In the summer of 1993, I was 12 years old. In Northwest Little League, I'd made my first All-Star team, as a second baseman. And as it turned out, I was the only black player on that team. I never once thought about Jackie Robinson. I had modern day heroes to look up to—Lou Whitaker, Ozzie Smith and Gary Sheffield. Robinson, as iconic as he had become to so many, was too far removed from my daily baseball reality.
So, 20 years later, with the release of “42,” a major motion picture about Robinson, and Major League Baseball publicly admitting that there are very few African-Americans involved in the game — both on and off the field— I wondered whether Robinson's impact was still felt today? Or has his story become just another baseball fairy tale that happens to involve breaking racial barriers?
The first person I thought to ask was my old coach from that '93 team: John McCarthy. McCarthy, who is known as Coach Mac, was no nonsense. And he taught us that respect for the game and our opponents were paramount to winning. He's since become a legend in D.C.'s youth baseball scene as the founder of Home Run Baseball Camp, but 1993 was his first as a coach looking to make the Little League World Series.
For McCarthy, Robinson's legacy extends far beyond baseball and to an extent, well beyond any playing field. "The impact of Jackie Robinson is to me least felt in professional sports. The impact of Jackie went so deep into our culture and our consciousness," McCarthy said. “You see it in the racial tolerance of 5- and 6-year-olds. You see in the Oval Office. You see it in professors at universities that are inspired by Jackie that create access to high quality universities. . . . Jackie's legacy was so broad brush. Baseball was his instrument. Man, let me tell you, he painted a beautiful mural that many many Americans couldn't even imagine was possible. And of course, now it is."
I went on to play in D.C.'s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner-Cities) program, and still never once thought about Robinson. Baseball was the love of my life and in my family I heard just as many stories about Josh Gibson and Maury Wills as I did about Robinson. And today, I feel his face is used more as a ceremonial pat on the back for MLB, rather than a real opportunity to highlight the many flaws that still affect the system of the game.
Last week, MLB commissioner Bud Selig announced plans to create a task force to help reverse the decline of African-Americans involved in baseball. Because while players of color overall make up a large portion of professional baseball, black Americans, like Robinson, are dwindling in numbers—a fact that Maret School head baseball coach Antoine Williams says is an indication that No. 42's legacy hasn't added up to much in real numbers, for baseball specifically.
"To be honest with you, I don't think [Robinson] has that much impact on young players today,” said Williams, who also founded DC Dynasty baseball academy.
"I think MLB has deeper responsibility,” Williams said. “You can't just say 'we're gonna retire Jackie Robinson's number.’. . . Unfortunately we're still at the point where there need to be policies implemented in order for people to get a fair shake."
But it's not just improving diversity on the field that will be beneficial to the longterm growth for players of color in baseball. Coach Mac, who runs a baseball program in the Dominican Republic and has seen first hand what can happen to players once their baseball careers end, thinks the focus should be shifted to helping players develop as professionals beyond their athletic ability, be it as coaches or in team boardrooms.
"That's the real challenge," McCarthy said. "How do you parlay the experience of playing professional baseball into being a part of professional baseball when you're no longer a player?"
Today, as you watch all of the big leagues don the Cairo, Ga.-native's number as a show of respect, remember that there are still very few like him in the game. Robinson might have broken the color barrier on the field and he most definitely reshaped the way America sees itself as a nation when it comes to sports, but in 2013 his presence is nominal, unfortunately.
I don't need to see any more images of No. 42 or his face across the baseball landscape. I'd like to see more faces of people that look like him in the crowd, on the field and in the executive offices of a league that claims to wants to uphold equality.
When that happens, then, I'll start to think about Jackie Robinson.