April 15, 2010: African-Americans and MLB’s “quota”
If one more African American joins the team, the joke goes, the team will have to cut one of the originals just to maintain balance.
It’s just harmless kidding among friends but the issue it highlights — the paucity of African American players — still dogs Major League Baseball 63 years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier.
To honour Robinson on the anniversary of his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, every player in the majors wore number 42 on Thursday. But on Jackie Robinson Day in Toronto, Pierre couldn’t help noticing a bitter irony: 50 Blue Jays and White Sox wore Robinson jerseys but only one other player, Vernon Wells, was African American.
Pierre isn’t assigning blame for the dwindling number of African American players in the majors, but he’s still not happy with the situation.
“It’s discouraging that we don’t see more blacks in baseball because of all we went through to play this game,” said Pierre, who had a hit and a walk in Thursday’s 7-3 Blue Jays win.
Before Robinson suited up for the Dodgers on April 15, 1947, major-league teams upheld a “gentlemen’s agreement” to bar black players.
Robinson was named the National League’s rookie of the year, and his success led to the gradual integration of the majors, which in turn started the steady siphoning of talent from the Negro Leagues.
By 1975, 27 per cent of players on opening-day rosters were African American, but by 2009 that figure had dropped to 10.2 per cent, and dipped to 9.5 per cent this year.
But even as the numbers of African American big-leaguers declines, baseball’s racial issues continue to make news.
On Tuesday, Twins second baseman Orlando Hudson made headlines when he suggested racism was the main factor preventing teams from signing free-agent outfielder Jermaine Dye.
After Atlanta Braves superstar-in-waiting Jason Heyward homered on opening day, hall-of-famer Hank Aaron said the arrival of a young, African American megastar could help “what ails baseball.”
And in March Angels centre fielder Torii Hunter lamented the lack of African American players in the majors, and speculated that teams try to masquerade Latinos as African American to disguise a homegrown racial imbalance.
Critics and columnists pilloried Hunter for his viewpoint and his description of Latino players as “imposters,” but Jays designated hitter Adam Lind remembers reaching a similar conclusion.
As he watched the 2007 Civil Rights game — in which the Cardinals and Indians wore Negro League uniforms — he noticed most of the black players in the game were from Latin America and not the U.S., an important distinction on America’s racial scorecard.
“A lot of people think there’s a lot of African Americans in the big leagues but really there’s not,” Lind said. “I wish there were more.”
Lind grew attuned to baseball’s racial issues while growing up in Anderson, Ind., the hometown of former Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine, a close friend of Robinson’s and a local celebrity whom Lind knows well.
He can’t explain the racial imbalance among American baseball players, but said while everyone in his racially mixed group of friends played little league ball, most of his black friends gravitated to basketball in junior high.
But Pierre had a similar experience growing up Alexandria, La., and says he might have abandoned baseball if he had grown past 5-foot-10.
“I got drafted for baseball but I never really played it,” he said. “I practiced basketball way more than baseball because the brothers were playing basketball.”
Copyright 2010 Toronto Star