We should remember Jackie Robinson not just for his starring role in the integration of American professional sports but for all that came after: the outspokenness against racism and injustice that lasted long after he notched his last hit for the Brooklyn Dodgers. In writing hundreds of op-ed pieces in newspapers, raising money for the NAACP and joining Martin Luther King Jr. on the frontlines of the Civil Rights movement, Robinson proved that the fight for equality is an unyielding one.
In that spirit, Major League Baseball has kept up its efforts to ensure the sport that made Robinson an icon is one reflective of his base belief in the importance of opportunity for all.
Sunday is Jackie Robinson Day — the 71st anniversary of Robinson’s Dodgers debut — and it’s a time for more than just emblazoning every uniform with the No. 42. It’s a time, also, for noting that Jackie’s game is becoming a more diverse one, thanks in part to the grassroots efforts that have been made to ensure the legacy of this true trailblazer was not for naught.
The number of black players is growing. The number of women in front office or on-field roles is growing. And so the sense that our national pastime rightly reflects the country in which it resides is improving.
“We’re talking about creating a lifelong legacy of baseball within the broadest community possible,” said Renée Tirado, MLB’s chief diversity & inclusion officer. “For the purposes of our business and to maintain our legacy and longevity and to make sure we continue to honor Jackie Robinson, we have to make sure this is a core value.”
On Opening Day this year, 41 percent of players on active Major League rosters came from a diverse background (black, Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander), and the specific percentage of black players on active rosters has risen. It was 8.4 percent on Opening Day, representing the highest percentage in the last six years (and that figure did not include injured players who would ordinarily have been included, like the A’s Jharel Cotton or the Indians’ Michael Brantley). Notably, 70 percent of these players are aged 30 or younger, a 5 percent increase since 2015.
Earlier this century, as the percentage of African-American players fell precipitously from a peak of 18.7 in 1981 (per the research of Mark Armour from the Society for American Baseball Research), the baseball industry had to take a hard look at the system that develops players and, specifically, the financial costs of realistically rising through the amateur levels. The percentages tell us there’s still a long way to go, but MLB’s youth engagement efforts appear to be bearing fruit.
“We often refer to the historical peak,” Tirado said, “and, while that’s true, we’re talking about the 1970s [and early 1980s] when there were only three networks and it was a pre-gaming society and pre-soccer being integrated, etc. The landscape has become so much more competitive. So it’s really apples to oranges. I think we’re actually headed in the right direction with the numbers uptick. We’re seeing the fruits of labor with our youth programs and the numbers of events and programs around the country.”
To the long-standing Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, MLB, in recent years, has added the Play Ball initiative (an interactive map is available where parents can find leagues for their kids to join), MLB Youth Academies (the Kansas City academy that opened on March 29 is the eighth such facility in the U.S. to offer cost-free, year-round baseball and softball training) and the diversity-focused development camps, such as the Dream Series, the Baseball Breakthrough Series for both boys and girls, the Softball Breakthrough Series and the Elite Development Invitational.
Over the last six years (2012-17), the first round of the MLB Draft has featured 41 African-American players out of 204 total selections, or 20.1 percent. Last year marked just the fourth time in the history of the Draft in which the first two picks were African-American players (Royce Lewis and Hunter Greene), and Greene became the third RBI program alumnus selected within the first five picks in the last three years.
The races and ethnicities represented in clubhouses make MLB unrecognizable from the league Robinson entered in 1947. But the diversity gains are notable in areas beyond what we see in the lineups and are not limited to men.
Since the start of MLB’s Diversity Pipeline Program in 2016, 51 women have been hired full-time in baseball operations departments. That’s 38 percent of the total of women working in baseball operations. Ten women now occupy full-time analytics/research and development roles with clubs, and seven of those women have been hired in the last two years. Additionally, there are now 24 women (16 of whom were hired in the last two years) working in on-field roles at the Major League level, including 12 in athletic trainer roles.
“Kudos to the Commissioner [Rob Manfred] and our owners who stand behind this 200 percent and know that it’s overdue and have made the investment very, very deliberately to make sure we’re engaging women in our sport,” Tirado said. “Based on all my conversations with all of our organizations — owners, managers, GMs — no one is averse to women in the game. No one’s going to say no to you by virtue of your gender. These are fathers to daughters, and they want their daughters to feel comfortable in this sport. We’re lucky to have senior leadership committed to this and to making it work.”
Why is all of the above important? Because baseball is at its best and most durable when its talent pool is reflective of the country at large, when young athletes of all colors and genders and socioeconomic backgrounds can identify with it and don’t feel it has impenetrable barriers for entry.
After his playing days, Jackie Robinson did not rest on his laurels as the man who integrated the game, and MLB has not rested on its laurels as the game that gave us Jackie Robinson. The fight for equality in opportunity lives on.