On the eve of Jackie Robinson Day 2014, Bleacher Report had an exclusive opportunity to speak with some of the most visible and prominent African-American players in Major League Baseball. While attending the Atlanta Braves-Philadelphia Phillies series at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, B/R spoke to B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward, Ryan Howard and Domonic Brown about the impact Jackie Robinson had on them.
I had the opportunity to represent Bleacher Report in Philadelphia, speak to current and former All-Stars and convey their feelings on one of baseball's most important dates.
B/R: When did you first learn about Jackie Robinson and the impact he had on baseball and society?
Jason Heyward: I learned about Jackie in elementary school and read a book about him in high school. His story was remarkable to me. Sacrifice is a difficult thing for so many people to come to grips with, but he did it and thrived. Branch Rickey as well. He didn't get enough credit for having the conviction to believe that Jackie could be the guy. They made powerful statements without making any actual statements. I think that stands for many things in life, as far as bringing people together. That's bigger than baseball.
B.J. Upton: He was talked about often in my household. Many times, it wasn't just about baseball when his name was mentioned. He meant so much to the game, but even more across society.
Ryan Howard: I don't remember the exact moment but more the feeling of understanding of what he went through. It's a surreal moment when that understanding overtakes you, especially as we get to enjoy the benefits now.
B/R: Did Robinson's story play a role in your decision to play baseball at a young age? How did you become immersed in the game?
Heyward: Baseball was taught to me by my father. He always had a special appreciation for Jackie Robinson and anyone who was a prominent figure with civil rights and equality. Beyond Jackie, I was lucky enough to be around baseball as a kid and learn the game. I got a chance to see many Braves games, and my mom had ties to the Yankees. There was great appreciation for baseball in my home.
Dominic Brown: My uncle—Mudcat Grant—played in the big leagues. He was always around. Robinson was an inspiration for him. I think that the current generation of African-American baseball players learned about him through a relative that admired Jackie Robinson. I was always around baseball. It became my passion and my love. My mom always told me that I would be a big league player. I played all the sports—as did my African-American friends—but baseball was my first love.
Howard: I played everything growing up—football, soccer, basketball. Baseball helped me get to the next level. It helped me catapult myself toward an education and bettering myself. Along the way, it stuck. Baseball became my game.
B/R: The number of African-American players in the sport continues to drop (8.3 percent of Opening Day rosters identified themselves as African-American or black, as noted by Tyler Kepner of The New York Times). Why do you think young African-American kids are gravitating away from baseball?
Upton: Numbers are definitely down. I can't put a finger on it. If I had to guess, basketball and football are appealing and easier to do, especially in the inner cities. Baseball isn't a cheap game to play. It's much easier for a kid to pick up a basketball and go to the park. In baseball, you need a whole team and equipment.
Brown: I hope it changes soon. I will try to do my best in the community, but it's not easy due to our schedule. There's no downtime in the baseball calender. Kids see LeBron James and NBA players on television, but they need to know baseball can be an outlet for them.
Heyward: It's easier to go to school and play other sports. There are more scholarships. Plus, when you get drafted in the NBA or NFL, you're in and can be a star immediately. Baseball takes longer. It's delayed gratification. Kids don't want to go to the minors and live in anonymity. They want to be stars right away. How can you blame them?
B/R: You wouldn't realize the drop by coming to Citizens Bank Park this week (the respective 25-man rosters of the Phillies and Braves are home to 10 African-Americans: B.J. Upton, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, John Mayberry Jr., Tony Gwynn Jr., Domonic Brown, Marlon Byrd and Ben Revere). Do you think these teams and this rivalry could help bring back young African-American kids to the sport?
Brown: I hope we can have that kind of impact. Time will tell, but making sure kids see the 18 games these teams play against each other is important. It's not easy to change perception and make baseball the "cool" sport again, but we can try.
Upton: It certainly can't hurt, especially if all of us play well and have an impact on the game while they're watching.
Heyward: Sure, but it's not just here. Both teams this week have a good number of African-American players, but there's plenty of talented young stars around the game. Just look at the NL MVP—Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen—last year. Plus, one of the top prospects in baseball, Byron Buxton, can be part of the next wave in the game.
Howard: You can't worry about it because it changes all the time. Maybe a large number of (African-American) kids will return to baseball soon. You never know.
B/R: For the third consecutive year, all uniformed personnel at major league ballparks will be asked to wear Jackie's retired No. 42 Tuesday night. What does it mean to you to suit up wearing No. 42?
Upton: It's an amazing honor. He paved the way for all the guys today. It feels good to be a part of that legacy.
Brown: It means a ton to me, my family and my teammates. What Jackie did for my family, words can't describe.
Heyward: It means being able to pay homage to someone who paved the way for the sport to become integrated. One mindset took so long to happen. Wearing No. 42 is solidarity for baseball.
Howard: It's something that's very special. An honor and privilege. Aside from being inducted into the Hall of Fame, it might be the most special accomplishment in professional sports. Every player wears his number. Think about that! To be able to pay tribute to him for what he did for baseball—and the world—is a great pleasure and honor.
Through the grind of a 162-game season, major league players have to deal with the media. From the moment spring training arrives through the last out of the season, questions—ranging from day-to-day inquires about in-game situations, health and performance—are posed to them by hundreds of reporters. For the most part, players answer questions without much emotion or deep thought on each topic.
When approached and asked to give thoughts about Jackie Robinson Day, a 180-degree change in demeanor and emotion overtook the players quoted in this piece. In each clubhouse, African-American players showed genuine emotion, gave engaging answers and genuinely enjoyed talking about Robinson's legacy across the sport.
April 15 is a yearly homage to one of the central figures in the American civil rights movement—a man who broke barriers that went well beyond the dimensions of a baseball field. Nearly 70 years later, the respect and admiration for a Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman is overwhelming, especially when coming from players who wouldn't have had the opportunity to play in the big leagues without the courageous and brave Robinson paving the way in 1947.
What does Jackie Robinson Day mean to you?