It has been 70 years since Jackie Robinson shattered baseball’s infamous color barrier. The nature of the game changed forever on that April day in 1947, but the fight against racial injustice in Major League Baseball is still going strong.
This fight reared its ugly head last week, when Orioles’ centerfielder Adam Jones experienced severe and malicious racism at Fenway Park in a game against the Red Sox. Jones told reporters after the game that he had peanuts and racial slurs hurled at him from fans in the bleachers while he was in the outfield.
This troubling incident has brought significant attention to the plight of African-American ballplayers. According to a study done by USA Today, just 62 of the 868 players on opening day rosters were African-American, or 7.1 percent. In 1994, it was 17.2 percent. The same study showed that 11 different teams have only one African-American player, and two teams have zero.
These numbers, though disheartening, are not necessarily indicative of a race problem in baseball. To be fair, the decline in African-American professional ballplayers has probably more to do with the sharp increase in Hispanic players since the 1990s than it does with systematic racism.
It is worth noting, however, that the increase in Hispanic players has not been coupled with a sharp decline in white players. In 1994, white players made up 65 percent of MLB players. In 2016, they made up 63.7 percent, while the proportion of Hispanic players jumped from 17.8 percent to 27.4 percent in that time span.
What is happening here seems to be an inexplicably steep decline in the prevalence of African-American baseball players at the highest level. As the game has changed rapidly over the last 20 or so years, African-American players have taken the hardest hit. Of course, there are plenty of reasonable explanations for this, beyond just the rise of stars from Latin America.
But this issue has been catapulted to the forefront after last week’s events at Fenway, and many have focused on the city of Boston and Fenway Park itself as hotspots for bigotry. Yankees starting pitcher CC Sabathia went on record saying, “We all know. When you go to Boston, expect it.”
Sabathia’s words and tone convey a harsh accusation; the implication here is that there is a knowledge among black players that they need to prepare for the ugliest of humanity when traveling to play the Red Sox. Sabathia’s comment and others like it from players around the league have sparked debate among fans and media pundits across the country.
Many have remained skeptical, throwing around an age-old phrase: extraordinary accusations require extraordinary evidence. And while everyone has been left arguing over whether or not sufficient evidence has been supplied by Jones, Sabathia and others, the point has been completely lost.
The lesson to be learned here is that seven decades after integration, the life of a black major leaguer has not improved nearly as much as it should have. Imagine what Jackie Robinson would say upon learning that a black player had peanuts thrown at him while being called the n-word. I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I imagine it would be something to the tune of, “Been there, done that.”
Is there enough evidence to say that racial slurs are flying at Fenway? I’m not sure. But it is astonishing that we even find ourselves talking about it. How could this still be a problem? Consider again the numbers showing that African-American players have to fight harder for roster spots than they have since the 1950s, and you start to see the whole picture.
In a time where the nation’s political climate is as volatile as it has ever been, the discourse has managed to permeate even our national pastime. It has done so to such an extent that so many people are failing to recognize that baseball might have serious problem on its hands. Perhaps we should be searching for a solution instead of tearing ourselves apart over whether a problem exists. And anyone who doesn’t care to pay attention should consider that maybe they are part of the problem.