The film 42 has won acclaim from all quarters. Blacks and whites both have flocked to the biopic on Jackie Robinson, filling theaters across the U.S. for this mostly spot-on account of an era in America history where bigotry began to fall, dismantled because of the courage of a Black man: No. 42.
At the epicenter of that socio-political upheaval was baseball, America’s pastime. It was an era that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig remembers well. Selig has often talked about what Robinson meant to him and to baseball. Selig’s memory of the era and the decades after it are dipped in nostalgia because the late 1940s and ’50s were times when baseball was a Black and white story.
But nostalgia is a weak branch to hang the present on, and as much as Selig might wax poetic about baseball’s yesteryear, he can’t say much good about its present. He can find nothing remarkable about the color of the game he has lorded over for two decades.
Under Selig’s watch, baseball has lost whatever appeal it held among Black fans. Since the mid-1990s, the percentage of Blacks in baseball has dropped from slightly more than 19 percent to, according to USA Today, 7.7 percent on opening day this season. Four teams began 2013 with not a single Black player on their 25-man roster.
As dismal as those numbers are, they don’t speak to how inner-city boys view the game. They have abandoned baseball wholesale, migrating to sports that allow for the creativity that baseball doesn’t.
On more than one occasion, Selig has voiced his disappointment that Blacks have lost interest in the sport. To address this decades-long abandonment, he announced last week that he was assembling a 17-person committee to explore how Major League Baseball can bring Black youth back to the game.
It is hard to imagine the committee will come up with anything that will shake Blacks away from football and basketball. In the world of hip hop, baseball is jazz, appealing to a segment of fans but not drawing a wide audience — an audience, however large, that gets older and older each day.
That’s the Black audience for baseball, too — old. And it’s getting older and older, putting more years between the heyday when Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Bob Gibson meant more to Black youth than Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson.
Today, Black youth don’t play baseball; they don’t follow baseball; they don’t watch baseball. To them, Prince Fielder, David Price and Matt Kemp draw yawns, not the wide-eyed adulation that LeBron James, Robert Griffin III and Kevin Durant do.
“As these fast-moving sports grew increasingly popular and showcased more Black players, their rise paralleled the explosion of technology in our culture,” wrote Kevin Powell, an author and social activist, in an article for CNN.com. “Baseball became like dial-up Internet in an era of Twitter and Facebook.”
And that’s the problem Selig faces. How does he step into the world of Black youth and see baseball as they see it? How does he market athletes who mean not a thing to Black youth and their hip hop loving parents? Is Selig willing to pour tens of millions into doing what teams did in Latin America to grow cheap talent there?
Few people doubt that what happened to baseball in the inner city was simply a product of benign neglect, not of an orchestrated strategy. The sport had enough history behind it — the richest history of any U.S. sport — to hold on to, and Selig, the front-man for baseball’s owners, must have thought history alone would be enough to keep Blacks tied to the game.
He thought wrong.
For that misjudgment, Selig finds himself now in an untenable situation: He cares more about bringing Blacks back to baseball than Blacks care about coming back to the sport.
That’s not something Robinson would have wanted to see.
Justice B. Hill is a veteran sports reporter who writes for a number of sports websites, including MLB.com and SBnation.com. He has been a sports editor at several major newspapers and taught journalism at Ohio University.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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