60 Years Later: What Would Jackie Think?

As the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut is marked, Major League Baseball is sure to give itself an extended pat on the back. We'll hear much this month about the breaking of baseball's "color line" as a civil rights milestone. We'll be reminded that the national pastime opened its doors to blacks way ahead of many other American institutions. The sport will bask in the righteous recounting of Robinson's courage and Branch Rickey's wisdom.

But to focus on events of 60 years ago is to dishonor No. 42. Jackie Robinson wasn't one to dwell on the past. After leaving baseball after the 1956 season, he devoted himself to blazing new paths -- in business, politics and the civil rights movement. He was all about today and tomorrow, not yesterday. Proud as he was of changing the game in 1947, Robinson biographers and contemporaries agree he'd be more interested in assessing the game of 2007.

The Robinson salute culminates April 15 with pregame ceremonies at Dodger Stadium, where dignitaries will exchange verbal high-fives about how far the game has come in the past six decades. But towering above the rhetoric, like a major league popup, remains a central major question:

What would Jackie think?

If he checked the starting lineups of that night's game, Robinson's first thought would probably be, "What happened?" The Dodgers will likely have one black starter (Juan Pierre), and the visiting Padres two (Mike Cameron and Terrmel Sledge).

Robinson would have found this inconceivable. At the time of his death in 1972, about 20 percent of big leaguers were black and their numbers were rising. Some teams' rosters particularly weighted toward players of color. In one game in 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates (winners of that year's World Series) fielded a starting lineup with six black and three Hispanic players.

MLB's African-American population crested at 27 percent in 1975 and then began to decline, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. By 2006, according to the latest figures compiled by that University of Central Florida organization, only 8.4 percent of big leaguers were black. According to U.S. Census estimates as of July 1, 2005, African-Americans make up 12.25 percent of the U.S. population.

What would Jackie think?

Robinson would heartily approve of the diversity of today's game. It's not as if MLB has resegregated. In 2006, according to the institute, 29.4 percent of big leaguers were Hispanic and 2.4 percent Asian. Add in African-Americans, and major league rosters are more than 40 percent nonwhite.

"A whole lot of Hispanics are now getting the chances blacks got in the 1940s," says Doc Graham, a onetime Negro League player and a longtime friend of Robinson. "Jackie would be pleased at anyone who hadn't been able to play in organized baseball now being allowed to."

Indeed, Robinson not only threw open the gates to MLB for African-Americans, but hugely widened it for Latin Americans. Before 1947, a smattering of light-skinned Hispanics played in the majors. Since 1947, players like Roberto Clemente and Minnie Minoso starred and paved the way for the Alfonso Sorianos and Carlos Delgados of today.

What would Jackie think?

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