Baseball Works to Bring Blacks Back to the Game Sixty years ago this month, Jackie Robinson took the field as the first African-American player in Major League Baseball in the 20th Century. Following his path, many black players entered the game. But in recent years their numbers have declined. Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson's daughter, speaks about the trend.
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Baseball Works to Bring Blacks Back to the Game

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Baseball Works to Bring Blacks Back to the Game

Baseball Works to Bring Blacks Back to the Game

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the highest point on Earth may not be what you think. But first, 60 years ago this month, the mental landscape of America changed when Jackie Robinson took the field, the first African-American player in Major League baseball in the 20th century.

By the time he retired after 10 years with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Jackie Robinson had endured threats and taunts to become a genuine national hero; not only a Hall of Fame baseball player, but a name in history. His number 42 is now retired on every club in the Major Leagues, a tribute to the man who had to hang his first uniform on a hook.

Now at the start of the 2007 baseball season, African-American players make up only 8.4 percent of Major League ball players. In 1975, they accounted for 27 percent. We're joined now from our studios in New York by Sharon Robinson. She is Jackie Robinson's daughter and she continues her father's work for Major League Baseball as an educational consultant in the office of the commissioner. Sharon, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. SHARON ROBINSON (Educational Consultant, Major League Baseball): Oh, thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Is the audience of African-American fans growing smaller, too?

Ms. ROBINSON: Oh, absolutely. We know it's been happening and all the clubs have special initiatives to encourage African-Americans to come out to the ballparks. But it's a big challenge, Scott. We see it in our - with our youths, we see it in our black colleges, where they're fielding white baseball teams, not black baseball teams; so it's kind of an across the board issue.

SIMON: Why is baseball a tough sell to some African-Americans?

Ms. ROBINSON: There are so many options out there and certainly urban kids - there's not as many field as there are basketball courts, and basketball is an exciting game and kids who are out there can play it easily. You know, we tend to have kids playing baseball in general in America up until the age of 12 and then we start losing them, and that's true with African-Americans as well.

GODMAN: When there was a recent memorial march across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Alabama, I was struck all over again by the number of veterans of that original civil rights march who said that the image they carried in their minds and hearts when they walked across the bridge was the image of Jackie Robinson heading out at the ball field.

Ms. ROBINSON: I remember, Scott, when I was a child. We were at the dining room table and the Little Rock Nine calls my father for inspiration. My father came back to the dining room table and he said, can you believe it? These kids who are risking their lives called me for inspiration? I mean, he was just so surprised that they needed to hear from him and that he was - in some way had affected - what he had done had affected their lives.

SIMON: As you're able to chart it, when did the decline of - in the percentage of African-American players and fan base, for that matter, begin in baseball?

Ms. ROBINSON: They started in the mid-'70s and then start seeing the decline from that period on. It's gotten more dramatic, I'd say, in the last five, 10 years. So that's when, you know, the crisis point.

SIMON: Some clubs have only one African-American player, if I'm not mistaken.

Ms. ROBINSON: Oh, there have been clubs who have none. And you know, you look out there in the field, and you see black and brown faces and you just assume there are just lots of African-Americans playing the game, but many of those are Hispanic.

SIMON: People have been working on this challenge for a few years now. You seem confident that you're able to do something different now.

Ms. ROBINSON: Confident. Hopeful? I'm very hopeful because we have to do something about it and from the Negro Leagues to the fact that it was baseball that was the first kind of team sport to integrate, and it happened before Truman even integrated the armed forces, so baseball really has a strong history of inclusion and we have to get black kids to understand that historically baseball has been a great sport in our community. And it's - I think of Buck O'Neal. You know, this guy gave his life to promoting baseball and you know, I want to make sure that we do right by him and all those pioneers that came through the Negro Leagues and really bring baseball back into the African-American community.

SIMON: Sharon Robinson, educational consultant for Major League Baseball in the office of the Commissioner. Thanks so much.

Ms. ROBINSON: Thank you, Scott.

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