Before the Civil Rights Game and on Jackie Robinson Day at Dodger Stadium last Wednesday, I had the chance to interview Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly in the team’s dugout. We talked about what it meant to wear Robinson's number 42 for the game, and what he admired most about the icon and hero. I was also interested in Mattingly's opinion on what Jackie Robinson would think about baseball in 2015. He told me that he though Robinson might be a little disappointed with the lack of African Americans playing the game and with kids, generally, showing a declining interest in baseball.
The conversation about the decline of African Americans playing baseball today was also brought up during the press conference before the Civil Rights Game. The new baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, spoke about how MLB has been working hard to improve the opportunities for inner city kids to develop and play the game. He added that people like Frank Robinson have been involved with organizations like Urban Youth Academy and RBI that support the effort to get more kids involved as players and fans. He also stated that the Baseball Tomorrow Fund has contributed over ten million dollars by building youth fields. (The Commissioner spoke with Kid Reporter Amiri Tulloch about his plans to grow baseball with kids.)
MLB has major competition in attracting all kids to its game today. Opportunities for equipment and playing on fields are a factor, but it's still easier as a kid to find a basketball, soccer, or a touch football game to play than a baseball game, even in gym class.
Another factor is that many kids who like to play competitive sports are told by adults to play one sport and to play it year round. They are pressured to pick and choose a sport usually in elementary school. I play both basketball and baseball and people ask me all the time, “Which sport do you like best?” Somehow people think if I play basketball I am not serious about baseball and if I play baseball I am not serious about basketball. They say, “You can’t play both when you get to high school. You have to pick one.” This attitude is all over the place even though many great ballplayers — like Jackie Robinson, who was also a fantastic basketball player — excelled in other sports. And when kids like me are forced to chose one sport to focus on, there are a lot of other sports to choose from that are easier to play than baseball.
Clearly, MLB has a lot of work to do to get kids back into baseball. What the league is doing in inner cities is a great start, but it needs to look changing the one-sport pressure adults put on kids, too.
Even so, I think that Major League Baseball should be commended for brining national attention to the struggle for civil rights and Jackie Robinson every year. What other professional sports organization is dedicated to preserving our nations past as much as Major League Baseball?
African Americans maybe declining in America’s ballparks, but as I looked around Dodger Stadium, I saw an ethnically diverse group of fans enjoying our national pastime, all happy and proud to be celebrating number 42. And Jackie Robinson’s example is a good one to follow to begin to rebuild baseball with America’s kids.