On the 76th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947, MLBbro reporter Brandon Carr has stats validated by facts about Jackie’s older brother.
Mathew Robinson won the gold medal in the 200 Meters at the 1936 Games. He even ran and came in second to Jesse Owens. He was also an historical figure, superb athlete and pioneer for the advancements of Black in sports and society. They are two of the most talented and impactful siblings in the history of American sports.
The Jackie Robinson Award, named after the legend who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, has lived up to its legacy with half of its past six awardees being Black players: Michael Harris (National League, 2022), Devin Williams (N.L. 2020), and Kyle Lewis (American League, 2020).
Robinson set the precedent that Black players could flourish in Major League Baseball after they were excluded from organized baseball for 80 years. The award started out as an honor for the Majors’ best overall rookie but has since expanded to an award given to one player per league. Today, Black players work their hardest to make the same impression that Robinson did.
Baseball fanatics have come to love the intensity that players of color bring to the game. The energy and electricity that has kept fans intrigued has come from youthful players trying to make a lasting imprint on their teams to stay on MLB rosters.
MLBbros By The Numbers: 6.2 % And Rising?
Overall, the average age of Black players on Opening Day rosters is 27, with 63% of Black players younger than 30.
Since 1947, MLB has been making progress in terms of inclusion, however slow it may be. Diversity at the Major League level is inching upwards on a consistent basis year after year. Of the 945 players on Major League Opening Day rosters and inactive lists in 2023, 40.34% came from a diverse background (Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Native American), which is more than two percent higher than in 2022 (38%) and 2021 (37.6%). Black players make up just 6.2% (59) of that population.
Also, the flow of high-level talent is increasing as Black players represent a higher percentage of the top prospects in the minor leagues.
As of April 2023, six of the top 25, 10 of the top 50, and 14 of the top 100 MLB Pipeline prospects are Black, and 49% of this list includes players of diverse backgrounds (Black, Latino, Asian).
MLB Diversity Programs
Programs like the DREAM Series, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, Youth Baseball Academies, and others have been indispensable in spreading the knowledge of the beloved game to Black and brown adolescents who haven’t previously had the opportunity to engage with the sport.
History was made in the 2022 Draft when, for the first time, Black players made up four of the first five selections, proving that the game continues to develop. All four players were alumni of the DREAM Series, a diversity-focused development program offered in part by MLB & USA Baseball.
This access to baseball at a younger age in diverse communities plays a role in talent reaching the next level. Nine players selected in the first round of the ‘22 Draft were Black (30.0%), the most by total and percentage since 1992, when 10 of the 28 first-round selections were Black (35.7%). Black players have represented a higher percentage of top selections in the past two years, with 12.5% of the top 100 selections being Black (12 of the top 100 in 2021; 13 of the top 100 in 2022).
World Baseball Classic
As the World Baseball Classic displayed – and participants agreed – the atmosphere of fans and players from countries around the world makes for an electric environment for games to be played.
“I’ll play in every World Baseball Classic there is until I can’t walk anymore,” Chicago Cubs ace Marcus Stroman said. “That passion is something that’s unmatched and that energy, I love it. I love everything about it.”
“You can ask any of those guys, they will tell you they’d rather play in those games than the World Series,” Stroman continued. “Putting your country across your chest and playing for your family and your culture, there’s nothing that competes against it.”
These players of color bring their love of the game and their competitive spirit to the Majors to encourage change to the old, washed-up habits that were created about how America should play the nation’s pastime.
MLBbros Still Fighting For A Fair Shake
While diverse baseball crusaders anxiously anticipate Minor League player call-ups or big-time performances from their favorite players in the bigs, that wasn’t always the case for players of color. And it hasn’t been easy to bring diversity to every team; there are currently three teams without a Black player on their Big League roster (Red Sox, Rockies, Angels). No team has more than four Black players on their squad.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. Because he was able to hold his ground, bite his tongue and not be intimidated, he left the game in 1956 as one of the most hated players. Seventy-six years later, players are still attempting to bring the passion that was so often seen in the Negro Leagues to the Majors that originally enticed former Dodgers president Branch Rickey to take a chance on Robinson.
While there are still fans who want the old school game to be played, there are lovers of the new play style that exudes passion and swagger with bat flips, trash talk, and celebrations that bring thrills to the game of baseball in the regular season, rather than waiting until that expectation during the postseason.
“They want to be in that moment each and every time playing for their country, regardless of what month it is in,” Stroman said about competing in the WBC.
With talent clawing at the gates of the Minors to get their shot in the bigs, it’s seemingly the end of the old-timers’ game and the beginning of a new era, an era that appreciates the young players and their riveting gamesmanship that keeps fans glued to the television and buying tickets to catch a glimpse of the superstars that are being molded from diverse backgrounds.
“There needs to be a way to put our personalities and players on display much better,” Stroman said. “You’re now seeing from the World Baseball Classic how much viewership we can truly have as a sport. So there’s a lot of work to be done in MLB.”
On the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Major League debut, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred christened the intersection of 42nd and Broadway after the famed second baseman. “Baseball did not truly become the national pastime until Jackie – and those who followed him – integrated our sport.”
America, like baseball, is steeped in tradition and history. Baseball, like America, often tries to forget the tradition and history. Historically, baseball was America’s game long before Jackie swung a professional bat.
While Mel Ott’s career .304 batting average earned him 11-straight National League All-Star Game appearances, James “Cool Papa” Bell was a .331 switch hitter with 330 stolen bases in 1,468 career games.
Hal Newhouser won back-to-back American League MVP awards, but no pitcher in professional baseball from 1927 to 1947 had a higher K/9 ratio than Satchel Paige. Babe Ruth may have called his shot, but Josh Gibson was the only man to hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium.
But in 1889, the operators of baseball colluded to sign only white players, denying Black players entry to what would become the foundation of modern-day Major League Baseball, and more importantly robbing them of any generated revenue.
Start Of Negro Leagues
Major League Baseball officially “elevated the Negro Leagues to ‘Major League’ status” in 2020, including Negro League statistics in its official record books and Negro Leagues players in its Hall of Fame. But the time has come to stop half-stepping–MLB should provide reparations to the families of players, managers, and organizers who made up the Negro Leagues.
Segregation meant restrictions on where and who Negro Leaguers played. Teams barnstormed across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and other Latin American countries, playing against the town’s local team while passing a collection plate in the crowd, exposing many across North America to the game. Black leagues existed, but traveling was a more lucrative way to make a living, despite virulent racism each step along the way.
In 1920, Rube Foster and six other Midwestern club owners proposed the first Negro National League. From 1920 to 1947, the Negro Leagues were the place for Bell, Paige, Gibson and countless other Black players to snag bases, flash leather and throw gas.
Dennis Biddle: Youngest Living Negro Leagues Player
A broken ankle ruined Dennis Biddle’s Chicago American Giants debut in 1953, but the then-17-year-old pitcher played long enough to be entered into the Congressional Record as the youngest player to play in the Negro baseball leagues. At 87 years old today, he’s the youngest living player from the Negro Leagues.
“The Negro Leagues, in the early years, made baseball what they are calling it today: America’s Greatest Pastime. We made it that way.” said Biddle. “The style of play presented on the field was unlike the Major Leagues, which is what gave it the credibility (as its own league). The Negro Leagues produced some of the greatest ballplayers to ever play the game.”
Negro League baseball changed forever when Los Angeles Dodgers manager Branch Rickey signed the second baseman from the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945.
While with the St. Louis Cardinals, Rickey developed a robust farm system by optioning players from the Cardinals to his other minor league teams. Other MLB teams would soon follow suit.
Rickey became the president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1943. In 1945, he founded the United States League for Black players, which the Encyclopedia Britannica described as “a front that allowed Rickey to quietly scout Black ballplayers for one who could lead the desegregation of the major leagues.”
“The style, the technique of play (in the Negro Leagues) was different than that of the major leagues. Thousands of people would come out to watch them play because of that,” recounted Biddle in a speech “It was more exciting, more daring…
“Owners and managers from the major leagues would sneak in our games, study the techniques we were using, and implement them.”
Biddle went on to say the Negro leagues started the hit and run (called the bunt and run at the time) and invented the predecessors to the modern helmet and shin guard.
Rickey saw an opportunity – there was an untapped pool of talent that could help boost his Dodgers. But Rickey was not compensating teams after signing players away, stealing Negro League talent from team owners. After Rickey signed Robinson, there was a run on exceptional Negro League talent to the National League – so much so that from 1948 to 1962, 11 of the 15 National League MVP awards went to Black ballplayers.
Branch Rickey And Jackie Robinson Make History
The Negro Leagues became a defacto minor league system after Robinson, Doby and others were poached. Effa Manley, owner of the Newark Eagles and now-Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, was an outspoken critic and eventual victim of Rickey’s practice.
“When he took those three Negro ballplayers from Negro baseball and didn’t give us five cents or say “thank you”… Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe. ” said Manley in a 1977 interview. “We couldn’t protest. The fans would have never forgiven us, plus it would have been wrong to have prevented them from going to the majors.”
Her team, as well as the Negro National League, would fold in 1948. Black baseball as a whole was over by 1960.
Six years later, the NFL-AFL merger,established a precedent that other leagues, like the NBA and NHL, would use as a revenue-sharing framework when acquiring other leagues.
Major League Baseball, however, did not officially recognize the Negro Leagues as a “Major League” until 2020, highlighting approximately 3,400 players of the Negro Leagues as Major League-caliber ballplayers.
This year, there’s a Negro League storyline in MLB The Show, the officially-licensed game of Major League Baseball.
It is a half measure in simply acknowledging the Negro Leagues and correcting the damage done by Branch Rickey’s actions. Rickey, and other general managers after him, essentially engineered American professional sports’ first merger.
Except, Major League Baseball provided little to no compensation to the league being absorbed or an opportunity for teams to join the remaining league – both staples of future mergers.
If Major League Baseball wants to genuinely celebrate Jackie Robinson Day, it needs to acknowledge the full impact of that moment.
“Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough with the Brooklyn Dodgers was a triumph for the integration of baseball and a death sentence for the Negro Leagues,” states an article from the Society for American Baseball Research “Once the barrier to entry for the top Black ballplayers finally and justly fell, the leagues that used to be the only place to see them play struggled to survive.”
With that knowledge, and Major League Baseball’s rightful inclusion of Negro League history as its own, there is only one logical next step. Major League Baseball must provide the financial compensation it stole from generations of people who benefited and profited from the Negro Leagues.
It must pay reparations, especially as it continues to profit off of the legacy of Negro League legends.
Manley, a woman before her time in many regards, saw the writing on the proverbial wall – or “color barrier”. In the September 21, 1948 edition of the New York Age, she said:
“Baseball is a rich man’s game… Ruppert had his beer, Wrigley had his gum, Abe and I have only each other. I am not worried about myself, but I am concerned about the 400 men and their families who depend on the Negro Leagues.”
It’s time Major League Baseball (finally) addresses her concerns.