On the 17th anniversary of Jackie Robinson Day, the dearth of black players in baseball is a concern for some observers of the sport.
In a program presented by the Negro Leagues Museum and hosted by Joel Goldberg on Thursday, April 15, former big league infielder Frank White expressed his concern over the lack of African Americans in the national pastime.
“Jackie would be disappointed that many major league teams are toeing the line for the anthem, but they don’t have any African Americans on the team,” White said during the program, which was broadcast live on LinkedIn.
Goldberg was also joined by Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Museum, located in Kansas City.
“I think [Jackie Robinson] would be elated that everyone in major league baseball is wearing his number on his day,” Kendrick said. “[But] he would be saddened that we still have so much work to do and we have become so divided by race in this country.”
White played 18 seasons in MLB, all of them as a member of the Kansas City Royals, and he is considered one of the best defensive second basemen in history. He attended Longview Community College in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and has made Missouri his home. White currently serves as county executive for Jackson County in Missouri.
The lack of black players in baseball
When Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, he pushed back the barrier that had kept African Americans out of Major League Baseball. Within weeks a second black player (Larry Doby) integrated the American League. The flow of black players into the game was measured, but steady in the ensuing years.
Players like Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Frank Robinson signified the emergence of black stars in what had previously been an all-white league. By the 1970s, nearly twenty percent of the players in the majors were African Americans. At the peak of their representation, more than 120 players in the big leagues in any given season were black. That number has plummeted.
According to a study by USA Today Sports in 2020, only 7.8% of players on active MLB rosters were African American. Some people started to ask “Where are all the black baseball players?” In 2017, U.S. News & World Report sounded the alarm, writing that “75 percent of the NBA and 64 percent of the NFL players are black, but only 7.7 percent of MLB players are black.”
What is Jackie Robinson Day?
Jackie Robinson Day is an annual event which takes place on April 15 in Major League Baseball. The special day commemorates the breaking of the color barrier and honors the historical significance on the date Jackie Robinson made his major league debut, in 1947.
MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day at each of the MLB ballparks hosting games on April 15. On that one day, all players, coaches, and managers for both teams, as well as the umpires, wear Robinson’s uniform #42.
Jackie Robinson Day was instituted by MLB in 2004, when commissioner Bud Selig made the announcement with Sharon Robinson, the daughter of Jackie Robinson. The event was originally expected to be a one-time thing, but in 2005 MLB announced that Jackie Robinson Day would be celebrated annualy.
In 2007, Ken Griffey Jr. asked commissioner Selig if he could wear #42 on Jackie Robinson Day, and the star outfielder received permission. Within a few years, hundreds of players were seeking permission to do the same, and in 2009 the practice became part of the tradition of Jackie Robinson Day.
In 1997, MLB retired Robinson’s uniform number. Robinson was the first pro athlete in any sport to be honored with his uniform number retired for all teams.