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Friday, April 12, 2013
Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Rollins and truth

By David Schoenfield

The new movie "42" about Jackie Robinson opens up Friday night. I haven't seen it yet but expect I'll go watch it at some point this weekend. Jerry Crasnick has a piece on director Brian Helgeland's two-year odyssey to make the movie and Jerry, Jim Caple and Jayson Stark review the movie here.

Allen Barra has an excellent take on the movie here -- not only discussing the historical accuracy of the movie, in particular the scene when Pee Wee Reese puts his arm around Robinson when he was being heckled in Cincinnati (did that moment really happen), but the sad early death of Robinson at 53. Allen concludes:
Slowly during the 1950s and '60s, in fact by the time [Branch] Rickey died in 1965, baseball had begun to disappear from the inner cities, and a new generation of black youth became more enamored with professional football and basketball. The Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles in 1958, and it took 64 years for another professional team to come to Brooklyn, the NBA's Nets.

Black and Latino kids, and white ones for that matter, see the statue of Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese on Coney Island's Surf Avenue without any knowledge of who the two men were and what their connection could possibly be to their own lives. Whatever its shortcomings, let's hope "42" enlightens them.

On the day of the movie's opening, meanwhile, Andy Martino of the New York Daily News has a very interesting interview with Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins on race and baseball. When asked about the declining number of African-Americans in the majors, Rollins points out that after he won the MVP Award in 2007 he felt he wasn't marketed. He suggests the new committee to study diversity in the game probably won't do much (he was on a similar committee several years ago). But this part was probably the most honest assessment of African-Americans in baseball:
Andy Martino: This is asked every year around this time, but I'll ask again: Why so few African-Americans in the sport?

Jimmy Rollins: There are a number of factors. First of all, it starts at home. If you're growing up in single-parent homes, it makes it that much tougher to go play baseball. Baseball is a game usually introduced by the father to the son, or to the daughter. But if you only have one parent, who has to work, you could have love for the game, but you just don't have time for it. And a kid can't play baseball by himself.

That would probably be number one. But for the kids who do grow up with both parents, they have the choice, and baseball is not a glamor sport. You don't see high school baseball teams on TV. You don't see college baseball games on TV. They did a good job with televising the draft, for kids that are interested in baseball and already playing, but that is not going to make kids go play.

You get drafted, and you go to the jungle. The other sports, you get drafted and you're going to the league the next year. In baseball, there is more service time. So a lot of things that aren't sexy about baseball are contributing factors.

However, as Joe Sheehan wrote the other day in his newsletter, "Robinson didn't just pave the way for Torii Hunter and Curtis Granderson. He paved the way for Adrian Beltre and Felix Hernandez and Mariano Rivera. He paved the way for any player with skin formerly defined as "too dark", no matter what their national or cultural heritage. To use every April, every Jackie Robinson Day, to define Robinson's legacy only in terms of African-Americans is hopelessly limiting."

As Joe points out, African-Americans make up 13.1 percent of the U.S. population and 10.8 percent of the American-born major leaguers. MLB thinks this is a problem, but then enacts a strict bonus cap on the amateur draft -- a decision that is only more likely to push talented multi-sport athletes to play football or basketball in college as signing bonuses decrease.

Unfortunately, "42" is unlikely to suddenly push more kids into playing baseball. It would be nice if it had that kind of cultural impact, but the best we can probably hope for is kids who may not otherwise know the Robinson story to learn about an important American hero.