The Los Angeles Dodgers are back in the World Series for the first time in 29 years. Their return to the series coincides with a celebration of one of their most famous players: Jackie Robinson.
This year marks 70 years since Robinson became the first African American to play in baseball’s championship series, commemorated by his family throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before Tuesday’s Game 1. In 1947, Robinson did more than simply integrate baseball: His presence on the Dodgers and on the national stage at the World Series belied prejudices and stereotypes about African Americans, most notably that they could not play at a major-league level. Robinson’s skilled play made clear that the barrier to black participation in baseball wasn’t a lack of talent — it was a surplus of discrimination. Like athletes today, he used his platform as a sports star to call attention to the systematic discrimination inside baseball and within society more broadly.
For Robinson, integration on the field was not enough. Real progress demanded changes in management as well. Twenty-five years after Robinson first played in the series, Major League Baseball honored him before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series. Robinson threw out the ceremonial first pitch and told the crowd, “I’m extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”
Robinson was using the platform provided by the World Series to challenge a persistent, but often ignored, prejudice in baseball. By 1972, the number of successful African American athletes had eliminated some, but not all, stereotypes about African Americans in sports. Studies on player positions suggest that African Americans still continue to be pushed away from positions that are seen as requiring high intelligence, such as pitcher and catcher, and toward positions requiring more athleticism, such as the outfield. But even as stereotypes about black players began to change, stereotypes about African Americans as leaders within sports and broader society remained prevalent.
Robinson’s activism went beyond the field as well. In echoes of what happened this summer in Las Vegas to Seattle Seahawks player Michael Bennett, one of the most outspoken modern athletes fighting injustice, in the 1960s a police officer pulled a gun on Robinson for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The officer released Robinson when bystanders told him who Robinson was. Recalling that event in his autobiography, Robinson wrote, “It shouldn’t be necessary to be named Jackie Robinson to keep from getting brutalized.” And, when it came to the national anthem, he shared Bennett’s sensibilities, even while silently standing for the anthem, writing that he “cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
As with many contemporary athletes who use their privileged position to speak out against injustice, sports fans also told Robinson to “stick to sports.” About those fans, Robinson wrote: “One day, twenty years ago, they liked the way I stole home or admired my capacity to be insulted or injured and turn and walk away. For that admiration they have given me, I am supposed henceforth and forevermore to surrender my soul. I am not allowed an opinion.”
From the view of 2017, it may seem like little has changed. Unfortunately, Robinson’s exhortations have not produced long-lasting results. The percentage of African Americans in the majors has slipped from a high of 18.7 percent in 1981 to only 6.7 percent this year — the same percentage as in 1956, Robinson’s last year as a player.
And baseball’s managers do not even reflect the degree of racial and ethnic diversity among its players. Out of approximately 700 managers in major league history, fewer than 20 have been Latino and fewer than 15 have been African American.
Today’s Dodgers are managed by Dave Roberts, the son of a Japanese woman and an African American man. Yet, Roberts is only the second manager of Asian descent and the only African American manager left in the game after the Washington Nationals fired Dusty Baker last week despite significant success. Additionally, there are only two Latino managers in baseball, Mexican American Rick Renteria of the Chicago White Sox and the recently hired Alex Cora of the Boston Red Sox. Two managerial openings have seen white men replace other white men, while two other openings remain.
Even though progress has been slow, Robinson’s career and efforts to integrate all ranks of sports should still serve as a model for contemporary athletes who protest inequality and injustice. Sports are a powerful, national symbol, enjoyed by broad swaths of Americans. Diverse representation in all ranks of sports can challenge stereotypes and prejudices that remain part of our society today — imagine the symbolic power of not only greater racial diversity among baseball’s on-field leaders, but also the hiring of the first female or openly LGBT general manager or manager.
As Robinson’s life shows, athletes do not have to abandon their broader protests to also speak out for equality in sports — and, in fact, focusing on integrating their sports all the way from the field to the top offices just might achieve some of their societal goals as well.