As African-American’s continue to disappear from MLB rosters, Jackie Robinson Day is a bittersweet moment for black baseball fans growing up in the ‘60, ‘70s and ‘80s, when baseball was littered with black superheroes.
On one hand, it’s important that every year, on April 15 — the anniversary of Robinson's breaking the color barrier in 1947 — the baseball community spends a day reinforcing the importance of his legacy and influence on the game, by celebrating Jackie Robinson Day as a festive occasion at ball parks around the league.
On the other hand, Robinson represents a lost generation in baseball and a forgotten era. Baseball had soul back then. Dudes like Ozzie Smith put on pre-game shows and did back flips to set the game off. Cats like Oscar Gamble introduced baseball fans to the Afro. Jimmy Rollins rocked the braids heavy and won an NL MVP in ‘07.
With the release of the movie 42, interest in Robinson and the dearth of blacks in MLB has been a topic of discussion.
Enter the ultimate opportunist, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, who recently introduced his plans for a 17-member committee tasked with creating ways to increase the pipeline of diverse athletes to baseball, particularly African-Americans.
What a way for Selig to make people forget how he permitted rampant steroid use in baseball as its leader during one of its darkest moments. What’s a better way for Selig to endear himself to fans of all races, than hitching his legacy-train to the iconic Jackie Robinson?
The African-American’s loss has become Selig’s gain. This is a chance for him to leave a more favorable lasting memory of his tenure — one that isn’t defined by monetary-gain. Switching his energies from egg-faced “Steroid Czar” to bringing the black back to the game might just do it.
Selig started down this path in ’97, when baseball began celebrating the legendary accomplishments of Robinson by retiring his number across all of MLB.
I’m not quite ready to add “social activist” to the long-list of Selig superlatives, because Selig most likely sees this as his “ Branch Rickey’ish great experiment” opportunity.
The movie 42 reveals the total mind-set of Branch Rickey and his motivation for shocking the baseball world by bringing Robinson to BK. Rickey saw a financial gold rush in the untapped Negro Leagues talent-pool and fan base. In the film, he tells his integration-reluctant front-office staff that, “Dollars aren’t black and white. They’re green.”
Selig knows his 21-year run as commissioner is reaching its twilight. He’s conscious of the ill effects that the “Steroid Era” will have on his legacy and he’s setting up his chessboard for a glorious retirement.
With baseball’s African-American representation at historic lows of 7.7 percent, Selig can expand baseball’s marketing arm — while flexing some social and historical responsibility — by making player diversity a large-scale MLB agenda.
In the process, the memory of black baseball players such as Robinson who are so vital to American history, will last and resonate with younger generations.
During an interview on a NY radio station on Monday, Selig was clear about his desire to see blacks reintroduced to MLB prominence.
“The African-American has made such tremendous contributions to the game of baseball,” Selig said. “I felt we had to do something to preserve baseball’s rich history. I’m confident (the numbers of blacks in baseball) will turn around.”
Despite the lack of black participation, baseball has thrived under Selig’s marketing abilities, leadership and post-millennium direction. MLB is an internationally popping, revenue-generating monster. The mega-TV deals, high ticket prices, money trap-like theme-park stadiums and the creation of the 24-hour MLB Network, in many ways, is a product of Robinson’s success.
Teams are spending big chips on free-agents and the historically-prestigious Dodgers’ franchise — once on the brink of financial ruin — is back on top thanks, in no small part, to MLB’s first African-American owner Magic Johnson and his business associates.
"Jackie Robinson probably opened the door to a lot of those guys, too -- and me," Johnson said before his team's series opener against the Padres. "If Jackie hadn't played for the Dodgers, I don't think I'd be an owner of the Dodgers."
And Selig wouldn’t have this golden opportunity to stimulate cultural interest in baseball, while also collecting interest for baseball’s money-machine. Like Rickey, Selig sees potential dollar signs in disenfranchised black baseball fans. His goal is to convince the baseball community that he’s a champion for diversity in baseball, and he’s using the legacy of Robinson to ensure he retires on top in ‘14.