I looked high and low as best I could without binoculars, but my futile efforts found no Black fans at a recent Minnesota Twins baseball game. It was the annual Jackie Robinson Day last Thursday by Major League Baseball (MLB). April 15 also was Robinson’s 100th birthday.
All 30 MLB clubs annually commemorate Robinson’s 1947 historic debut that broke baseball’s decades-long color barrier. Players, managers, coaches, umpires, and all on-field personnel wear Robinson’s uniform number 42. The number has been permanently retired by MLB since 1997, the first time baseball did this for every team.
The game-long recognition was cancelled last year due to the pandemic.
Last Thursday, however, there was only one American-born Black player on either team (Minnesota’s Byron Buxton) and two Black coaches (the Twins’ Tommy Watkins and Kevin Morgan). Boston, one of 11 teams without a single Black player on their 25-man roster, had no Black coaches either.
And no Blacks in the stands—on Jackie Robinson Day!
“I’m thankful for what he went through and did for us,” noted Watkins, now in his 12th year in the Twins organization and his third season as first base/outfield coach.
Robinson was not only a ballplayer but also an activist long before he donned a baseball uniform. He helped convince White America that Blacks have more to contribute than by entertaining or serving them.
“I understand the historical significance of what African Americans have meant to baseball,” said WCCO’s Henry Lake, “and how we utilize that sport to move forward progress in terms of race relations.”
Robinson, who died in 1972, retired from baseball in 1956 after 13 seasons in the majors and a season in the Negro Leagues. Honoring him “is still relevant,” said Morgan, who joined Minnesota in March as field coordinator after 22 seasons with the New York Mets organization, helping train their minor leaguers.
The 2021 MLB Racial and Gender Report Card by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport released last week showed a very small uptick: 7.6 percent of MLB players are U.S.-born Blacks, up from 7.5 percent in 2020. In 2011 it was 13 percent. Texas (10) and Seattle (8) lead the majors in Black players.
Depending on who you ask, baseball folk offer many reasons for the dwindling number of Blacks playing baseball. One is poor marketing by MLB of its few Black stars. Young Blacks often parrot that baseball is boring and takes too long.
“We ask the question all the time,” said Watkins. “We got to get them to play and start them young.”
I became a baseball fan in grade school. One of the best field trips was in sixth grade to the 1968 Detroit Tigers’ second home game of the season, which later resulted in the team’s first World Series championship in over 30 years.
I love watching baseball. Last week’s one-run victory by Minnesota over Boston was more exciting to me than when I sat watching an eight-point Wolves win the following night.
“I’m a fan of baseball,” said Lake, but he admits baseball isn’t anywhere on many young Blacks’ radar. “Baseball doesn’t appeal the same way basketball and football does.”
But according to a 2019 sports participation report, baseball and softball combined ranks as the U.S. team sports most participated in with over 25 million participants, and baseball alone has seen a 30 percent growth in participation since 2014.
Yet this hasn’t translated into more Black MLB players, even when 51 Blacks out of 289 draftees in the MLB draft between 2012 and 2020 have been first-round selections. And even more important, it hasn’t resulted in more Blacks in the stands. Even on Jackie Robinson Day.
“I’m a sports fan. I’m a fan of baseball,” concluded Lake. “But our kids don’t gravitate to baseball.”
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.