- Programming Note: "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" airs Friday at 8 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area and NBC Sports California.
Baseball was never richer with talent than in the 25 years following Jackie Robinson’s debut. Doors opened, and in came Willie Mays and Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks and Roberto Clemente and Billy Williams and Frank Robinson and Bob Gibson.
In came Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey and Lou Brock and Willie Stargell and Joe Morgan and Rod Carew and Reggie Jackson.
Without the presence of these stars, all enshrined in the Hall of Fame, the sport greatly is diminished. Baseball in 1970 would have looked much like baseball in 2020, which has devolved to the point of being semi-exclusive.
The route to the Major Leagues has changed so much that it is conceivable none of those greats, had they been born 50 years later, would have had a chance.
Jackson, a guest on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” seen Friday night at 8 p.m. PT on NBC Sports Bay Area, believes they’d be casualties of today’s economic realities.
“If they’d have had Club baseball when I was a kid, my family was not going to let me travel to Reno to play a three-game series somewhere,” Jackson says. “You sure weren’t going to live in Walnut Creek and go play games in Foster City, when you could go to Walnut Creek, to Orinda, to Lafayette, to San Ramon, to Pleasanton, to Danville. And have (six) games in those (six) towns.
“We weren’t going to go to Los Angeles for games, or to Sacramento. Families couldn’t afford that. And I’m sure there are a lot of families now that can’t afford it.”
A USA Today study in 2017 concluded that the average cost for a season of Club baseball is about $3,700 -- but it could rise to about $8,000 if it includes personal training and out-of-state tournaments. It is, in many ways, a considerable investment.
By contrast, the average cost for a season on a sponsored AAU basketball club was about $500.
It’s natural, then, that youngsters of modest means would gravitate toward a more affordable sport – while those with comfortable finances are able to stay with baseball. This also explains why a large percentage of Black players over the past 30 years happen to be sons of former players.
“What winds up happening is you lose the minority population in baseball,” says Jackson, 74, now a special adviser to Yankees ownership. “Between Latino/Latinx and African American, you lose that because you can’t afford to participate.”
Baseball in 2020 might never have experienced the likes of a Ferguson Jenkins, an Orlando Cepeda, a Dave Winfield, an Ozzie Smith, a Kirby Puckett or Rickey Henderson. The 21st-century game proceeds without those who might have been blessed with similar gifts but, out of necessity, apply them to another sport.
As the numbers drop on the field, so do the opportunities beyond it. There are two Black managers, Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros and Dave Roberts, whose mother is Japanese, of the Los Angeles Dodgers. With the Miami Marlins dismissing Michael Hill a few days ago, Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox is the only Black general manager.
Jackson cited, as an example, the numerous MLB corner offices occupied the last 39 years by Sandy Alderson. He started in 1981 as the legal counsel for the A’s and was promoted to GM two years later, doing a remarkable job. He left in the late 1990s for an executive slot in the commissioner’s office and has since become the CEO of the Padres, GM of the Mets, returned to Oakland for an advisory stint with the A’s and last month was invited to return to the Mets.
“Why wouldn’t you ... Where is Joe Carter? Where is Jermaine Dye? Where is Barry Larkin? Where is Ozzie Smith?” wonders Jackson, referring to former stars who have expressed an interest in remaining in baseball. “The list goes on for an opportunity. No slight to Sandy Alderson. I wish I was him. I wish I was him.”
“We’re just not around. We’re not involved. We’re not in front offices, we’re not in baseball’s front office. That’s the painful part. Understanding that at times you were a negra, negro, (N-word), all those things you were when you played baseball.”
That experience, being denied service at certain restaurants, being denied admittance into certain hotels, being steered toward homes in specific neighborhoods – being excluded or isolated strictly due to skin color – forced the legends of yesteryear to build up a reservoir of emotional scar tissue that Jackson believes, justifiably, served them well on the field.
Though the most blatant forms of bigotry they faced are gone, some legislated away and some eradicated by progress, they have in many cases been replaced by more subtle forms of racism.
What’s certain is that baseball, like any other sport or profession, is at its best when diversity is among its assets. That’s not the case in 2020, and it shows.