In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, Jackie Robinson published a compilation of interviews with major league players and managers about the state of integration of the game. Robinson concluded that baseball had achieved considerable progress. Less than two decades after Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues, African Americans made up close to 20% of professional baseball players. The name of Robinson's book was Baseball Has Done It.
So what would Robinson make of the relationship between the game he loved and African Americans today? He would find reasons to be encouraged: baseball is more diversified and more international than ever, racism is considerably lessened, and there are nearly twice as many teams as when Robinson first broke in 60 years ago. But African Americans are disappearing from baseball. Blacks make up 8% of major league baseball players today and only 3% of players on NCAA Division I baseball teams. In coming days, you will probably hear sociologists and sports pundits cite those figures as evidence that baseball is turning its back on Robinson's legacy. And so the questions arise: Why are there so few black ball players today? Should there be more?
Let's examine the second question first. The percentage of black ballplayers is in decline. And yet it's still roughly what blacks represent in the population as a whole. So they aren't significantly underrepresented. In the mid-1970s, when nearly 1 in 3 major league players was black, many people, including some liberals and some blacks, complained that they were overrepresented. The argument was that too many blacks were being steered into sports, distorting the young black male's sense of ambition.
Many people said that blacks' being overrepresented in sports like baseball was bad; now they say that blacks being underrepresented is bad. Well, which is it? Black Americans are far more underrepresented among people who win the science Nobel Prizes, but that's rarely treated as a national crisis. Winning the Nobel Prize for Medicine would do more for the group's image than winning the MVP or a Cy Young Award, which black Americans have already proved they can do.
Still, there's no denying that fewer and fewer black youths are taking up the sport. One reason commonly offered is that black neighborhoods lack the necessary equipment and facilities--bats, gloves, green fields--to train children to play. In sociology, this is called deficit theory, the idea that one group does not do what another group does because it lacks the resources. Deficit theory is often used to explain the behavior of black Americans. But it is almost always wrong. If lack of green spaces and the cost of equipment explain why black Americans don't play baseball today, then how does one account for the fact that they played it and even organized their own leagues in the early 20th century--when they had less money, less access to space because of segregation, fewer resources, and faced more rigorous racism? And blacks make up about 70% of players in the NFL, even though football requires just as much green space, organization and uniforms.
The real reason black Americans don't play baseball is that they don't want to. They are not attracted to the game. Baseball has little hold on the black imagination, even though it existed as an institution in black life for many years. Among blacks, baseball is not passed down from father to son or father to daughter. As the sports historian Michael McCambridge points out, baseball sells itself through nostalgia--the memory of being taken to a game by your father when you were a child. But for blacks, going back into baseball's past means recalling something called white baseball and something else called black baseball, which was meant to exist under conditions that were inferior to the white version. Even the integration of baseball, symbolized by Robinson, reminds blacks that their institutions were weak and eventually had to be abandoned. As the controversies over reparations for slavery and the Confederate flag have shown, it is difficult to sell African Americans the American past as most Americans have come to know it.
Perhaps Jackie Robinson would be disappointed to know that a relatively small number of blacks still remain drawn to the game he transformed. But he would be far more determined that all Americans acknowledge the complicated history of race in this country and how it continues to influence our mores and conversations today. The fact that many of us blacks have become strangers to baseball has a lot to do with the fact that we have developed a better, clear-eyed understanding of our experience as a people. And that is something Jackie Robinson would be proud of.
Gerald Early is the Merle Kling professor of modern letters at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo.