to wear the number 42 to honor Jackie Robinson.

On this date in 1947, former Kansas City Monarch’s second baseman Jack Roosevelt Robinson (Jackie) played in his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers.   The former Army Lieutenant who had suited up for games at Municipal Stadium so many times before was finally going to step out onto Ebbet’s Field in New York, and this time as a first baseman (though he would eventually move back  to second…and outfield, and third).  The journey wasn’t easy, and many thought Jackie was actually not the best player in the Negro Leagues (or even his own team; the Monarchs were loaded with Satchel Page, Buck O’Neil, Hilton Smith, and Booker McDaniels who all went on to play or manage in the pros), but this did not deter him.  In fact his demeanor, military service, and overall character, in addition to his skill, were the reason he was chosen to make this journey.  It was thought that Jackie could handle the constant criticism and racial slurs of a predominately hate filled league, and still succeed.  They were right,  and today this is why we honor Jack Roosevelt  “Jackie” Robinson.

After Jackie Robinson opened the door, African-American players began to join the ranks of the Major Leaguers in greater and greater numbers.  Those numbers reached their pinnacle in 1981 when MLB saw 18.7% of its players to be of African-American Decent. That number, however, has begun a slow decline ever since.  This year marks the lowest number of black players since the 1950’s at 7.6%.  There are currently three major league teams that fail to have even one black player (St. Louis, Arizona, and San Francisco),  and it is up to Baseball to figure out how to reverse this trend!

To date Major League Baseball has many programs to help ensure this decline does not continue.  Programs like Reviving Baseball in the Inner-city (R.B.I.) and the Urban Baseball Academies are two such programs.  Currently some 200,000 plus kids are playing baseball sponsored by their hometown pro club,  but the question remains… is this enough?  The closing of little leagues around the country is also increasing,  and it is not in the suburbs and affluent areas where these programs are failing.  It is in the cities’ urban cores, and rural communities.  Places where other sports are more popular, and less expensive to play.  As far as population densities and demographics are concerned, these are the areas where we would expect to see the most minorities.


It stands to reason, kids with less exposure will tend to shy away from exploring these activities, instead choosing to go with the more familiar/popular sport.  I have seen this first hand as a baseball coach at an inner-city high school.  Though the school has nearly 1,700 students, finding 25 boys who are capable of playing baseball is a very difficult thing.  Junior Varsity programs are constantly filled with 9-10 boys, half of which have never played (If they have a program at all).  Meanwhile, we play at places that have three school affiliated teams, make cuts, and have individual equipment opposed to team bats and helmets.  If you ever want to see a gap in socioeconomic check out the next high school baseball game in your area between an urban core school and one of the affluent suburb schools.  It will be eye opening.

All this being said, positive signs are beginning to be seen.  In the past two Major League Baseball Drafts 14 African-America players have been drafted in the first round.  In addition, Junior/Senior Showcase Baseball Programs like Perfect Game are seeing an influx of black players, meaning the youth programs MLB has started may be taking hold, but there is still much work to be done.  In honor of Jackie Robinson, we once again will get to see players of all races celebrating this legacy of diversity by donning the number 47 across America.  Hopefully, the real honor of the legacy will occur with an increase in diversity across baseball!

photo credit: Puzzler4879 via photopin cc

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