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updated: 4/15/2014 8:45 PM

This issue not as simple as black and white

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  • The Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson poses in this 1952 file photo. It was Jackie Robinson Day on Tuesday in the major leagues, the 67th anniversary marking the end of the game's racial barrier.

      The Brooklyn Dodgers' Jackie Robinson poses in this 1952 file photo. It was Jackie Robinson Day on Tuesday in the major leagues, the 67th anniversary marking the end of the game's racial barrier.

 
 

The customary grumbling accompanied April 15 on Tuesday.

First, on tax day, the complaint always is that the IRS is stealing our money. Second, on the anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut, the complaint is that Major League Baseball doesn't have enough black players.

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All major leaguers wear No. 42 to commemorate the anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier. Ironically, only about 8 percent of those players are black this season.

MLB can be blamed for a lot that is going on in the game these days.

Like, who could mess up a replay-review system worse than baseball has? Isn't it finally time for the American League to ditch the designated hitter and get back to real baseball? Hasn't the allure of interleague play worn off?

Perhaps the most compelling question is whether the major leagues are responsible for the lack of blacks on the field.

Maybe at one time MLB could be accused of this. Certainly Robinson's breakthrough wasn't as smooth as it could have been. Afterward franchises such as the Yankees and Red Sox resisted change as long as they could. Then some teams had a quota for the number of blacks on their rosters.

Yet eventually all clubs saw the value of the black player and representation grew to larger than it was in the general population.

So what happened since then? Did MLB become uncomfortable with the number of black players? Or did it become too comfortable and fail to sustain interest in the black community?

I'm inclined toward the answers simply being that the landscape of sports changed in the United States.

The NFL and NBA grew, challenged baseball and became more attractive to athletes of all colors, especially blacks, than they had been.

Football and basketball are more action-packed than baseball is and became more fun to some than standing around waiting for the ball to be hit to them.

More kids are needed to play a baseball game than a basketball game … Fewer college scholarships are available on a baseball team than a football team … Playing football in front of 50,000 college fans or basketball in front of 15,000 fans is more glamorous than playing baseball in front of 5,000 minor league fans.

Combine all these factors, plus a few others, and baseball has become more of a suburban game while football and basketball have become more urban games.

A couple of years ago on "No. 42 Day," I asked a black Hall of Famer this question: If you were growing up today, might you play football instead of baseball?"

He couldn't say for sure one way or the other.

Yes, he might still play baseball. But Willie Mays might play running back at Alabama and Hank Aaron point guard at Duke.

Baseball can't be blamed for the rise of the NFL and NBA or for other shifts in the culture and demographics of sports.

The major leagues are doing just fine, as indicated by an attendance record just being set for a weekend this early in April.

Black athletes are doing just fine, too, achieving fame and fortune in basketball and football and also in baseball if they prefer.

Ironically, the makeup of MLB rosters is as diverse today as ever with the inclusion of more Asians, Latin Americans and others.

Still, baseball would be better with more blacks jumping back into the talent pool and into seats at the ballpark.

Franchise owners -- the White Sox' Jerry Reinsdorf foremost among them -- are trying whatever programs they can think of to get blacks to take up baseball instead of other sports.

The challenge is formidable. Football and basketball provide strong competition to baseball.

Until MLB owners discover a solution they'll continue to grumble as much as taxpayers do on April 15.

mimrem@dailyherald.com

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