- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

Apparently, no one can tell the Jackie Robinson story this week without mentioning the drop in participation of black ballplayers in the major leagues from a high of 27 percent in 1975 to 8 percent today.

Baseball yesterday celebrated the 60th anniversary of the day Robinson broke the color barrier when he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In one small, cruel irony, though, April 15, 1947, perhaps also marked the beginning of the end of baseball as a passion in the black community.

There has been much speculation about the reasons for the lack of interest in baseball among blacks: the growth of football and particularly basketball over this time; the speed of the game in an MTV/BET society; the difficulty in finding facilities, equipment and coaches in urban areas. All of those likely contributed to the drop in black participation in the game.

Strangely, an institution that has long since disappeared from the American scene is another component in that decline. That institution is, in fact, the very thing Jackie Robinson killed: the Negro Leagues.

Blacks were barred from Major League Baseball and so were forced to create their own version of the national pastime. They did so with style and greatness. They didn’t let the hatred that kept them out of the major leagues take away their love for the game itself.

The Negro Leagues were a big part of black identity. In Baltimore, Philadelphia, Memphis and countless other cities and towns, the Negro League club was one of the biggest institutions in the black community. Negro League competition existed in small towns and big cities everywhere and at all sorts of levels.

Sometimes the game was haphazard and unpredictable, with teams folding and leaving town. At other times, Negro League baseball was as big as the major league game itself.

The Negro League All-Star Game, otherwise known as the East-West Game, sometimes would attract as many as 50,000 fans and outdraw the major league contest. (In 1946, they had two East-West Games, one of which was held here at Griffith Stadium.)

In the District, the Homestead Grays became a fixture in the black community. The celebrated team was born in Homestead, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh. The Grays came to Washington in 1937 to split their home games between the District and Homestead. In 1943, led by the great Josh Gibson, the Grays reportedly drew nearly 230,000 fans to Griffith Stadium for 26 home dates.

Baseball was important to the black community in large part because of the Negro Leagues, and that tradition remains important here. The history of the Grays will be prominently noted in the District’s new ballpark, according to Washington Nationals president Stan Kasten.

The generation of players that followed Robinson, who played one year of Negro League baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945, helped raise the percentage of blacks in the major leagues to its high point.

Hank Aaron grew up in Mobile, Ala., and played on the Mobile Black Bears, a local Negro League team, when he was 17. He later played for the Indianapolis Clowns. Willie Mays’ father, Roy, played for the Birmingham Black Barons in the 1930s, and later so would Willie. As late as 1958, Willie McCovey played for the Black Barons, though by then, 11 years after Jackie Robinson made his debut in the majors, the Negro Leagues were watered down.

The players of the generation that followed — the likes of Jim Rice and Dave Parker — were born to men and women who had been raised on Negro League baseball, so the game was very much a part of their lives and traditions. And mentors like Negro League pitching great Chet Brewer were there to influence kids like Eddie Murray and Reggie Smith in Los Angeles.

No one is suggesting here that baseball is worse off without the Negro Leagues. They were born of racism. Those Negro League players created a world rich in history and tradition, but it would have been much better if blacks were included in the major leagues from the start.

Maybe then their roots in the game would have been deep enough to better withstand the other outside forces that have made baseball matter less among blacks.

Yesterday was a day to celebrate, of course. Jackie Robinson is on every short list of important American figures of the 20th century.

But baseball today is struggling to find ways to fight a color line of indifference.

The accomplishment of Jackie Robinson serves as a reminder that the game would be stronger if there never had been a color line for Robinson to break in the first place.

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