What’s the legacy of Jackie Robinson?
Robinson is one of the most influential African-American figures of our time. The legendary athlete made history in 1947 when he became the first African-American man to break Major League Baseball’s colour barrier. For his impact on baseball, Robinson was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in the United States, an award also given to the likes of Thomas Edison, Rosa Parks, Walt Disney and Mother Theresa.
Robinson is remembered as a civil rights hero famous for saying: “I was in two wars, one against the foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home.”
Robinson — through baseball– helped erase that prejudice. But 70 years later, the number of African-Americans playing MLB is trending in the other direction.
Not long after Jackie came Frank Robinson, who was the first player to win MVP in both the National and American Leagues. Robinson still ranks 10th on the career home run list with 586. In 1975 he became MLB’s first African-American manger. After being a high-school teammate of Bill Russell (Curt Flood was also on the team), Frank Robinson — like Jackie Robinson before him — chose baseball over basketball.
Robinson would have turned 100 this year. To celebrate: MLB is planning a season-long celebration.
And so it’s a fitting time to examine why baseball has fallen behind other major sports in attracting black athletes. I recently huddled up with former Toronto Blue Jays greats such as Joe Carter, Jesse Barfield, Devon White and Orlando Hudson, to ask what they believe are the reasons why African-Americans are turning away from baseball.
• When the Toronto Blue Jays played their first game on April 7, 1977, 17.9 per cent of all MLB players were African American.
• When the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and ’93 the number was 16.7 per cent and 16.8 per cent, respectively.
• On Opening Day of the 2018 season, just 8.4 per cent of all MLB players were African American.
Canadian Football League Hall of Famer Damon Allen was a spot starter and reliever at Cal-State Fullerton. He was selected in the MLB draft on four different occasions.
Pat Mahomes Sr. pitched on the 1999 New York Mets team that faced the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS. The father of current Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes, pitched 11 seasons in MLB. His son threw as hard as 92 m.p.h. in high school, three MPH faster than his father. Dad was a three-sport athlete who had huge basketball scholarship offers and chose baseball. His son still chose football.
The most recent tug of war between sports for multi-sport black males is the dilemma for Oakland Athletics’ draft pick Kyler Murray. According to reports MLB sent marketing executives from the league office to present Murray with his off-field earning potential.
Yet Murray has decided to skip spring training to attend the NFL combine and enter the football draft after winning the Heisman trophy last season with the Oklahoma Sooners.
What the Athletics should have shown Murray is not what he might make playing baseball, but how hard it is to make money playing football. Only three Heisman winners over the age of 25 are still in the NFL today: Mark Ingram, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin. Tim Tebow would be another, but he’s now playing minor league baseball.
Only 10 Heisman winners have ever won the Super Bowl, and none since Charles Woodson in 1997. When Woodson makes the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame he will be only the 10th Heisman winner in the hall out of its 79 winners.
In football, even more than baseball, being good in college doesn’t guarantee success in the pros.
Murray isn’t just a case study, he’s a sign of the times. Young black kids are readily falling out of love with baseball in favour of other options, even when the historical data says they shouldn’t. Why is any of this important? Because baseball has been a symbolic sport for African Americans throughout the years.
And given the sacrifices of Jackie Robinson, it would be a shame if it didn’t stay that way.