Jackie Robinson Day, which started in 2004 as a well intended tribute to a great American, has become a meaningless event that should but will not be cancelled.
Many fans celebrated Robinson’s day on April 15th, the actual calendar date in 1947 that he first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Since the Pirates have been out of town for a week, Pittsburgh and other teams that were on the road will honor Robinson on April 22nd, preposterous though that is.
What we have is every player wearing #42, officially retired from use in 1997, even though they can’t tell you much more about Robinson than that he was Major League Baseball’s first African-American and that he suffered many indignities throughout his career. My educated guess is that if the nearly 1,000 major league players, coaches and managers were asked to write an intelligent 200-word essay about Robinson, the majority couldn’t do it. Neither could the fans. If the MLB’s original intention was to illuminate fans about Robinson’s contributions to the civil rights movement and American eventual integration, then it’s failed. The average person doesn’t know much more about Robinson today than he did seven—or even 20— years ago.
The irony is that since Robinson Day was launched, the percentage of baseball’s African-Americans has declined while Hispanic players have increased. Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen has long lobbied that Roberto Clemente’s number 21 should also be retired and that the Puerto Rican should like Robinson have a day of his own.
What about other pioneer players from foreign countries? Should there be days for the first Dominican, Venezuelan and Japanese players? In our politically correct society, wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? After all, they’ve assumed an increasingly prominent role in baseball. (For the record they are Ozzie Virgil, Chico Carrasquel and Masanori Murakami.)
I’m not really suggesting that the former San Francisco Giants’ Murakami, an above average pitcher, would in any way be the equal to Robinson. But I’m sure that Asian advocacy groups could make a case on his behalf. Some one could argue that Murakami paved the way for one of the greatest hitters of our era, Ichiro Suzuki. Furthermore, Murakami a non-English speaker, must have faced many uncomfortable barriers that included racial slurs during his 1964-1965 career.
Once organized professional sports goes down the tributary road, it never ends. Over the weekend, I noticed that the Los Angeles Dodgers are wearing #4 (Snider) while both the Tigers and the Reds have “Sparky” emblazoned on their sleeves. The Pirates trumped the Dodgers and Reds with a two-fer. Inside a Willie Stargell star, which the slugger gave out to teammates who made the largest contribution in winning efforts, is #7, former manager Chuck Tanner’s number. Stargell has been dead for a decade; Tanner, for a month.
Happily, I’m not alone in my skepticism. When he was still with the Minnesota Twins, Torii Hunter said in reference to Robinson Day: “This is supposed to be an honor and just a handful of guys wearing the number. Now you’ve got entire teams doing it. I think we’re killing the meaning. It should be special wearing Jackie’s number, not just because it looks cool.”
CC Sabathia, who decries the diminishing numbers of African Americans in the game, agrees with Hunter: “It kind of waters it down. I could see the Dodgers since that was his team, but not everyone else.”
We live in the era of overkill. If something is good, then multiplied by ten, it becomes ten times better especially if it might help sell tickets or merchandise.