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Happy Jackie Robinson Day: 70 Years of Progress, Setbacks, and Possibilities (By Zachary Draves)

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." That is what Jackie Robinson did 70 years ago and that quest for justice still carries on. Almost everyone, baseball fans or not, know that on April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson stepped onto to field at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn for the Brooklyn Dodgers becoming the first African American to play major league baseball. Since then African American players such as Larry Doby, Elston Howard, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Willie Stargel, Reggie Jackson, and, my personal hero, Hank Aaron, among countless others carried the torch that Jackie first lit and changed the game for the better. We have historically referred to baseball as America's past time which consequently set the tone for progress seven years before Brown V. Board of Education which declared segregated schools unconstitutional, seventeen years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, eighteen years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and sixty one years before the election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States. While the accomplishments and heroism of Jackie and all the other great black players has and should be recognized there is a staggering lack of African American participation in baseball at all levels of play and in managerial and front office roles. How can this be?

According to USA Today sports study African Americans make up just 7.1% of players of this year’s opening-day rosters, the lowest percentage since 1958. Furthermore, out of the 868 active players on active rosters and the disabled list only 62 are African American while the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies have absolutely no African American players. This is unacceptable. Also in many communities across the country, schools and youth programs have cut and/or not put money into baseball programs. From a cultural standpoint, baseball has become obsolete compared to basketball and football which have a large African American pool of players and fan base. Part of that has to do with the fusion of African American culture and sports like basketball and football that many African Americans could identify with in the way that is not represented in baseball. The next question is, what can be done about it?

There is no silver lining to solving this particular issue and we would be naïve to think that just encouraging participation in baseball is enough. We have to put more money into communities that have historically been marginalized and forgotten. That means eradicating poverty, more job opportunities, more funding for education, youth athletic programs, mentorship programs, after school programs, and many of the other programs that Donald Trump wants to wipe away with. Money that can be used to rebuild parks and baseball fields and be used on uniforms and equipment that is more expensive than basketball and football. It has to be a continuation of Dr. King's Poor People's Campaign. We have to discuss the history of African Americans in baseball and tell the stories of Jackie and the others and put into context of what their significance was on and off the field and encourage the new generation to do the same. We have to hire more African American coaches, managers, and front office staff who can call the shots. This goes for every sport. We also have to look at the good news that there are players such as Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Jayson Heyward of the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs, and managers such as Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Washington Nationals and a growing number of African Americans entering the major leagues, but there is much more that needs to be done.

There has to be a change on the micro, mezzo, and macro level. We as social workers have a fundamental responsibility to improve the lives and conditions our clients. For those of us who are social workers who work with athletes, it is no different. In the words of Fredrick Douglas "without struggle there is no progress."


Zachary Draves

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