Every year Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, the day baseball’s color barrier was finally broken. With every player in the MLB wearing Robinson’s No. 42 jersey, the celebration reminds us all that Robinson’s impact has lasted in sports and society as a whole.
This year, Robinson’s story is in the spotlight more than ever in the eyes on baseball fans all over the world. By the time of the celebration, many fans would have already seen Hollywood’s latest telling of Robinson’s story, 42. The film revisits Robinson breaking the color barrier while having to battle the prejudice during a time of segregation. The movie does not go into the changes that were a result of Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, since this would probably be a five part movie in order to fairly honor Robinson.
Robinson was not considered the greatest player in the Negro Leagues at the time of his signing. In fact, baseball was his worst sport at UCLA when he lettered in baseball, football, track and basketball. In his lone season playing baseball for the Bruins, Robinson only hit .097.
With players such as Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella and Larry Doby in the Negro Leagues, Robinson was not seen as the first player that would crack the color barrier. What Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, wanted the most was a person tough enough to be the first black player in the MLB. After one season in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs, where he hit .387 and stole 13 bases, Rickey met with Robinson and decided he was the right person to deal with huge hardships.
Soon after Robinson made the leap to the Brooklyn Dodgers, baseball saw change. In his first season he won the first ever Rookie of the Year award. Two years later, he became the first black player to win an MVP, in a season where he hit an NL-best .342 with 16 home runs and 37 stolen bases. That same year, Robinson, Campanella, Don Newcombe and Doby became the first black All-Stars.
After Robinson broke the color barrier, a wave of black stars were introduced to baseball. The next decade saw a rush of future Hall of Fame players and each year more and more black stars were celebrated in baseball. Now, baseball finds itself at a crossroads with black players.
This season, only around 8.5 percent of players on opening day rosters are black. That is about half of the number from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. Last Wednesday MLB Commissioner Bud Selig announced he has compiled a committee to study how to increase diversity in baseball, with black players at its focus.
MLB runs the Reviving Baseball at Inner Cities (RBI) program, which has graduated stars like C.C. Sabathia. The avenues are there, but baseball is trying to do more to increase results like Sabathia’s.
The number of black players on an MLB roster has faltered, but the stars are there. Without Robinson, baseball fans would not be currently enjoying the talents of Derek Jeter, Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen, David Price and many other black stars. The entire Atlanta Braves outfield consists of three young black stars — Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton — who have helped the Braves look like title contenders to start the season.
In a world where a black man can win two terms as our president, and black players form less than 10 percent of MLB rosters, Robinson’s heroics changed the face of the country even more than just the sport he excelled in. Our nation still has changes that need to be made dealing with racial and cultural differences, but Robinson’s courage helped propel the civil rights movement and put our nation in the right direction. Baseball is America’s past-time and Robinson’s lasting image is one that will always represent both baseball and America