42 is the upcoming biographical film about Jackie Robinson. The film will star Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher and Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. Robinson was the first African-American to play for a major league baseball team and a historical figure in the Civil Rights movement. Robinson's achievement opened the door for a wave of African-American baseball players to enter the major leagues. Since Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 African-Americans have excelled at the major league level and contributed to the rich history of baseball. African-Americans make up 20% of the sports' Hall of Fame. The all-time leaders in home runs, RBIs and stolen bases are African-American and nine of 12 MVPS from 1990 to 1995 were African-American.
However, if Robinson were to take a look at the dugouts, playing fields and front offices of major league baseball teams today he would be surprised, if not disappointed to see that African-American representation in the league is at an all-time low.
The percentage of African-Americans playing major league baseball has dropped to its lowest since full integration was achieved in 1959. "In 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate their roster, 17.25% of the players were African-American." In 1975 27% of the players were African-American, by 1999 that was down to 19%. In 2012, the most recent season, only 8% of the players were African-American and 33% of the teams in major league baseball had no African-American players. At the 2012 Jackie Robinson Day game between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals there was only one African-American player on the field.
There are a number of reasons why there has been a drop in African-American participation. Colleges are not offering as many scholarships for baseball as they do for football. The typical NCAA baseball program has only 12 scholarship positions as opposed to the 85 offered by the football program. As Jimmie Lee Solomon, a former MLB executive vice president for baseball operations pointed out, "if you're an African American kid and you need help to go to school, do the math."
The number of inner city baseball programs has dwindled to a few as resources and funding has dried up. Baseball has launched a number of urban academies to support African-American interest in baseball. They have an annual Civil Rights game to celebrate the contribution of minorities to the sport. Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities is a program designed to rebuild interest in baseball in urban and inner city youth in underserved communities.
A typical problem not unique to baseball is the paucity of African-Americans in leadership positions. There are only two African-American managers and two general managers. These are the decision makers with hire and firepower for any professional sports team. African-American managers are not given the same opportunity to stay on the major league level as others. Dave Stewart a former star pitcher for the Oakland Athletics left baseball's front office after being repeatedly passed over for a general manager job. He believes that baseball's hiring practice has to change to effect a change on the field. Regarding baseball's hiring practice Stewart says, "you have a lot of young [African-American] executives who can do the job if they have the opportunity. But all they get is an interview for window dressing." Robinson noted this problem as early as 1969 when he refused to play in an old-timers' game at Yankee Stadium to protest the lack of minority managers and front-office personnel.
African-American players are acting as ambassadors for the sport to overcome its image of being dull and "uncool." They are trying to spread the message that baseball provides as much opportunity for the young African-American athlete as other sports. Matt Kemp, the star outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers explained, "you get paid just as much, get to drive those nice cars and do all of that fun stuff that all the other NBA guys get to do. We're just a little bit more low key."
Baseball is not oblivious to the issue of African-Americans opting away from the sport. The league recognizes that the dearth of African-American players on the field translates into a lack of fan participation. Only 9% of fans that attended a baseball game were African-American and that impacts revenue across the board, particularly in the lucrative sports apparel business. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig is a proponent for increasing African-American participation. "We're trying to get better. It won't happen overnight," explained the commissioner.
The harsh reality is that baseball is finding it more economically sound to recruit foreign players than African-Americans. Twenty-nine percent of players are foreign-born and many of them are from Latin America. Foreign-born players can enter baseball without going through the draft and come from poverty stricken countries that make them cheaper to sign. Many teams have set up "baseball academies" in countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. The draft also represents a hurdle that impacts African-Americans. A player can be drafted straight out of high school but if they refuse to play they lose eligibility until they complete college. Baseball has been trending towards drafting college players rather than high school players. Given the dearth of college scholarships, African-Americans athletes tend to favor collegiate football over baseball. CNN Money noted, "the draft has — unintentionally — created a greater supply of foreign-born players and white American-born players."
All of these factors, college scholarships, lack of African-American general and team managers, the economic advantage of recruiting foreign players and the lack of baseball resources in the inner cities has contributed to the all-time low in participation of African-Americans. Robinson, number 42, no doubt would not be pleased with this development.
Jackie Robinson broke barriers for African-Americans on and off the field. He was the first African-American inducted into baseball's Hall of fame. He was the first black television analyst in Major League Baseball. He was one of the first African-Americans to serve as an executive in a major corporation, (Chock Full O'Nuts), and he co-founded the Freedom National Bank. In his honor, baseball retired his number 42 and holds an annual Jackie Robinson Day when every player on every team wears his number.
Selig believes Robinson would be proud of the accomplishments of African-Americans in baseball, including in the sports' front offices but Ron Rabinovitz disagrees with that assessment. Rabinovitz a longtime friend of Robinson's noted, "I think Jackie would be very disappointed. He would want more than this." In 1969, Robinson protested the dearth of African-Americans in management positions and 43 years later there has been little or no progress on this front. Now, not only has there been little progress in the front office, there has been a regression on the field. I'm sure if Robinson went to a game today, he would look on the field, into the board room, the dugout and the stands and would openly wonder, "if this is 2013, then where are the black people?" If Robinson were alive today, he would be shaking his head wondering what happened to his legacy.
42, The True Story of an American Legend is scheduled to be released in April 2013.