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African-American presence in MLB declines as Jackie Robinson is celebrated

Jamie C. Harris | 4/21/2017, 3:58 p.m.
This past Saturday, April 15, marked the 70th anniversary of the Major League Baseball debut of Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson.
Remembering No.42, Jackie Robinson

This past Saturday, April 15, marked the 70th anniversary of the Major League Baseball debut of Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson. The day was replete with tributes in baseball stadiums around the country.

Robinson’s widely memorialized arrival with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 officially ended racial segregation of the big leagues as many African-American players who would become some of the sport’s all-time greats exited the Negro Leagues for the Cleveland Indians, New York Giants and Chicago Cubs, among other teams.

Larry Doby, Willie Mays and Ernie Banks all followed an arduous path courageously paved by Robinson, whose impact on American culture cannot be quantified. “Every advancement in society has come from people standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Los Angeles Dodgers president and CEO Stan Kasten Saturday at a ceremony at Dodgers Stadium honoring Robinson.

“In the history of baseball, in the history of our country,” Kasten proclaimed, “few people have stood taller than Jackie Robinson. Jackie stood for excellence on the field, he stood for excellence off the field, but mostly he stood for the proposition that all human beings deserve their dignity, respect and fair treatment at all times.”

The event, which included attendance by Robinson’s widow, 94-year-old Rachel Robinson, family members and baseball luminaries, saw the unveiling of a statue of Robinson’s likeness that will stand at Dodger Stadium.

The number of African-Americans on Major League Baseball rosters gradually declined over the past four decades. In the mid-1980s, roughly 18 percent of MLB consisted of African-Americans. By the start of last season, only 8 percent of the 862 players on opening day rosters and disabled lists of the 30 teams fell under the aforementioned ethnic category.

This season, the number dropped to 7.7, only one percentage point higher than when the great Jackie Robinson retired in 1956. Two franchises, the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres, carried no African-Americans on opening day, and nine had only one player. Ironically, the Dodgers were among the last group.

However, Robinson’s legacy is patently visible as Black players spanning the African Diaspora, hailing from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela and multiple Dutch Caribbean islands such as Aruba and Curacao, are prevalent across the MLB landscape.

The causes and effects of the precipitous plunge of African-Americans have been analyzed and debated ad nauseam. There is no definitive reason for the sparse numbers of African-American players on all levels of baseball, or tested solutions. So remembering the past with pride and reverence and holding hope for the future will have to suffice.