Jackie Robinson Opened Up All the Sports Doors
Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color barrier on April 15, 1947. When he was slotted in at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers against the Boston Braves, Robinson became the first black baseball player since Moses Fleetwood Walker… who played in the 1880s. Although Robinson specifically broke the baseball color barrier, most people today tarnish his legacy by confining what he did to the diamond. Jackie Robinson’s actual legacy is that he made it commonplace for blacks in America to play any and all sports and when you look at it that way, Robinson’s legacy is thriving.
Every April 15th it is commonplace to remark on the background of Jackie Robinson, but it bears repeating. If you wanted to create a perfect biography for the type of person that would galvanize change in America’s game, you could no do better than Robinson. He came from a sharecropping family and was the first athlete at UCLA to letter in four varsity sports (basketball, football, track, and of course baseball). He also joined the U.S. Army and served during World War II (1942-1944). After getting an honorable discharge precipitated by not moving to the back of a segregated bus, Robinson joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. He did his thing there and Branch Rickey eventually found him before signing Robinson to the Montreal Dodgers (Brooklyn’s minor league team) before finally making his way to the big boy club in 1947. THAT is an American tale.
So Robinson integrated America’s game with a background that one can easily (retroactively) say is “All-American.” But the sport he helped open up to everyone, now has fewer than seven percent black players (according to SABR.com). This has caused many people to say there is a problem in baseball because there are not enough black players. While on the surface this might seem true, this is minimizing Jackie Robinson’s actual legacy. To confine his legacy merely to baseball is to do a disservice to just how pivotal his breaking the baseball color barrier was to American sports as a whole and to misunderstand just how pivotal baseball was to the American psyche.
Baseball was America
While there is certainly a dearth of black American baseball players in today’s game, there is definitely no problem when it comes to baseball being an inclusive sport in general. In 2016 there were 63.7% white players in baseball and 6.7% black players. That leaves almost 30% to account for in Major League Baseball that does not include white players. More than a quarter (27.4%) of baseball players in 2016 were Latino, while 2.1% were Asian. If you want to say that baseball has a “lack of black players” problem you can use those statistics, but you would be wrong. Because the question you are really asking is “where did all the black baseball players go?” (All numbers in this paragraph from sabr.com, moving forward all numbers from UCF’s TIDES)
From 1972 to 1996, the percentage of black players in baseball never dipped below 16%, but the number today is almost half of that. Moreover, the 2010 census stated that roughly 14% of Americans were black. Therefore, if that number holds relatively true, than the amount of black baseball players is less than half of the population’s ratio. It would seem as if there is a problem in baseball. However, you cannot say there is a black baseball player problem without delving into the demographics of all the other sports because they are all inextricably linked.
Baseball was America’s pastime. To be American meant to enjoy the game of baseball and be an ardent supporter of the pastime. Many military men during World War II brought baseball wherever they went. Children played the game in farm towns and cities and most people today over the age of 55 have wonderful memories of playing stick ball with their friends. But baseball was segregated, just like an unhealthy amount of America. Prior to Robinson’s inclusion, there was a white league (MLB) and black leagues (the Negro Leagues). Major League Baseball was whiter than a piece of Wonderbread slathered with mayonnaise with a vanilla ice cream topping.
That all changed on April 15th, 1947 and there was no stopping what Robinson started in 1947. With baseball’s (and by extension America’s) color wall crumbled, everything else started falling into place. Just three years after Robinson, the first handful of NBA players would make their way onto the hardwood. Three more years after the NBA began integrating, the aptly named Willie Thrower became the first black post-World War II NFL quarterback when he began taking snaps for the Chicago Bears. Even hockey, which today is the whitest of all the sports (though not American), saw their first black player take the ice in the Bruins’ Willie O’Ree (who was Canadian).
Understanding Demographics in Sports
The solution to the black “problem” in baseball can be found in other sports. According to the most recent American census, blacks comprise about 14% of the population. But when it comes to sports world, blacks make up an inordinate amount of the athletes. University of Central Florida’s “The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports,” (TIDES) found that in the 2016 NBA season, 74.3% of the players were black while white players dropped almost five percent to 18.3% (the total percentage of “peoples of color” in the NBA was 81.7%). In the NFL the percentage of black players for 2016 increased to 69.7% while whites dropped to 27.4%.
Black players make up the vast majority of athletes in the NBA and the NFL despite making up just 14% of the population. In Major League Baseball they comprise 6.7% of the player pool (although UCF’s TIDES has that number slightly higher at 8.3%). If you want to say MLB has a black player problem, then fine. But I ask, “what is a realistic number when it comes to black baseball players?” There are only so many high caliber athletes to go around in general for every demographic. For the black population, they clearly navigate towards the NBA and the NFL. Yes, there are certain socioeconomic factors that go into this, but it should be a great thing that black players in the NBA are over represented by more than a factor of five when compared to the general population (they are over represented by a factor of 4.98 when it comes to the NFL). To say that there is a black “problem” in baseball is to overlook how little of an issue there is in the two other most popular American sports. It is plainly illogical when looking at the numbers to think something like that can hold true across every single sport.
By taking America’s pastime and opening it up to everybody, Jackie Robinson paved the way for athletes, not just baseball players, but athletes. He proved that even the greatest bastion of white sport in America would eventually have to give way to common sense. The history of baseball is replete with “what ifs.” What if Josh Gibson was allowed to play in MLB? Would he be thought of today as the best hitting catcher of all-time? What if Satchel Paige’s best years were not contained to the Negro Leagues? Would he be among, if not the, winningest pitcher in MLB history? These are all questions the baseball and sports world will never know. However, what we do know that is despite an underrepresentation of black players in MLB baseball today, it does not mean that Jackie Robinson’s legacy is tarnished. It does not mean that there is a problem in MLB baseball. Jackie Robinson’s actual legacy is that he opened the door for all people of every color to go and pursue their sports dream in whatever sport they desired. Jackie Robinson’s legacy is not one of just baseball, but also of football, of basketball… and most notably, of America.