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Tracing Black Players' MLB Impact from Jackie Robinson to Today's Game

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Tracing Black Players' MLB Impact from Jackie Robinson to Today's Game

Monday is Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, the day when all players wear Robinson's No. 42 and his impact on the game of baseball is celebrated. It's the sport's way of making sure that the Jackie Robinson story never stops resonating.

Robinson's story is front and center in the hearts and minds of baseball fans even more than usual this year. By the time the action gets underway on Monday, many fans will have already seen the new film 42, Hollywood's latest retelling of Robinson's breaking of baseball's color barrier.

What the movie doesn't go into—presumably because it would require, oh, at least a 12-hour run time—is what happened in baseball after Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. That he, Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers were starting something big was only implied.

Something big happened, all right. The narrative unfolded a little something like this...

 

Late 1940s: Robinson Opens the Door, Winds of Change Blow Through MLB

April 15, 1947.

That's the day Robinson made his debut for the Dodgers, batting second and playing first base against Johnny Sain and the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. He went hitless, but that didn't dull down the significance of the day. It had taken roughly 80 years, but professional baseball finally had its first black player.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Larry Doby many years later in 1997.

It would take only a couple of months for the second to come along.

In early July, the Cleveland Indians agreed to a contract with Larry Doby, an infielder (eventually an outfielder) who had been starring for the Newark Eagles of the Negro leagues.

Club president Bill Veeck didn't blow any smoke in speaking about the signing, telling the press (via The New York Times):

[Jackie] Robinson has proved to be a real big leaguer. So I wanted to get the best of the available Negro boys while the grabbing was good. Why wait? Within ten years Negro players will be in regular service with big league teams, for there are many colored players with sufficient capabilities to make the majors.

Veeck added: "I don't think any man who has the ability should be barred from the majors on account of his color. The entrance of Negroes into the majors is not only inevitable—it is here."

Doby made his Indians debut on July 5, becoming the first black player to play in the American League. Like that, both of Major League Baseball's two leagues had become integrated in a matter of months.

More firsts came fast and furious. Courtesy of Baseball-Almanac.com, here are some of the more notable ones that took place in the remainder of the 1940s:

  • Aug. 26, 1947: Don Bankhead becomes the first black pitcher to play in a major league game, pitching 3.1 innings for the Dodgers against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He also became the first black player to homer in his first big league at-bat.
  • April 20, 1948: Roy Campanella, another Dodger, becomes baseball's first black catcher.
  • July 9, 1948: Satchel Paige, another Negro League great picked up by the Indians, becomes the first black pitcher in the American League, pitching two shutout innings against the St. Louis Browns. At the age of 42, he was also the oldest player to ever debut in a major league game.
  • July 8, 1949: Don Newcombe of the Dodgers and Hank Thompson of the New York Giants become the first black pitcher and black hitter to face one another in an MLB game.
  • July 12, 1949: Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe become the NL's first black All-Stars. Doby becomes the AL's first black All-Star.

The All-Star appearances weren't the only accolades showered on black players in the late 1940s.

Robinson won the first ever MLB Rookie of the Year Award in 1947, and Newcombe became the first black pitcher to win the award in 1949. That same year, Robinson was the league's first black MVP, his reward for a season that saw him hit an NL-best .342 with 16 home runs and 37 steals.

Despite all the accomplishments of the new black stars, however, only four teams in baseball had integrated by the end of the '40s: the Dodgers, Indians, Browns and Giants.

Per Mark Armour's 2007 research paper for the Society of American Baseball Research, the percentage of black players—meaning all non-white players, an important distinction to keep in mind going forward—in MLB when the 1950s began was still under five percent.

But Veeck didn't say that black players would be in regular service with big league clubs within a couple years. He said it would take a decade.

Thanks to the National League, time would prove him wise.

 

1950s: Black Stars Conquer the Senior Circuit

There are no patents in baseball. Once a club comes up with an idea that produces results, it is taken and copied by other clubs. 

The Dodgers stumbled upon such a concept when they debuted Robinson in 1947, and they carried on with their idea by bringing in more black players in the years that followed. Other teams around the National League saw what was going on in Brooklyn and followed suit.

Armour's research found that the number of non-white players increased dramatically in the 1950s, and that was thanks much more so to the Senior Circuit than the Junior Circuit. By the mid-1950s, better than 10 percent of the NL's players were non-whites.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Baseball's greatest living player was a star from the get-go.

The percentage of black players who were stars also steadily increased. Using Bill James' Win Shares as a guideline, Armour found that 20 percent of the National League's star players were non-whites as early as 1951, the year in which Roy Campanella won the NL MVP and Willie Mays won the NL Rookie of the Year.

For that matter, black players dominated the National League awards in the 1950s. Sam Jethroe, a 33-year-old rookie of the Braves, won Rookie of the Year in 1950. Other black NL Rookie of the Year winners in the 1950s included Joe Black in 1952, Jim Gilliam in 1953, Frank Robinson in 1956 and Willie McCovey in 1959.

Campanella's MVP award in 1951 was the first of three for him in the 1950s. Mays won his first MVP in 1954, and Newcombe, Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks also won MVPs. Banks was the first black player to win the award twice in a row when he earned it in 1958 and 1959.

When Newcombe won his MVP in 1956, he won a brand new award as well: the Cy Young, created by Major League Baseball to honor the league's best pitcher.

Think about that for a second. Baseball hadn't even been integrated for a decade, and there was Newcombe, a black man, standing alone as the first player to have Rookie of the Year, MVP and Cy Young awards in his trophy case. 

The downside is that Newcombe was really the only black superstar pitcher the National League had to offer. Most of the superstars played the field, and the really great ones truly were great.

By Baseball-Reference.com WAR, four of the top 10 National League players of the 1950s were black:

On April 22, 1957, the Philadelphia Phillies became the final team in the National League to integrate, debuting John Kennedy as a pinch-runner. Appropriately, the Phillies were playing the Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

Once Kennedy's debut was in the books, there were only two clubs in baseball—the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox—that had not yet integrated. The Tigers integrated in 1958 and the Red Sox followed a year later in 1959. At the time, the percentage of non-white players in both leagues was trending toward 20 percent.

As such, Veeck was right. It had indeed taken roughly 10 years for black players to be in regular service with big league teams, and there were more coming every day.

And they weren't just coming to play. They were coming to conquer. Over the next two decades, African-American players would come to practically rule baseball.

 

1960s and 1970s: Black Stars Conquer the Rest of Baseball

By the time the 1960s got underway, Jackie Robinson had already been retired for several years. He decided to call it quits after the 1956 season when the Dodgers traded him to the Giants, remarking to the press that he had become just another aging player.

"After you've reached your peak, there's no sentiment in baseball," said Robinson, via The New York Times. "You start slipping and pretty soon they're moving you around like a used car. You have no control over what happens to you. I don't want that."

Roy Campanella retired following the 1957 season, and the Dodgers themselves packed up and moved camp from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. Newcombe stuck around for a little while in 1958, but was traded to Cincinnati in June and was out of baseball a couple years later.

So when the 1960s began, the team and the trio of players that had been so crucial in building the foundation of the integration era were things of the past. 

The integration era itself, however, was alive and well. Thriving, really.

Most of the best black players were still located in the National League. Armour's research found that non-white players made up for over 20 percent of the Senior Circuit by the early 1960s and that they accounted for roughly half the league's stars.

Yes, half, as in 50 percent, and that wasn't even the peak. The percentage of non-white stars in the National League during the 1960s would touch 60 before the decade was over.

And of course, you want to know how many black stars of the 1960s were among league's 10 best hitters for the decade:

You'll notice that I didn't highlight Roberto Clemente here, but only because the focus here is on African-American players. Clemente, obviously, was Puerto Rican. 

Even still, he makes it seven out of the 10 best hitters of the National League during the 1960s that weren't white men. Knowing that, you won't be surprised to hear that non-white players dominated the NL MVP voting during the 1960s. 

 Including Clemente's MVP season in 1966 and fellow Puerto Rican Orlando Cepeda's MVP campaign in 1967, I counted that seven of the 10 NL MVPs dished out in the 1960s went to non-white players.

Once again, it's a shame that there weren't more black superstar pitchers. But the man who won the NL MVP in 1968 may have been the best pitcher in the game during the '60s: Bob Gibson.

Gibson broke into the league with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1959 and proceeded to rack up a 164-105 record and a 2.74 ERA in the '60s. He won the MVP and the Cy Young in 1968, a season that saw him go 22-9 with a 1.12 ERA, which still stands as a single-season record for the integration era.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
From there, it was on to the Hall of Fame. Gibson made it to Cooperstown in 1981.

While the American League still didn't feature as many black stars during the 1960s, Armour's research found that the percentage of non-white players in the Junior Circuit did rise significantly during the decade, and there were some firsts along the way.

Most notably, Elston Howard of the New York Yankees became the first black player to win the American League MVP in 1963. A couple years later, Frank Robinson became the first (and still only) player to win an MVP in both leagues when he won the AL MVP in 1966.

It was in the 1970s that the two leagues finally featured about the same amount of non-white star power. Armour found that the percentage of non-white stars in the American League trended toward 50 percent during the decade, while the percentage of non-white stars in the National League trended down toward 50 percent.

The National League had Joe Morgan, Ferguson Jenkins and a getting-better-with-age Willie Stargell. The American League had Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson and Jim Rice. Combined, the two leagues produced quite a few black MVPS during the '70s.

Vida Blue, for the record, became just the fifth pitcher to win both the MVP and the Cy Young when he took home both awards in 1971 after posting a 24-8 record and a 1.82 ERA. 

Both leagues also produced a fair number of black Rookie of the Year players during the 1970s. Most notably, Andre Dawson won the 1977 NL Rookie of the Year Award, and Eddie Murray and Lou Whitaker took home AL Rookie of the Year in 1977 and 1978, respectively.

Though Tyler Kepner of The New York Times recently noted, with some input from Armour, that the percentage of African-American players never really got as high as the oft-cited 27 percent mark during the '70s, the decade was clearly something of a golden age for black ballplayers. If nothing else, it was certainly the decade that the American League finally caught up with the National League.

It probably always was too good to last.

 

1980s: The Trend Begins to Slow Down

As ominous as this sounds, the 1980s were by no means a disaster for African-American players.

Armour told Kepner that the number of African-American players in Major League Baseball actually reached an all-time peak of 19 percent in 1986, and there were plenty of stars to go around.

The best of the best, of course, was Rickey Henderson.

Henderson famously stole a record of 130 bases in 1982 and spent his career rewriting the job description of a perfect leadoff hitter. When the 1980s came to an end, he had compiled a higher WAR than any other player.

The other notable African-American stars of the era were guys like Ozzie Smith, Andre Dawson, Eddie Murray, Tim Raines and Lou Whitaker. Smith is the greatest defensive shortstop the game has ever known. Dawson hit 438 homers over a 21-year career. Murray is a member of the 500-Home Run Club. Raines and Whitaker are two of the most underappreciated ballplayers in baseball history.

There were also some noteworthy new stars coming into the league, particularly in Queens.

The New York Mets used the top pick in the 1980 draft to take Darryl Strawberry and the fifth overall selection in the 1982 draft to take Dwight Gooden. Strawberry ended up being the NL Rookie of the Year in 1983, and Gooden took home the award in 1984.

Strawberry and Gooden looked like they were well on their way to doing great things. And they were...to a degree.

T.G. Higgins/Getty Images
Darryl Strawberry had only four fewer home runs through his age-29 season than Babe Ruth did through his age-29 season.

Strawberry hit 215 home runs in the first seven years of his career, including an NL-high 39 in 1988. Gooden put together one of the great pitching seasons in baseball history in 1985, going 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA. He was an easy pick for the Cy Young.

When the 1980s came to a close, however, that was the only Cy Young won by a black pitcher during the decade. Black players didn't fare much better in the MVP voting, as the decade yielded only our African-American MVPs, quite the departure from the 1970s.

Strawberry, who once seemed to be a shoo-in for multiple MVP awards, wasn't one of them.

There were some exciting developments in the latter half of the decade, including Barry Bonds breaking into the league in 1986 and Ken Griffey, Jr., the No. 1 overall pick in 1987, making his debut in 1989.

Not to spoil anything, but, well, you know as well as I do how well the two of them panned out.

All the same, if you go and look at Armour's graphs, you'll see that the percentage of African-American star players in the league declined sharply just as the percentage of African-American players in the league was apparently peaking in 1986.

The trend didn't go unnoticed. Before the decade was out, the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) Program was founded.

There was a time when baseball couldn't get enough black players. But if the founding of the RBI Program indicated anything, it was that the search was on heading into the 1990s.

 

1990s to Today: Plenty of Black Stars, But Not That Many Black Players

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
The perfect swing. And a for a while there: the perfect ballplayer.

Once again, there are ominous vibes at work here. But if you forget the rest and look to the stars, then the 1990s were an epic time for African-Americans in baseball.

This is especially true of the guys who swung the bat for a living. Half of the 10 best hitters of the 1990s were African-American:

Thanks in no small part to Barry Bonds' dominance in the early part of the decade, African-American hitters also dominated the MVP voting in the 1990s:

Not featured in either of the above tables are great players like Tony Gwynn, the best pure hitter of the decade, and Albert Belle, one of the most feared sluggers of the decade. Derek Jeter, who is half-black, won the AL Rookie of the Year in 1996 and proceeded to serve as the centerpiece for a Yankees dynasty that racked up four championships in five years.

But you know where this conversation is headed. There were American-born black stars in the 1990s, yes, but relatively few American-born black players.

This chart—which consists of information pulled from ESPN.com, a 2012 USA Today article and a 2013 USA Today article—shows just how much the percentage of African-American players in baseball started to decline in 1990 and is still declining today.

The disclaimer here is that the numbers likely aren't 100 percent accurate. In particular, I should point out that MLB has the percentage of African-American players on Opening Day rosters this year at 8.5 percent, which is a little higher than the 7.7 percent mark found by USA Today

The trend is still there, however. The percentage of African-American players in Major League Baseball really has fallen that far over the last two-plus decades.

Not surprisingly, the decline of black players in baseball has resulted in a decline of black stars. A search for the top hitters in baseball since 2000 shows only three African-American players in the top 15: Bonds, Jeter and Torii Hunter. The only African-American pitcher in the top 15 is CC Sabathia.

To be fair, it's not as if there's a serious shortage of black stars in today's game. Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins won MVPs in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and they're still kicking. Same goes for Jeter (though not literally in his case) and Sabathia.

Elsewhere, Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson and Adam Jones are three of the best players in the American League. Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen and Justin Upton are three of the top players in the National League, and Upton plays alongside his older brother B.J. and Jason Heyward in an all-African-American Atlanta Braves outfield that is arguably the best in the league.

Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Pictured: Up, Up and Hey!

I'm sure I'm forgetting some obvious notables, but the point is that it's not like African-American superstar players have vanished altogether. The number of American-born black players is declining, but some darn good ones are still finding their way to the major leagues.

As for why the numbers are declining, well, that's something that Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig aims to find out. As reported by Kepner, Selig has created a task force charged with studying the decline of black players in the league.

“I really think our history is so brilliant when it comes to African-Americans,” Selig said. “You think about the late 1940s, the 1950s—wow. And you look at that and you say to yourself, ‘Why did it not continue, and what could we do to make sure it does continue?’”

The explanations for the sharp decline of African-American players in baseball are many, but none of them are sinister in nature. It's not like MLB has taken to turning black players away at the door.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Not surprisingly, the Dominican Republic boasts the most foreign-born MLB players.

The decline of African-American players in the league has more to do with other factors, such as MLB's ever-increasing reach beyond the borders of the United States. According to a press release issued via Hardball Talk and other sites, foreign-born players made up almost 30 percent of Opening Day rosters this year. 

That's about par for the course, and it may be the biggest reason why there aren't so many American-born black players in MLB anymore. 

Beyond that lie the realities that baseball A) just plain isn't cool and B) is hard to get into.

Kevin Powell wrote in a column for CNN.com that young African-American boys just don't aspire to play baseball anymore, in part because there's simply more interest in basketball and football.

It doesn't help that baseball has an image issue. Orlando Hudson told CBS News last year that MLB doesn't market its black stars like the NFL and NBA do, and those leagues also resonate with African-American youth because they don't mind glamorizing hip hop culture.

"They feel like baseball is a white man's game," Hudson said of African-American kids. "You go to a baseball game, they're not playing hip hop. They're playing Paul McCartney."

As for baseball being hard to get into, the RBI Program deserves some props for finding talented young kids to play ball and ushering them toward big league careers. According to MLB.com, 14 RBI alumni were chosen in the 2012 draft, bringing the total of RBI draftees to over 200.

Keep in mind, though, that not every kid who comes up through the RBI Program is African-American. The program does attract black youths, but you can take it from LaTroy Hawkins that most of them would rather play basketball or football, and not just because those sports are cooler.

Here's what Hawkins told Kepner:

Kids in the inner city play basketball and football, because they give out full scholarships and parents don’t have to worry about anything. In baseball they give out quarter scholarships. That’s what needs to change.

In the inner city, you need to get a scholarship because most families can’t afford to send a kid to school, especially when you’ve got more than one. You need to get a scholarship, and baseball doesn’t provide that luxury.

Here's where MLB can only do so much. It can make an effort to look cooler and a greater effort to get African-American kids playing the game, but the league can't do much to change how colleges operate or fix America's class system.

But while Major League Baseball may not be able to do much to solve its current predicament, everyone should give baseball this much credit: It's certainly done a lot.

A major change was made the moment Jackie Robinson stepped onto the field on April 15, 1947, and that gave birth to a long, wonderful history of black players doing great things on the diamond. It's been said often, and I'll say it again: Without Robinson, there's no Mays, Aaron, Gibson, Henderson or Griffey. And without them, a huge piece of baseball tradition is missing.

This piece of tradition is one that both the league and its many fans—be they black, white or whatever—should always cherish, and should always regard with a sense of pride.

Happy Jackie Robinson Day, everyone.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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