Cover of a magazine featuring the baseball player Jackie Robinson

 Courtesy of Library of Congress

Robert Fleegler

As Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 15, it is remarkable that the number of African Americans in baseball has fallen from roughly a fifth of all players in the early 1980s to 8 percent in 2014. Indeed, Hispanics have surpassed blacks as the largest minority in the game and there is little sign that the number of African Americans playing in the majors will increase anytime soon. Though the integration of baseball was a seminal event in the civil rights movement, most young blacks entering professional sports today prefer basketball and football.

It was not always this way. During the first half of the twentieth century, the major leagues were segregated, but baseball was at the center of black culture. After players and owners drew the color line in the 1890s, a number of independent teams such as the Cuban Giants continued the tradition of African American baseball. With the Great Migration of blacks to the North during World War I, a fan and consumer base emerged capable of supporting a league. Organized under the leadership of former pitcher Rube Foster in 1920, the Negro Leagues developed into a key African American institution during the Jim Crow era. Though they often labored in obscurity in comparison to their white contemporaries, players such as catcher Josh Gibson and pitcher Satchel Paige were among the best in the sport in the 1930s and 1940s, even if they never played in the majors (Gibson) or didn’t during their prime (Paige).

After struggling during the Great Depression, the Negro Leagues thrived during World War II while the groundwork was lain for integration. The fight against Nazi racism abroad exposed the contradictions between American rhetoric and American practice. Black sportswriters agitated for major league teams to sign black players, with help from liberal politicians as well as the Communist party. The passing of Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis in 1944, who had long held the line on segregation, opened the door for change. In 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson, then playing for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.

When Robinson played his first game as a Dodger on April 15, 1947, he debuted a year before President Truman integrated the military and nearly a decade before the epochal civil rights landmarks of Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Robinson faced incredible racism in his early years in the league, but excelled, paving the way for a parade of black stars in subsequent years, including Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. As a result, the Negro Leagues declined and disbanded. Not every team quickly followed Brooklyn’s lead, however, as the New York Yankees did not have a black player until 1955 and the Boston Red Sox became the final team to integrate in 1959. While black players entered the league, there were no African American managers or coaches in the majors during this time, as the end of the Negro Leagues meant the loss of opportunities for blacks in these positions.

The 1960s and 70s were the heyday of African American participation in the majors as well as the game’s popularity in black America. As ESPN’s Michael Wilbon recalled, “The talk in the barbershop wasn’t of Wilt and Russell nearly as much as it was of Aaron and Mays.” In the face of racism and death threats in 1974, Aaron, the last Negro Leaguer in the majors, broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.

The change seemed to begin in the 1980s as other sports emerged. The National Basketball Association (NBA) had nearly gone bankrupt during the disco era, in part because some viewers and advertisers saw the league as “too black.” The merger with the American Basketball Association (ABA) in 1976 brought Julius “Dr. J” Erving into the league, reviving it, followed by the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, whose rivalry helped make it comparable to football and baseball in terms of popularity. The arrival of Michael Jordan then sent the league into a stratosphere by the 1990s, with millions of young black (and white) kids wanting “to be like Mike.”

Football grew and surpassed baseball in popularity while featuring plenty of black players on the field, but there was one major position that remained closed to African Americans as late as the 1980s: quarterback. Racial stereotypes suggested that blacks did not have the intelligence and leadership skills to run an NFL offense and pro coaches routinely shifted black college quarterbacks to another position after the draft. Those that insisted on playing QB had to leave for the Canadian Football League (CFL), as future Hall of Famer Warren Moon did for several years in the early 1980s.

Doug Williams punctured this myth when he threw five touchdown passes in a victorious MVP performance in Super Bowl XXII in 1988. In the following years, Donovan McNabb, Steve McNair, and others achieved success as quarterbacks. Teams drafted Michael Vick, Jamarcus Russell, and Cam Newton as the 1st pick in the NFL Draft in 2001, 2007, and 2011, respectively, something that would have been inconceivable as late as the 1990s. Though black QBs do not yet face a completely even playing field, they are unlikely to be forced to change roles anymore. The opportunity to play the prestige position no doubt encouraged more young African Americans to pursue football at the expense of baseball.

The number of blacks in the game remained reasonably high, as there was a lag before declining youth participation impacted the percentage of African Americans playing the game. As late as the mid-1990s, there were still as many blacks as Latinos in the majors and Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds competed for the title of “best player in the game,” though their choice of the sport was no doubt influenced by the fact that they were both the sons of star players.

For the most part, it appears the decline of black players reflects greater sports options rather than discrimination. Both college basketball and football hold out the promise for earlier stardom than college baseball, and there are far more scholarship possibilities for the former than the latter. Still, some African American players, such as Torii Hunter, have complained that management’s search for Latin players comes partly out of a desire for a cheaper and more malleable work force. Under former commissioner Bud Selig, Major League Baseball made great efforts to rejuvenate the game in urban areas through its Revive Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program. Nevertheless, Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen suggests that many poor blacks have simply been priced out of baseball by the cost of contemporary youth leagues.

As players take the field with Robinson’s historic 42 on their back, there will be relatively few African Americans in the lineup or on the mound, though roughly 35 percent of the participants will be people of color. Indeed, no sport better reflects the multiculturalism of today’s United States more than baseball with its large Latino and Asian contingents. Without Jackie Robinson’s courage 68 years ago, the contemporary diversity of the sport would be inconceivable.

Robert Fleegler is an instructional assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the 20th Century (2013).