Robinson Day Brings Pang of Guilt to MLB — But Are Times Just Different?

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As a minor barrier breaker myself, I honor Jackie Robinson.

Today is the 66th anniversary of the breakthrough in our nation’s pastime.

I didn’t play shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers. My barrier was in broadcast journalism. In 1989, I was the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” for two years. I was the first Asian-American male and first-Filipino-American to host a national news program.

Since then, let me know if you’ve seen or heard all the Asian-American males in similar roles.

In that sense, as important as a breakthrough can be, sustaining the momentum is equally as important. That’s called progress, and it’s harder to come by than you think.

Just look at baseball today. Nearly three generations after Robinson, the number of Black players in the major leagues is just around 8.5 percent. By MLB’s own estimate, that’s half of what it was from the mid-70s through the mid-90s.

According to the Player Diversity Report (released on 11/13/12), the diversity of the player profile on 40-man Major League rosters was 62 percent Caucasian, 28 percent Hispanic, 8 percent African-American, 1 percent Asian and 0.2 percent American Indian.

Compare that to the overall U.S. 2011 Census Data: 63 percent White non-Hispanics; 16.7 percent Hispanic;13.1 percent African-American; 5 percent Asian-American; 1.2 percent American Indian.

Frankly, the Asian numbers in the big leagues are misleading. Most of the Asians are really Asian from Japan or Korea, and not Asian-American like, say, the Giants’ Tim Lincecum from the state of Washington. Just the same, the numbers, in particular the Black-player numbers, are giving Major League Baseball a diversity attack.

Last week, it announced a diversity committee, which is the surest sign of institutional guilt. At least a committee can issue a report when nothing substantial gets done. Still, maybe the situation is not as bad as some think. Diversity, as it turns out, complicates the issue.

There are a lot of Blacks in the game, if you count Black Hispanics in the major leagues. In the old days, Puerto Ricans, Venezuelans, Dominicans and Cubans were included in the number of Blacks that brought that number to nearly 20 percent or more at times.

The new numbers leave them out, and count only African-Americans — the descendants of the Henry Aarons, not the Roberto Clementes.

In fact, if you count the Latino and Afro-Latino players, there are more players of color than ever before.

The reasons U.S. Blacks aren’t becoming baseball players is still an issue, but it may be due to other issues. A lack of fields in urban environments certainly contributes. In their place are the concrete playgrounds where basketball reigns. There is no lack of African-Americans in the NBA.

But it’s also tough to impose “quota”-like standards for any sport when it comes to athletes on the field. Diversity works well for evaluating front office personnel. But as for players who play the game, shouldn’t it be less about race, and more about sheer talent? Sports, after all, is the ultimate meritocracy.

Robinson was an important marker because talented Black athletes were shut out of the game and relegated to the “separate but equal” Negro Leagues. Now talented Black athletes have real choices.

As I mentioned, there may still be racism at play. I’m just not sure at this point in history if the lack of African-Americans in Major League Baseball is due to the same kind of racism Robinson faced.

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