The Business of Baseball and Breaking the Color Barrier
As long as there has been baseball, there has been a business side to the sport. The reality that any game can be turned into a scheduled event, a player or team turned into a commodity, and a league turned into an opportunity to make money is nearly as old as the sport itself. It is believed the first time admission was charged for a baseball game was on July 20th, 1858 for a game called “The Great Base Ball Match” held in New York City between all-stars from New York and Brooklyn. The Cincinnati Reds are the earliest recognized Major League Baseball team, with the franchise originally founded in 1869 as the first “all professional 9” under the name “Red Stockings.”
The history of the game between 1870 and 1910 can cover volumes, as two major professional leagues came into existence and then later merged together to form what we now know as Major League Baseball, and several other professional leagues formed with varying degrees of success over that same time, but over time Branch Rickey realized that one of the most effective ways to ensure the long-term success of a Major League franchise was to stockpile and develop talent in a minor league system. As early as 1913 when he was working with the St. Louis Browns, Rickey experimented with the idea of developing a minor league “farm system” as a means to stockpile talent for the Browns. His ideas really came to fruition while working for the St. Louis Cardinals, developing a network of minor league farm teams that the Cardinals could directly control and use for the development of players.
It should come as no surprise then that Rickey, in 1945, decided to look at breaking the color barrier. After all, black soldiers had fought and died alongside white soldiers in World War II. While there was intense segregation in the south, it appeared that race relations in the north were thawing and the earliest signs of the civil rights movements were beginning to pop up. And there was a whole league of black ballplayers with plenty of talent that could potentially be tapped into. Rickey saw an opportunity to gain a competitive edge, while standing up for a cause that he believed in, and he found his man in Jackie Robinson.
Another notable owner who was always looking for ways to draw business to the ballpark, though in much more short-sighted ways than Branch Rickey, was Bill Veeck. Some of Veeck’s most notable ideas included Eddie Gaedel, for a pinch-hitting appearance, Disco Demolition night, stadium give-aways, and signing Larry Doby to be the first black ballplayer in the American League. Doby would eventually be joined by Negro League pitching legend Satchel Paige and in 1948, Doby and Paige would find themselves with the distinction of being the first black baseball players to play on a World Series champion team. (Jackie Robinson fell just short of this when his Brooklyn Dodgers fell to the Yankees four games-to-three in the 1947 World Series.)
It should come as no surprise then, that both Rickey’s and Veeck’s ideas have each been taken into the modern game. The idea of finding ways to put butts in the seats and, once there, keeping them there, remains at the core of the business of baseball. Certainly advertising revenues and television contracts have become a large part of the financial aspect of baseball, but without fan interest, neither one of those financial resources could possibly exist.
While the number of black players on Major League rosters as a percentage of the entire league’s player population has decreased, baseball remains a very diverse environment, and the expansion of scouting into foreign markets has helped make Major League Baseball perhaps one of most diverse sports leagues in the entire world. As of 2013, African-Americans made up 8.3% of major league rosters, though 22.1% (7 of 31) of all players drafted in the first round that year were of African-American descent. 28.2% of Major League baseball players were Latino, and 2.1% were Asian.
So what can be made of the current state of baseball? What are the reasons behind the decline of African-American players in the Major Leagues (the peak for blacks as a percentage of Major Leaguers was in 1975 when the number reached 27%) and are there ways to bring those numbers back up? How has the business of baseball changed the balance in baseball’s diversity? And notably, is it possible that Major League Baseball’s recent increase in Cuban players is having a similar impact on current politics as the integration of black players had on the Civil Rights movement?
On August 28th, 1945, Branch Rickey decided to take his baseball pioneering efforts and steer them into the area of race relations and civil rights.
Jack Roosevelt Robinson may not have been the greatest black baseball player to ever play the game, even at the time he signed his first deal with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a contract that gave him an opportunity to earn a spot with the minor league Montreal Royals. That distinction might have gone to Josh Gibson, whose Negro League power was so prolific that, depending on what source you cite, if Negro League records were acknowledged with the same weight that Major League Baseball records were, Barry Bonds would still be chasing his ghost. Baseball’s Hall of Fame uncertainly proclaims Gibson’s total to be “almost 800 home runs” while some records put Gibson’s total somewhere around 962. Satchel Paige is another candidate: who while in his prime, had a fastball so fast that Joe DiMaggio called him “the best and fastest pitcher I’ve ever seen.” Paige himself wound up being a bit of an oddity. While there were always questions as to his age, one report shows that he threw three innings for the Kansas City Royals against the Boston Red Sox in 1965 when he was reportedly 59 years old.
While Paige would eventually break into Major League Baseball himself, and pitch surprisingly well for a man in his 40’s, even being named to two All-Star teams, it’s hard to dispute the impact that Jackie Robinson had when he broke through, nor is it easy to imagine the resistance he received from fans, other teams and even his own teammates.
In what turned out to be a sign-of-the-times invention, Dixie Walker circulated a petition that was signed by several Brooklyn Dodger players saying that they would not play if Jackie Robinson was on the team. Lost in the history, of course, is Walker’s explanation that his rationale behind circulating the petition was not a personal objection to Robinson, but rather a reaction to customers of his wholesaling business who threatened to boycott his products if he played ball with a black man. Walker later called the petition the “stupidest thing he had done in his life” and said he was “very sorry” for having circulated it.
Robinson would also take a great deal of verbal abuse from fans and opposing players and managers alike. The famous photos of Robinson with Ben Chapman came about only after Chapman dealt Robinson a great deal of verbal abuse during a game. The infamous photo of Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around Robinson at Crosley Field was taken only after Robinson took a great deal of abuse from fans at that ballpark.
However, Robinson persevered, and more black ball players followed him to the Major Leagues. The Dodger organization itself brought in Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, who both became beloved figures within the franchise. Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League with the Cleveland Indians. And the 50’s and early 60’s gave rise to the likes of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey and Maury Wills.
Blacks had started to make their marks on baseball, and by the end of the 1960’s the business of baseball had expanded out to the Pacific Coast.
But that expansion came with a cost.
The O’Malley Step Back
Branch Rickey and Walter O’Malley were both forward-thinkers. But while Rickey’s ideas of progress involved expanding baseball by increasing its talent, O’Malley’s vision involved expanding baseball by making it a sea-to-sea sport. By 1950, O’Malley had put Rickey in a position where he felt compelled to sell his 25% stake in the Dodgers (which he did for $1,050,000.) Throughout the 1950’s, Rickey’s moves to integrate the Dodgers proved more and more successful, culminating in the Dodgers winning their first World Series championship in 1955 with a core that included Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe.
But something sinister was afoot.
O’Malley’s move of the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958 managed to break two communities. First, a community of National League baseball fans in Brooklyn and in New York City as a whole, were left heartbroken as both the Dodgers and the Giants left town for warmer climates in California. But just as dramatically, an entire community of Latinos in Chavez Ravine, a neighborhood just to the northwest of downtown Los Angeles, found themselves displaced. The Battle of Chavez Ravine came about because land that the city had begun to claim by eminent domain to build a public housing project suddenly was re-purposed and sold to the Dodgers by Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson in exchange for Wrigley Field, home of the Pacific Coast League Los Angeles Angels, which O’Malley had purchased for $3,000,000 along with the team in 1957 to facilitate the Dodgers’ move west by claiming the Los Angeles territory for himself.
The impact of The Battle of Chavez Ravine on the Latino community and their decision to stay away from Dodger Stadium did not begin to dissipate until 1981 when O’Malley’s son, Peter, owned the team and had begun to encourage a Branch Rickey-like effort to scout internationally to further build the Dodgers’ farm system and a young Mexican national by the name of Fernando Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium, leading the team to an Opening Day win, picking up both the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year Awards and eventually a World Series championship. Today at the ballpark a clear plurality if not the majority of Dodger fans are of Latin descent, but just as O’Malley’s partner Branch Rickey had helped baseball take a stride forward in breaking the color barrier, O’Malley’s deal with Mayor Poulson represented a step backward and created a color barrier between fans and the game of baseball in one of the sport’s largest markets.
Between O’Malley’s alienation of the Hispanic community in Los Angeles and the rise of Fernandomania, blacks had a golden age in Major League baseball.
1960’s and 1970’s: A Golden Era for Blacks in Baseball
Just shy of 27 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, another black man, Aaron, broke Ruth’s career home run record. Aaron did so for the Atlanta Braves against the Los Angeles Dodgers on April 8th, 1974.
As mentioned earlier, by 1975, African-Americans made up 27% of all players on Major League rosters, and some true greats had emerged. Mentionable among them:
-Hank Aaron, who in his time with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers, slugged 755 home runs, breaking Babe Ruth‘s previous record of 714. Aaron’s record would stand until 2007 when another black baseball player, Barry Bonds, would bring the record to a total of 762. If Negro league records were included, four of the top five home run hitters of all-time were black (Josh Gibson with “nearly 800,” Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron as the top 3, then Willie Mays with 660 at number 5 as of this writing. A Latin player, Alex Rodriguez, is currently sitting at number 6 with 655 career home runs and is poised to overtake Mays this season.)
-Willie Mays, the “Say Hey Kid,” who hit 660 career home runs and, along with another black player, first baseman Willie McCovey, made the heart of the Giants’ batting order one to be feared in San Francisco. Mays was also known in his early days for being one of the best defensive Center Fielders of all time, and his running over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series at the Polo Grounds can still be compared to any ESPN highlight today.
–Bob Gibson, who in 1968 not only pitched the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series victory, but won the National League MVP Award and the Cy Young Award while pitching his way to a microscopic 1.12 ERA.
–Reggie Jackson took on the moniker “Mr. October” for his World Series exploits. While not as prolific a slugger as Aaron or Mays, Reggie packed plenty of punch with 563 regular season home runs of his own and truly rose to the occasion in October. Jackson won a combined five World Championships, three with the Oakland Athletics and two with the New York Yankees. He won the American League MVP Award in 1973 and World Series MVP awards in 1973 and 1977, and his three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers made him the stuff of legend. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that those three home runs were only a fraction of the 10 total World Series homers he hit over the course of his career. Jackson would also win the American League home run title four times and wind up in the Hall of Fame.
–Curt Flood, while not as prolific a player as some of those previously mentioned, played a big role in the advent of modern free agency. By sitting out the 1970 season and suing Major League Baseball over the reserve clause, Flood was able to set a standard for future collective bargaining and eventually was traded from the Phillies to the Washington Senators, who signed him to a $110,000 contract. Some suggest that Flood’s decision ruined the conclusion of his career (he would play only one more season, 1971, and even within that only played 13 games,) but within 5 years baseball players were able to declare for free agency and the limitations of the reserve clause were slowly eliminated.
By 1980, it was clear that Branch Rickey’s risk in breaking the color barrier had paid off not only for the Dodgers (who had won 4 World Championships between 1947 and 1980,) but for other teams as well. However, while the 1980’s and 1990’s would continue to produce black stars, the lifestyle choices and exploits of some popular players along with the emergence of black stars in other sports began to create a shift in the sports preferences of black youth.
1980’s and 1990’s: The Beginning Of The Decline
The 80’s and 90’s featured some great black players. Tony Gwynn spent his entire career in a San Diego Padres uniform, batting .338 over the course of his career and threatening the .400 mark during the strike-shortened 1994 season, a year in which he was hitting .394 when play was stopped, earning himself the nickname “Mr. Padre” and a place in the Hall of Fame. Eddie Murray switch-hit his way into the 500-Home Run/3000-Hit club. Dave Winfield was an in-demand ballplayer for 22 major league seasons, racking up 3,000 hits of his own. Kirby Puckett helped bring two World Series titles to Minnesota, including hitting a walk-off homer in the Metrodome that inspired Jack Buck’s famous game-ending call of “and we’ll see you tomorrow night!” And Joe Carter hit a World Series-ending walk-off home run for the Toronto Blue Jays as the penultimate moment of serving as a team leader on the only Canadian teams to win World Series championships (the 1992 and 1993 back-to-back championships.)
These great moments, however, were blackened in large part by the behaviors and antics of other black players.
The 1986 Mets were perhaps the most dysfunctional group of the bunch, and it’s no surprise that some of the worst influences came from this grouping.
–Darryl Strawberry, whose prolific power swing brought him a grand total of 335 home runs, may have hit many more if he had not had struggles with cocaine, a drug that contributed to costing Strawberry some of his prime baseball seasons.
–Kevin Mitchell, an immensely talented player who not only struggled with drug issues but with some pretty severe anger issues. One of the most notorious stories regarding Mitchell involves a high and drunk Mitchell decapitating his girlfriend’s cat. While there are questions as to whether or not Mitchell actually did this, the fact that some people believed the story was a testament to Mitchell’s rage.
-While he wasn’t a member of the 1986 New York Mets, star Red Sox pitcher Oil Can Boyd admitted to using cocaine heavily throughout his career, estimating he was high at least two-thirds of the time that he pitched, and that he believed he could have won 150 career games had he not used (Boyd’s career record was 78-79.)
The drug problems that came with many of the young black superstars of the 80’s may have led to some reluctance in scouting them, and the self-destructive behaviors that came with those drug addictions could not have been conducive to a positive clubhouse environment. While it is difficult to find a public source that will outright say this, a 2001 article in Time Magazine highlights just how deeply the drug problem cut into Major League Baseball in the 80’s.
Meanwhile in the 1980’s, a shift in inner-city sports culture seemed to contribute to a change in what sports black athletes were playing.
In football, players like Randall Cunningham of the Philadelphia Eagles, Jerry Rice and Ronnie Lott of the San Francisco 49ers, Eric Dickerson of the Los Angeles Rams and Marcus Allen and Bo Jackson of the Los Angeles Raiders drew the attention of inner-city kids.
In basketball, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had a profound effect on the popularity of the sport and the Los Angeles Lakers, a predominantly black team that won five championships in the 1980’s, contributed to a rise in the popularity of basketball nationwide. During the late 80’s and throughout the 1990’s, the play of Michael Jordan and the six championships he won with the Chicago Bulls during that era further spurred the interest of young black athletes and drove them toward other sports.
Not all sources agree with this assessment however, as large numbers of black players already existed in both the NBA and the NFL. Sabernomics.com adds another factor to its analysis, the decline of community programs geared toward baseball in inner-cities where the largest number of African-Americans are concentrated.
Regardless of the reasons, blacks as of 2013 make up approximately 8.3% of all Major League roster positions.
A Shift To International Scouting, The Rise in Latin American Baseball and the Cuban Defections
While black players found a mixed bag of success and failure during the 1980’s, a shift in the wind as far as the direction of scouting was occurring. On April 9th, 1981 a young, heavyset Mexican named Fernando Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium in place of an injured Jerry Reuss and pitched a 2-0 shutout against the Houston Astros. Over course of the first month of the season, Valenzuela would pitch 45 innings, including 4 shutouts and 5 complete games and allow only one run and “Fernandomania” was born. After nearly 20 years of staying away from Dodger Stadium after The Battle of Chavez Ravine, the rise of a young Mexican superstar, began to bring Los Angeles’s large Latino population to the ballpark, and with it, an understanding that there was talent to be scouted in Latin America
The scouting efforts went beyond Mexico. Baseball has become incredibly popular in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. By 2007, 42.7 percent of all minor league ballplayers were born outside of the United States and of those 80% were from either the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. Some of the game’s recent superstars have come from Latin America, among them Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez (who was born in San Diego but spent a large amount of his childhood splitting time between San Diego and Tijuana,) Francisco Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Miguel Tejada, Johan Santana and Pedro Martinez. The impact of Latinos on baseball is undeniable, and Major League Baseball continues to have a heavy scouting presence in several Latin countries.
The Dodgers themselves have continued to scour the globe for the best talent, and their signing of Hideo Nomo, a Japanese pitcher, and Chan Ho Park, a South Korean, contributed heavily to an increase in interest in scouting the Asian markets. Recently the Dodgers have also brought over Hiroki Kuroda from the Japanese league and Hyun-jin Ryu from the Korean League. Japanese-born Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees and Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers also currently contribute to their teams in significant ways when healthy. Players of Asian descent now make up 2.1% of Major league rosters (as of 2013.)
The current trend in Major League Baseball, however, appears to be developing the Cuban market. Brothers Livan Hernandez and Orlando Hernandez both served as early examples of Cuban defectors who found Major League success. However, it’s the recent batch of Cuban defectors that seem to be making the movement permanent. Prior to the 2012 season, the Oakland Athletics signed Yoenis Cespedes who drew intrigue for his power, speed, and supposed ability to leg press over thirteen-hundred pounds. In 2013 the Dodgers brought up Yasiel Puig after signing him to a seven-year, $42 million contract and were instantly rewarded with jaw-dropping throws, breath-taking plays in the outfield, and long home runs while also dealing with Puig’s immaturity as he adjusted to the game. Jose Fernandez has made a large impact on the Miami Marlins’ pitching staff, and while Fernandez has been shelved due to Tommy John surgery the young pitcher has already wowed those who watch him. More recently, Yoan Moncada and Hector Olivera have commanded large contracts from the Red Sox and Dodgers respectively.
As an interesting historical note, just as Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line helped to contribute to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the defection of many of Cuba’s young star baseball players to the United States may be a contributing factor involved in the thawing of relations between Cuba and the United States, with President Obama’s April 11th face-to-face meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama marking the first time in 50 years that the heads of state of the U.S. and Cuba have had a face-to-face meeting. The economic opportunities presented by Major League Baseball may be about to break another barrier and allow for young Cuban talent to have a more direct, less treacherous path to the Major Leagues, while also allowing for Cuban Americans to go home to see family members that some have not seen in decades.
There is no doubt that Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier completely changed both the game and the business of baseball, and the fact that his number 42 is retired all throughout baseball stands as a symbol of baseball not only as a sport but as a cultural and even political institution.
Diversity in Major League baseball in and of itself is clearly not an issue. Most Major League rosters feature a bevy of players who are foreign-born or of color. As a long-term trend-setter as far as baseball opportunity, it should be noted that the most recent Los Angeles Dodgers roster features three African-American players in Carl Crawford, Howie Kendrick and Jimmy Rollins while also featuring several Latino players including Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Juan Nicasio, Andre Ethier (whose mother is of Latin descent,) Pedro Baez, Yimi Garcia, and Cubans Yasiel Puig and Alex Guerrero. The Dodgers also feature one Asian-born player, left-handed starting pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu.
Still, as baseball expands its talent pool, it’s important to remember the black community’s historic contributions to the game and to expand back into those communities. Major League Baseball can do so by reaching out through programs such as RBI and by having each of their big league teams run clinics focused on teaching the fundamentals of the game to inner city youth, inviting those youth to the ballpark to see the game for themselves, and investing monies in Little League programs as well as high school baseball programs.
As the 68th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first major league game is upon us and as players once again put on number 42 to celebrate Robinson and the diversity of the game, it is clear that Major League Baseball has come a long way, but that there is still work to be done to ensure that all who wish to play the game will have opportunities to do so and that Jackie Robinson’s legacy will live on.