Every year in mid-April, Major League Baseball declares Jackie Robinson Day, recognizing the moment in 1947 that Jackie Robinson made his major league debut. Robinson would go on to be named rookie of the year, a nearly unbelievable achievement given that he was the only black player in the league when he took the field as the first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He would win the league MVP in 1949 and be part of six World Series champion teams during his career.
MLB players from all teams will wear Robinson's jersey, with the number 42, on April 15, 2022 when they take the field as part of MLB's recognition. As I've written before, "The image of solidarity, while a nice gesture, glosses over the grit and courage that Robinson had to muster to persevere." During his career, and lifetime, he certainly didn't witness the solidarity that the MLB narrative portrays during this commemoration.
Jackie is often reported to be the first black player to "break the color barrier", a nice narrative, to coincide with MLB's celebration, yet it's not true. William Edward White played a single game for the Providence Grays in 1879. Moses Fleetwood Walker played an entire season for the Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. His brother, Weldy Walker, also appeared in games for Toledo that year. It would be a staggering 63 more years before another black player took the field after Moses, a young Jackie Robinson. Sadly, it would be more accurate to say that Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball yet again.
Robinson remained a champion for inclusion throughout his short life, including his last public appearance, at game two of the 1972 World Series, giving voice to his observation that there were no black managers in the majors. Even today there are only two black managers among the 30 MLB franchises: the Houston Astros' Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Everybody has written about it, but they haven’t done a damn thing about it,” - Astros manager Dusty Baker says about the lack of black managers in major league baseball.
The first black manager was also named Robinson — Frank Robinson. Frank, a former National League player of the year, made his MLB debut in 1956 for the Cincinnati Reds. In 1975 he was named the manager for the Cleveland Indians, while still a player. (He hit a home run in his managerial debut against the New York Yankees)
Some estimates claim that black players now account for less than 7% of MLB rosters down from a high of almost 19% in 1981. This year the Philadelphia Phillies, home to a city that is 40% black, didn't have a single black player on its opening day roster, something that hasn't happened since 1959.
On Jackie Robinson day let's take the time to both celebrate Robinson's great achievements on the field, his unwavering support for equality off the field, and let's also hold MLB accountable to be more representative of the world we live in. On Jackie Robinson’s day, indeed on every day, we should work to remove any racial disparity in sports, politics, and business.
The Negro League was founded over 100 years ago, in 1920. Sadly the league kept no stats on the players. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, founded by baseball historian Larry Lester, has been doing tremendous work to document and correct this absence, combing through historical newspapers to capture boxscores and record the achievements of players. It's worth checking out both the museum site and Larry's personal site for more insight into black baseball players.