Monday, April 16, 2012

Jackie Robinson: From the NLB to the MLB

As Major League Baseball remembered Jackie Robinson Sunday on the 65th anniversary of the day he broke baseball’s color barrier. As  players, managers, coaches and umpires all wore No. 42…. I wondered if they all really knew and understood the significance and history of where that moment began or were they just doing what was required of them from the league. That prompted me to dig through some boxes and find a program and book I had gotten when I visited the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City Missouri…..and I decided to provide you all with some history on how Jackie Robinson found his way from the Negro Leagues to the MLB.

Black history in the MLB has been filled with many successes and a struggle for equity. The resistant wall of the 19th century separated the races in virtually all areas of American society, but there have been a number of rather remarkable parallels in the maturation of baseball for both races.

African-Americans began to play baseball in the late 1800s on military teams, college teams, and company teams. They eventually found their way to professional teams with white players. Moses Walker and Bud Fowler were among the first to participate. However, racism and Jim Crow laws would force them from these teams by 1900. Major league baseball came close to integration in 1902, when legendary Baltimore Oriole manager John J. McGraw signed Charlie Grant. Grant had a light complexion, straight hair, and high cheekbones, but he was banned from the major leagues before the start of the season when Charlie Comiskey, Chicago White Sox owner, discovered that Grant was black.  Denied the chance to play major league baseball, African-American players set out to form their own teams and traveled around the country to play anyone who would challenge them.

In 1920, an organized league structure was formed under the guidance of Andrew “Rube” Foster. Foster and a few other Midwestern team owners joined to form the Negro National League. Soon, rival leagues formed in Eastern and Southern states, bringing the thrills and innovative play of black baseball to urban cities and rural country sides in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America. The Leagues displayed a high level of professional skill and became the backdrop for economic progress and growth in many black communities. With word spreading about all the talent in the Negro Leagues…the white teams came a knocking.

In 1945, Major League Baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers recruited Jackie Robinson from the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson became the first African-American in the modern era to play on a Major League roster.

Many great teams played in the Negro Leagues, with perhaps the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and Kansas City Monarchs being the most remembered. Many superstars graced the playing field. James "Cool Papa" Bell, Josh Gibson, and Leroy "Satchel” Paige, to mention a few. Other former Negro League players who went on to star in the major leagues include Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Junior Gilliam, Don Newcombe, and Joe Black.

While this historic event was a key moment in baseball and civil rights history, it prompted the decline of the Negro Leagues. The promotion of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers not only opened the doors for other African-American players, it also signaled the end of the Negro Leagues. The best black players were now being recruited for the Major Leagues, and black fans followed.

The last Negro Leagues teams folded in the early 1960s, but their legacy lives on through the surviving players and the Negro League Baseball Museum.

It's save to say that African Americans have made several leaps and bounds over the years. Coming from days of picking coton in the fields to the days of living in the White House.  From days were blacks could not play on the same team as whites to “Jackie Robinson Day” in the MLB.

SIDE NOTE: With all of the rich Black history past and recent, there is a growing shortage of African-Americans in the MLB. Ten teams opened the year with no more than one African American on their roster, and 25% of African Americans in the game are clustered on three teams — the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers The African-American population in baseball this season has plummeted to 8.05%, less than half the 17.25% in 1959 when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate their roster, 12 years after Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.It's a dramatic decline from 1975, when 27% of rosters were African-American. In 1995, the percentage was 19%.

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