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April 15, 2010


MLB Should Step Up to the Plate for Jackie Robinson Day

by Jay Jaffe

Today marks the 63rd anniversary of one of the great days in American history, the day that Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier by taking the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's a day to pause a moment and reflect upon Robinson's immeasurable courage in battling racism, and the impact his bold success had on this country. From the integration of the military to the Civil Rights movement to the election of Barack Obama to the United States presidency, Robinson's arrival in the major leagues forced America to live up to its ideals of equality, and his actions changed the course of this country's history in ways that continue to be felt.

MLB tries to make a big to-do about Jackie Robinson Day. For starters, there's commissioner Bud Selig's reductio ad absurdum which mandates that every player wear number 42 in Robinson's honor. It's a gesture that's supposed to express the unity of all players in uniform regardless of color or background, and in a way it does.* Nonetheless, it's also rather silly. How many announcers does it take to quip, "You can't tell the players even with a scorecard today," before the whole thing turns into a joke? I heard it at least three times today.

More troubling than that is the fact that MLB scarcely puts its money where its mouth is regarding the day. In an industry whose revenues are around $6 billion (going by the latest Forbes figures), today's Barry Bloom piece on MLB.com trumpets the following:

Two years ago, MLB made a major $1.2 million commitment to the Robinson Foundation over a four-year period to fund scholarships in the name of each of the 30 clubs. Each year, $300,000 is invested, representing 30 scholorships [sic] worth $10,000.

Derek Jeter, the Yankees captain and all-time hits leader, donates a scholarship in perpetuity at the $250,000 level. He remains the only Major League player that endows a Robinson scholarship.

DuPuy said that MLB's contribution has no time limit and will go beyond the current term of agreement.

I'm sorry, but $1.2 million? That doesn't even buy you a futility infielder these days, and $300,000 isn't even the major league minimum salary anymore. Hell, one benevolent superstar's own foundation nearly equals the entire MLB contribution! Why is he the only one?

While the scholarship money is certainly important to the people who receive it, it's still the equivalent of pocket change left on the nightstand as opposed to a truly meaningful contribution. If baseball really wanted to make an impact in Robinson's name, whether via the Robinson Foundation, the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiative (which combats the shrinking participation in the game by African Americans), or other worthy organizations, it could donate a single day's gate receipts instead of contributing such a token amount.

According to the annual Team Marketing Report, the average non-premium ticket price this year is $26.74. Multiply that by the 2009 average attendance of 30,323 per game times 15 home games around the majors and you've got about $12.2 million to spread around, roughly 40 times the amount MLB is trumpeting about contributing annually. Sure, weekday attendance might actually make for smaller per-game attendance, but we haven't even included premium ticket prices in the equation, to say nothing of corporate sponsors. In any event, we're talking about a substantially larger amount of money being spread around to honor baseball's most important contribution this country's history.

Come on, Bud, step up to the plate.

* Update: Watching Thursday night's Dodger game, I heard Vin Scully re-tell a story — told by Dodger pitcher Carl Erskine first in his book What I Learned from Jackie Robinson and then to the New York Times' Dave Anderson here — in which the Dodgers played a game in Cincinnati after Robinson had received a death threat. Police sharpshooters covered the ballpark, making for a tense situation. At a team meeting, outfielder Gene Hermanski offered a suggestion for the Dodgers manager (in the book, it's Burt Shotton, in 1947, in the Times it's Charlie Dressen in 1951; Hermanski was on the team until June 15 of the latter year, but the date of the former is more plausible given the initial tension).  "Hey, Skip, I’ve got an idea," said Hermanski. "If we all wore 42 out there, they won’t know who to shoot.” The question introduced a bit of levity which helped ratchet down the tension; everybody, including Robinson, laughed. Read in light of that story, the act of every player wearing the number becomes one not just of unity but defiance.

The Jackie Robinson Plaque at 215 Montague St., Brooklyn, NY

The Jackie Robinson plaque located at 215 Montague St. in Brooklyn, the site of the Dodgers' headquarters where Branch Rickey signed Robinson to his first contract on August 28, 1945 — a five minute walk from my apartment, and a fitting place to pay tribute on this day.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Jackie Robinson

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Well said, Jay. Bravo.

Apr 16, 2010 05:14 AM
rating: 2
Brian Kopec

Now that's VORP you can't calculate.

Apr 16, 2010 06:18 AM
rating: 1

No moral or logical reason to care that black teenagers massively prefer basketball to baseball. And 99.99% of teenagers of ANY color do NOT need to be encouraged to aspire to being a sports hero when they grow up. Every penny that goes into a 'Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities' initiative ought to be stripped from it and instead put into libraries, or reading programs, or a 'Young Engineers' initiative, or something with an ounce of actual value in it.

Apr 16, 2010 09:28 AM
rating: 0

I disagree. It's one thing to want to be a star. It's another thing altogether to have the tools to get there. Basketball is fairly simple. Courts are all over the place, and you only need one ball for 10+ kids.
Baseball is more difficult. You need well-tended fields. Every kid needs a glove. They need a few balls. A couple of bats. Bases. Coaching and umpiring is also very helpful. How easy is it to get those things in the inner city.
Beyond that, this isn't coming at the expense of education. This is a safe alternative for recreational time. One of the best ways to keep a kid out of trouble is to give him or her a safe outlet for aggression/energy and the means and encouragement to participate in that outlet.

Apr 16, 2010 11:01 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

1. No MORAL reason, but we happen to like baseball here, and there's nothing wrong for advocating for its promotion, preservation, perpetuation. You're right that other kinds of programs have a greater impact on society, but they're are plenty who advocate for those. This is Baseball Prospectus, not the Great Society Prospectus.

2. Who the hell needs a moral reason? Just because teenagers don't NEED to be encouraged doesn't mean they shouldn't be. The more inclusive the game, the better for the game on all kinds of levels.

Apr 16, 2010 11:04 AM

One of those "can't 'Post Reply'" guys here.

OK, I'll acknowledge the baseball angle.

But NONE of the infrastructure is in place for inner-city baseball. Space: Goodness you need alot. Much better trying this in a rural black area. Capital: Baseball's very expensive. Expending the same amount of $$$, you can reach and affect far, far, far more inner-city kids spending it in 100-and-1 different ways.

I'm a white guy who's spent alot of time in inner cities. This 'baseball' idea is so out of touch. I just can't believe you guys have any current inner-city experience at all. If so, you wouldn't necessarily give this idea up. But at least you'd be acknowledging the incredible obstacles in the way of doing this effectively.

Apr 16, 2010 11:24 AM
rating: 0
BP staff member Christina Kahrl
BP staff

Sort of. In Chicago, funding for school sports looks like it's going to be cut back, while diamonds (and park space with the ruins of old backstops) are plentiful, and that's your basic infrastructure need beyond the people to run the program: real estate.

To some extent, baseball's already stepping up on that score. At least in my neighborhood in Chicago, far from the worst, but not notably among the best, for which I love it, I know that the White Sox kicked in to rehabilitate the diamonds in Pottawattomie Park. Now high school teams have a place to play, where no school sports were being played before. No, the diamonds don't have outfield fences or a scoreboard, but there's hardball being played four blocks from my home where there wasn't before, and that's a beautiful thing. Perhaps I'm being simplistic, but I call that progress.

If a corporately sponsored outside entity like RBI or a team wants to come into neighborhoods and get diamonds back in working order, and provide the organizational support for instruction, leagues, and teams, that seems like a great example of private industry picking up where public institutions have had to cut back, while doing a social good.

Admittedly, this is action related to their own industry, so it isn't perfect altruism, but considering they're a business providing aid in the form of creating the opportunity to let young people do in their neighborhoods what they do in majors and minors, it seems appropriate. It provides something of value that wouldn't exist otherwise. I call that active citizenship, and another positive.

As to Jay's original point about scholarships, that's also a good thing. Where I think Jay and I agree in particular isn't that we wish baseball would spend money in an entirely different way--as you seem to be proposing--as much as putting more into what they've already had the institutional willingness to initiate (with RBI) or work with (as with the Robinson Foundation's scholarships). I'm glad RBI is doing better than it was 10 years ago. I'm glad there's money going to the Robinson Foundation. And I'm comfortable with calling these things what they are: a good start.

Apr 17, 2010 08:28 AM
Pat Folz

I like what RBI actually does, fixing up existing facilities, helping leagues organize, providing scholarship support for participants, etc. I just wish MLB would market it as "doing our part to help clean up the inner cities," and not "encouraging inner city [black] youth to play baseball."

Apr 17, 2010 14:16 PM
rating: 0
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

I've lived in New York City for 15 years. Currently I live in Brooklyn, one block away from the Fulton Street Mall, whose pedestrian foot traffic is probably 75% African American, so please, skip the generalizations about levels of inner-city experience.

In any case, you appear to have missed my point, which has less to do with exactly what the money goes to than the fact that what MLB's scraping together on Robinson's behalf and then patting themselves on the back for having done is a token amount. If I haven't lost a zero on my calculator, the $300K they put in amounts to 0.05 percent of industry revenue, I'm suggesting that by devoting a day's gate receipts, they could up that to a whopping 0.2 percent.

Apr 17, 2010 08:45 AM
BP staff member Jay Jaffe
BP staff

In case it's not clear, that one was directed at Richie's Apr 16, 2010 11:24 AM comment, not Christina's above.

Apr 17, 2010 08:47 AM
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