The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

April 16, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Jackie Robinson’s impact extends beyond baseball

MORGANTOWN — It is Jackie Robinson Day as I sit here writing this today, and I feel as though I am doing it in a world gone mad.

Every player in Major League Baseball wore No. 42 on Tuesday in honor of Jackie Robinson, the man who took racism’s best shot and integrated the game that was known then as the National Pastime even though it was as white a Ku Klux Klan robe.

There was, however, more than just a pinch of shame that went along with the day baseball choose to honor Robinson, the anniversary of his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, for among all those who wore those No. 42 jerseys, only 7.8 percent were African-American.

The figure comes out in a survey done by USA Today of opening-day rosters and disabled lists.

That converts to just 67 black players, while three teams — the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis Cardinals — had not a single African-American on the opening-day roster.

Think of that for a moment. The Giants were the team Willie Mays once played for. The great Cardinal teams of the 1960s featured Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Curt Flood.

Today, in the major leagues, there are 12 black pitchers and no black catchers.

Where have you gone, Roy Campanella?

This is not to say that what Jackie Robinson accomplished by integrating major league baseball was without meaning.

Indeed, what Robinson did, the torture he withstood, the baseballs thrown at his head and epithets aimed at his heart, made it possible this Monday past for Asya Bussie to be drafted into the WNBA out of West Virginia University.

If, on April 15, 1947, it was a landmark event for Robinson’s name to be written onto the lineup card of the Brooklyn Dodgers, think what it might have been then to have a woman — a black woman like Asya Bussie — to be drafted into a professional sports league.

The doors opened by Robinson were many and, even if they creaked open at first with a trickle of minority talent going into baseball, it soon became a flood of not only African-Americans but Latin Americans and Japanese.

The world of sports was welcoming almost anyone from anywhere, Cuban’s risking their lives to escape the communistic dictatorship of Fidel Castro to come to America to play ball in a league willing to take them on.

I was growing up when Jackie Robinson came along, 5 years old when he debuted, a Little Leaguer just outside New York City when he was at the height of his career, a fan of Willie Mays. Our league was integrated; our team was integrated at a time when the entire South was not.

In fact, it wasn’t until moving to Atlanta in 1966, which was in the midst of the drive for equality, the days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that the point was driven home that Jackie Robinson had only started the revolution.

Being there in Atlanta for Martin Luther King’s assassination and funeral drove home the point of how far that revolution had come and how far it still had to go.

Covering the Atlanta Braves at that time, getting to know Hank Aaron before he was challenging Babe Ruth’s record, you learned what a gentleman he was and, at times, he would let you see inside him and some of the grief he was going through, which was nothing like what he would go through later when he challenged and beat Ruth’s home run record.

But to read this week that he continues to receive vile hate mail to this day makes you understand just a little bit more why Aaron would say to USA Today about those who write him:

“The bigger difference is back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”

Oddly, as we have progressed, baseball has not been able to sustain its position with black athletes. They have migrated, for whatever reason and you will get no theories why offered here, toward football and basketball at the expense of baseball.

In some ways there is justice in that, for even before Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a player named Kenny Washington signed an NFL contract with the Los Angeles Rams. What is long forgotten is that Washington and Robinson played in the same backfield in the UCLA football team in college.

Two members of the same college backfield integrated two major professional sports.

Baseball is looking to bring blacks back into its game, operating inner-city academies to try and reach the urban youth, and while it appears progress is being made, all you have to do is look at the West Virginia University baseball team with one African-American to understand that it just isn’t working.

The fact is, there may not really be an answer. Even if Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh grows into the next Willie Mays, it is unreasonable to cast him as baseball’s Pied Piper leading a strong following of African-Americans back into baseball any more than Tiger Woods was able to spark a similar influx of minority players onto the PGA Tour.

Now, 70 years later, it is time to understand that Jackie Robinson’s contribution was one to the American society as a whole and not to the world of sports. He got America to take a selfie of its own existence and see that things had to change, not just baseball.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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