It has been 70 years since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but the sport still has an alarming lack of African-American ballplayers.
As we celebrate Jackie Robinson Day across Major League Baseball, we caught up with Adam Jones, Addison Russell, CC Sabathia, Chris Archer, Curtis Granderson and Dexter Fowler for a conversation about No. 42’s legacy and how baseball can reach out to a new generation of fans and athletes.
What does Jackie Robinson Day mean to you?
Jones: It’s a celebration of a man that was ahead of his time and at the forefront for what he believed in. Obviously, Jackie Robinson is not the only one in the conversation. Some guys didn’t get as much notice, like Larry Doby and Curt Flood. I always try to — on great days like that and every day, especially being an African-American — just understand what he’s been through and try and treat baseball as the treat it really is. It’s not something that everybody can do. I take full passion and full responsibility to maintain that in my platform. Mr. Robinson had a great platform. He used it for positivity. And that’s what I’m trying to do to promote baseball and pass it along to generation after generation.
Granderson: I remember looking forward to it, hoping I would get a chance to wear No. 42, and now I’ve gotten a chance to do it for quite some time. It’s about looking out on the field and seeing people remembering what he’s done and representing his legacy just by going out there and playing the game hard and having a lot of fun. It’s playing before a diverse group of fans and people around the world who are just enjoying the game — including diverse teammates who are playing the game. It’s been absolutely amazing, and it’s all because of what Jackie Robinson did.
Russell: He’s the benchmark for all African-Americans. He’s definitely a very vital piece of history when it comes to the game of baseball.
“He took America’s pastime, and he made it a world pastime.”
Chris Archer on Jackie Robinson’s impact.
Archer: It means everything to me. He is the trailblazer of not only black American players, but of all players of any color of any race outside of Caucasian. My standard quote, regarding Jackson Robinson, is, “He took America’s pastime, and he made it to a world pastime.” You look how the fans from Japan and Asia were during the WBC. You look at how passionate the Puerto Rican fans were. You look how passionate the Dominican fans were. Jackie Robinson started all of that.
Sabathia: It is exciting. It is fun to be a part of it in the big leagues. Obviously, he paved the way for guys like me to be able to play the game. It is exciting to honor him and wear his number.
How could baseball make Jackie Robinson Day better?
Russell: They do a pretty good job of honoring him. I would say there could be a little more media coverage of Jackie Robinson to get the word out there. Kids have a dream and they look to someone they can relate to. Jackie Robinson can be that person.
“Kids have a dream, and they look to someone they can relate to. Jackie Robinson can be that person.”
Granderson: You can bring diverse groups of kids to the game to continue to show that legacy. Case in point: I remember back when the movie “42” came out, we took some kids in Brooklyn from Jackie Robinson High School to go see the movie. It was really cool. After the movie finished, this diverse group of kids all clapped and applauded. They enjoyed the movie, which was great. But I remember mutual friends of mine knew a parent of one of the kids, and the kid went home afterward and said, “Mom, I didn’t realize that’s what the N-word means.”
So you have high school kids at this time who are starting to lose touch with what has happened, or the reason for the meaning of certain things, both good and bad. Obviously, the dedicated baseball fans that are season-ticket holders know about Jackie and will never forget. But the new generation needs to continue to expand. We need to continue to bring them to the games to learn the game and its history, and remember things that have happened.
Fowler: It’s an honor to everyone to be part of and wearing No. 42 is an honor to everyone, so I think they’re doing a good job with it. Throwback jerseys would be sick. They could require everybody to wear their pants up.
Is baseball being hypocritical celebrating Jackie Robinson Day despite its issues relating to today’s black community?
Archer: At the end of the day, whether you play baseball or not is a choice. Nobody is necessarily at fault. It is a choice. That is like saying, “Since there is still racism in the world, why do we have Martin Luther King Day?” Or “Just because everybody doesn’t believe in Thanksgiving, why do we celebrate Thanksgiving? Or the actual history behind it, why do we celebrate that?” It is just one of those things that is done for the right reasons.
“Baseball dwindling across the board to all races and ethnicities — from Little League to high school — is affecting everybody. How are we pushing it out there to kids, which includes kids of color? There definitely could be more done.”
Granderson: I think “hypocrisy” would be a strong word to use. That would mean we’re talking about Jackie Robinson and his legacy of breaking the color barrier [on one day] and then we never talk about it. That’s not necessarily the case. But I think there are more things that could be done.
Baseball dwindling across the board to all races and ethnicities — from Little League to high school — is affecting everybody. How are we pushing it out there to kids, which includes kids of color? There definitely could be more done.
I can’t help but see things like the “Play 60” campaign in the NFL where you have football players matched up with kids. That could be because it’s the winter, football is live and I’m seeing it. I’ve seen similar campaigns on the basketball front — star players with the kids, whether it’s at-risk kids, unhealthy kids or just great kids. I don’t feel like I see that as much on the baseball side of things.
How can baseball do a better job of reaching out to African-American youth?
Archer: One of the biggest things is to challenge the NCAA to … extend more scholarships into baseball. Maybe you have to take away six or seven scholarships from the football team. I know that that is the moneymaker, but there are 11.7 scholarships for 35 on an NCAA baseball team. That is not going to cut it. If there are kids that are athletically gifted, they are going to push them toward track. They are going to push them toward basketball. They are going to push them toward football.
“I think just getting them involved, passing down some resources. It’s an expensive game, and just getting funding is always tough. You look back, and a lot of African-American teams don’t have the funding. That’s a tough thing to overcome.”
Sabathia: Scholarships are a big thing. In the inner city, you know baseball is a big sport. Baseball is a sport where a father figure needs to teach you how to play the game. I think we are losing that a little bit in the African-American community with kids and a male figure in their life teaching them how to play different games. Baseball is one of those games.
Russell: Get kids to games. The first tourney I went to in California was for kids in urban areas. It would be very beneficial.
Granderson: Bringing them out is definitely big. Using the African-American players that you have. Spotlighting them and showing them. As a kid, I remember watching people that I thought looked like me or I looked like, who did things I thought I did, and those were the people I wanted to be. And some of those athletes were black. If you want to impact African-American kids, highlight African-American role models and players and people who are doing great.
Fowler: I think just getting them involved, passing down some resources. It’s an expensive game, and just getting funding is always tough. You look back, and a lot of African-American teams don’t have the funding. That’s a tough thing to overcome.
What is your most important role in promoting the sport to African-American youth?
Russell: I’m sponsoring an RBI team this year. I’ll be able to impact some of these people’s lives and spread the truth.
Knowledge is important. If they have the right person there to explain what’s going on and what steps you have to take. Being a minority, I think I can relate to children in that sense.
Sabathia: Putting out more ads. I think if you look at the NBA, their big sponsors — the Kias, the State Farms — all the players are in their ads. Baseball could do a better job of putting some of their better players, their Mike Trouts, Bryce Harpers — maybe not Bryce Harper because he is in a lot of ads — Kris Bryant in some of these national spots.
Granderson: The big thing I want to do is make sure it’s available. There are fields all over the U.S. But whether it’s pickup games or the actual organized games, it’s become a little difficult getting kids to sign up.
In my hometown, in a suburb of Chicago, there were maybe 180 kids who played [youth] baseball between the ages of 6 and 18. You go back three years ago, and we had 33 kids sign up. A lot has changed.
The population of the community has gone up. The number of kids in school has gone up, so there are kids. They’re just not playing. Why aren’t they playing? I’ve asked around to see if it’s a financial thing, and they say no. The cost isn’t an issue. We’ve done a lot of different things with camps, going to schools and talking to them, handing out flyers and continuing to promote around. This year it looks like we’ll be at 90 kids signed up. There’s been a lot of effort from coaches and volunteers who want to help. That’s part of my role. I’m helping the community that helped me get to where I am.
That’s the role of people in general, not just people of color. You’re a product of your environment. As major league baseball players, we’re in a really good environment. Let’s not forget how we got there or those people behind us.
“You’re a product of your environment. As major league baseball players, we’re in a really good environment. Let’s not forget how we got there or those people behind us.”
Jones: Being genuine.
Fowler: Being a good example. I think it’s important for me to use my pedestal as a stepping stone for the people who look up to me. That means just playing the game right, having some fun, playing with some swag.