Marty Appel, who spent many years working for the New York Yankees, marked Jackie Robinson’s 100th birthday today by recalling that one of his annual tasks with the Yankees was to call Robinson and invite him to Old Timers’ Day.
Every year they’d have a nice chat and Robinson would politely refuse, Appel recalled, as a way of signaling his frustration that no Major League Baseball team had hired a black manager, or many black coaches.
As happens too often with protests, the resistor never saw the reward. It wasn’t until 1974, two years after Robinson died, that Major League Baseball got its first black manager, Frank Robinson.
Forty-five years later, for those keeping score at home, Major League Baseball still has one black manager: Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
So let’s guess that if Marty called Jackie today, his answer would be the same, which matters because Jackie Robinson may have been the most important athlete of the 20th century.
Not the best, though he was great, and not the most popular. But oh doctor, what Jackie Robinson did.
When he took the field in 1947, integrating America’s most important professional sport, he kicked open the door to all American professional sports as we knew them for the last half of the century.
Underestimating that achievement would be difficult. While there was fallout from sports integration, including the loss of the Negro Leagues, there was no downside to ending the era when American institutions allowed only white folks to enjoy the penthouse, or enter the house at all.
As baseball went, so went football, and basketball, and lunch counters, and movie theaters, and voting booths. We’re still a long way from the promised land, but despite resistance from those who romanticize the good old days that included colored water fountains, we’re a better country today.
These days, we sometimes forget how big a hero Jackie Robinson became. Songs were sung about him, movies were made about him. The whole country knew his name, and hundreds of thousands of young men and boys wanted to grow up and be him.
That led many of those young boys to play baseball, and from the 1960s into the 1980s, as those generations grew up, close to 20% of the players on Major League baseball teams were black. That included many of the best who ever played the game, from Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Ernie Banks and Frank Robinson on up the line.
Having discovered baseball just about the time Jackie Robinson retired, I didn’t think about integration. I took it for granted. Being a Dodgers fan, I had the luxury of just assuming that baseball was open to everyone — even though, living in New England where the Red Sox were everyone’s home team, I probably should have noticed the Sawx had exactly zero black players until 1959.
By the 1990s, though, we were seeing fewer black players, and it wasn’t hard at all to figure out why.
Young black athletes were playing other sports, notably basketball. To play basketball, you needed sneakers plus a couple of other guys and and a hoop, which were available at every playground (net optional). To play any kind of serious baseball, you needed a glove, a field, a coach and more than a dozen other players.
Basketball often seemed more feasible and, much as I hate to admit it, cooler. Where kids in the ’50s wanted to be Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, kids in the ’90s wanted to be Michael Jordan. That was how you impressed your pals and, oh yeah, the girls.
There are other reasons baseball doesn’t dominate American sports the way it once did, and other reasons the game in the early 21st century has moved back toward the whiter look of the early 20th century. While the color thing is not all baseball’s fault, it’s still frustrating for several reasons.
Two in particular.
First, it means baseball is less reflective of what America needs to be. Baseball may not see embodying the American ideal as its primary mission, but that’s what Jackie Robinson, at a critical juncture in American history, made baseball do.
Second, it means baseball isn’t as good as it could be. Just as baseball once hurt itself by refusing to let Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Oscar Charleston, Buck Leonard, Martin DiHigo and hundreds of other black players onto the field, baseball is lessened today by not getting a bigger share of the athlete pool.
Organized baseball is not blameless here, as its record of hiring managers underscores. In fairness, it has also done some things right. It maintains a youth program that counters some of the wider plunge in youth baseball participation. Its Latin, Asian and black players make it probably the most inclusive of major American sports. Its record of hiring minority coaches isn’t bad, even if its record of promoting them is.
It’s great that Major League baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42. It’s great that he’s being honored all year. But as someone who thinks baseball is still America’s best game, I’d argue that it would be greater if it reached the level where Jackie Robinson could pick up the phone and say, “Marty? Thanks. I’d love to. What time do you want me there?”