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Jackie Robinson looks pensive in this June 30, 1971, file photo while discussing the death of his son, Jackie Jr.
AP file photo
Jackie Robinson looks pensive in this June 30, 1971, file photo while discussing the death of his son, Jackie Jr.

60 years ago, Robinson was first to bat
He broke baseball’s color barrier, changed America

By Mike Fitzpatrick
Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK — Rachel Robinson has vivid memories of April 15, 1947, when her husband changed America forever.

As Jackie Robinson was getting ready to break baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rachel was hustling to get to Ebbets Field in time to see it.

She waited a long time for a taxi because drivers routinely passed up black passengers. She worried their baby, Jackie Jr., would be cold because she had dressed him in spring clothes. And she stopped at a hot dog stand in the ballpark, where a vendor was kind enough to heat up the boy’s bottle.

“It was an exciting, exhilarating time — but it also was a stressful time,” Rachel Robinson said.

Reform is rarely a breeze. Sustaining a legacy can be even more difficult.

As Major League Baseball celebrates the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s landmark achievement Sunday, there are growing concerns about the sport’s racial makeup.

Only 8.4 percent of big league players last season were black — the lowest number in at least two decades. In 1995, 19 percent of major leaguers were black, according to Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.

“Obviously, he would not be satisfied with where we are now,” Rachel Robinson said, referring to the man she still calls Jack. “He would be disappointed, because he felt we were on the way toward some lasting change.”

Has baseball betrayed Jackie Robinson?

“That’s what it seems like to me — that all the work he’s done is almost for nothing,” Minnesota Twins center fielder Torii Hunter said. “Because look where we are. We should be progressing. We’re regressing.”

To be fair, baseball is undeniably diverse in certain areas. More and more players are coming from Asia and especially Latin America. According to Lapchick, 29.4 percent of players last season were Latino and 2.4 percent were Asian. That means 40.5 percent were minorities, just below baseball’s all-time high of 42 percent in 1997.

When evaluating opportunities for minorities in sports, does it matter which minorities?

It does to Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations in the commissioner’s office and an architect of this spring’s inaugural Civil Rights Game. His concern is baseball could reach a point where it’s too late to stem the tide of indifference among black fans.

“Baseball more than any other sport has a heritage that it links with African-Americans and African-American participation,” said Solomon, who is black. “We don’t want to lose that heritage, that linkage.

“But there are economic reasons as well,” he added. “The African-American buying power is significant. To ignore African-American players and fans is really shortsighted from a business standpoint.”

The growing disinterest already has affected Robinson’s legacy, Hunter said.

“Nowadays, if you talk about Jackie Robinson, or Hank Aaron, a lot of black kids don’t even know who he is. That’s pretty sad,” Hunter said. “A lot of parents, they’re my age and they don’t know who they are. So how are they going to teach their kids? Pretty much, it’s at home. A lot of kids don’t even know how important Jackie Robinson is to our history.”

Hall of Famer Joe Morgan said that’s unacceptable.

“If you’re an African-American, you should know what he did,” Morgan said.

Teams and players, including Hunter, are sponsoring projects that provide equipment and teach baseball to inner-city kids.

Robinson’s first major league game came a year before the U.S. Army was integrated and seven years before Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that ended legal segregation in public schools.

The year after that, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man. Soon, Martin Luther King Jr. was leading the civil rights movement.

When Robinson first stepped on the field for the Dodgers, much of America was still segregated. But suddenly, the national pastime was not.

“If I had an opportunity to play with one person, living or dead, it would be Jackie Robinson — just to get an opportunity to hear some of his stories,” New York Yankees star Derek Jeter said.

Robinson’s success paved the way for hundreds of black stars who followed, from Aaron and Willie Mays to Ernie Banks and Bob Gibson.

“Baseball in general became sort of like a symbol that everybody is going to get their turn at bat. If you’re good enough, you’d get your turn,” said Ken Singleton, a three-time All-Star who played in the majors from 1970-84. “He changed the country.”

Indeed, Robinson has come to represent so many things we aspire to: courage, dignity, determination, equality, resolve, perseverance, justice.

Sunday, baseball will commemorate the 60th anniversary of his debut with celebrations at ballparks around the majors. The centerpiece will be a ceremony in Los Angeles before the Dodgers play San Diego, with Robinson’s family in attendance.

Every player on the Dodgers will wear No. 42 in honor of Robinson — a one-time exemption after baseball retired the number on the 50th anniversary of his first game. Elsewhere, many big league stars, including Ken Griffey Jr., will wear No. 42 as well.

Robinson, the 1949 NL MVP and a .311 career hitter, helped Brooklyn win six pennants and a World Series in his 10 seasons. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962.

Robinson died in 1972 at age 53 from heart problems and diabetes.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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