JACKIE ROBINSON, JASON HEYWARD, WILLIE MAYS, BABE RUTH, JIM BROWN
JACKIE ROBINSON: As it does every year, the anniversary of Robinson’s 1947 breaking of the color line in baseball has engendered discussions about why the number of American blacks in baseball has declined in recent years.
There are multiple reasons but the most important one is the change in the U.S. sports scene.
When Robinson broke in, baseball was the unquestioned No. 1 professional sport in this country. Salaries were nothing like they are now, but they were still higher than in other sports. (Interestingly enough, that was true even for the Negro League, before Robinson. A recent biography on Willie Mays notes that, though he may have been an even better football and basketball player in his youth, he was steered into baseball because it was the only sport where he could make any money – in the Negro League, in which he played when he was only 15.)
Robinson’s debut not only opened up baseball for blacks but also professional basketball and football. Technically, the NFL had been integrated by Kenny Washington in the early ‘40s (who, like Robinson, had gone to UCLA) but it wasn’t really open to blacks until after Robinson’s debut. Basketball wasn’t integrated until the ‘50s. The late Don Barksdale, an Oakland native, was the third black signed, after Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd.
Now, basketball is the first choice for young blacks. Football is next. Why? Because of the change in the sports structure.
At the time Robinson broke the color line, very few baseball players ever went to college. They signed out of high school, played in the minors and, if they were lucky, graduated to the major leagues.
Now, many baseball players have at least some college behind them. But college baseball is not a major sport, with some exceptions, so teams don’t give many scholarships. The only way poor black youths can go to college is on a scholarship The result: College baseball has become an almost all-white game. Take a look at the College World Series some time and count the black faces. You may not even reach one.
When the baseball draft is held, there are many college players taken, and virtually none of them are black.
Meanwhile, football and basketball scholarships are plentiful. So, the choice for a young black athlete in high school is usually: 1) Sign a minor league baseball contract and ride the buses for 3-4 years in the hopes of getting a shot with a major league club; or 2) Get a basketball or football scholarship and go directly to the NBA or NFL, after only one year for many basketball players.
Which choice do you think they’ll make?
The other major change has been the number of foreign players in the game, particularly the Latinos from the Caribbean or northern part of South America. (In the southern part, there are only three sports – soccer, soccer and more soccer.)
Major league clubs are sponsoring baseball academies in that area which not only teach baseball but also give Latino youngsters three good meals a day, which most of them have never had. Baseball is a way out for them.
Joe Morgan, who is disturbed by the fall off in young American blacks coming into baseball, has pushed for the idea of baseball academies in this country. That would probably boost black participation, especially for those who are normal size – baseball and soccer are the two major sports who do not require outsized athletes – but it probably wouldn’t significantly change the trend.
Some baseball fans worry that this trend may mean that we will never see the next Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. That’s something we’ll never know. What we do know is that people generally act in what they think is their best interest. For young American black athletes today, that means going to football or basketball.
LINE OF THE WEEK: “When Sharks fans root for their team to score a goal, they should be more specific.” –Janice Hough, Palo Alto.
BASEBALL STRATEGY: Sometimes, I watch baseball games and scratch my head at the managerial moves.
Case in point: The Giants’ 2-1 loss to the Dodgers in Los Angeles last Sunday. With one out and a runner at first, Giants manager had closer Brian Wilson warm but brought in Sergio Romo to pitch to Manny Ramirez.
There are two things that bothered me about that. One is that it is a part of a trend started by Tony La Russa, to use his closer only when his team had a lead in the ninth inning, and then, only for that inning. It was a perfect strategy for La Russa because he had great setup men and Dennis Eckersley wouldn’t have been effective if he’d had to pitch more innings at that stage of his career. But managers today do that with much younger pitchers who could easily go 2-3 innings, and teams lose games because of that.
Bochy has brought Wilson into games in the eighth inning. This time, he apparently brought in Romo because he had struck out Ramirez in each of the two times he had faced earlier. Can we say “too small a sample size?” Especially against a great clutch hitter like Ramirez, who homered to win the game.
But that decision wasn’t as much of a headscratcher as one by Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, who is headed toward the Hall of Fame; in the Giants home opener, Cox had his No. 3 hitter put down a sacrifice bunt in the third inning, though Giants starter Jonathan Sanchez was clearly struggling. The Braves got two runs in the inning but Cox’s strategy cost them a chance at a much bigger inning. The Giants won the game in extra innings.
BASEBALL HISTORY: Jason Heyward of the Braves is probably the most acclaimed rookie since Ken Griffey Jr. He has long been groomed for baseball success by his father and is an impressive physical specimen, at 6-4 and 245 pounds. His teammates are awed by his potential. “He might be the best 20-year-old rookie to ever play,” said catcher Brian McCann.
Of course, McCann is like everybody of his age, including athletes: They know nothing of sports history. Last night’s “Sports Center” is as far back as they want to go. In fact, there are other young rookies Heyward probably won’t surpass.
Griffey was actually a year younger, at 19, when he came up, but there are three Hall of Fame players who were rookies at 20 in the ‘50s. Hank Aaron hit 13 home runs and .280 for the Braves; Willie Mays hit .274 with 20 home runs in 121 games, excelled as a baserunner and played probably the best center field in history. Frank Robinson had 38 homers in 121 games, along with 27 doubles and six triples, while hitting .290.
Heyward has hit for average in his brief minor league career, but his home run totals have been modest. I doubt he will match Robinson’s offensive figures, nor will he equal Mays in overall performance; nobody raves about Heyward’s defense or baserunning.
And, if you go further back in history, you find another 20-year-old rookie in 1915, Babe Ruth, who had played briefly as a 19-year-old the season before. Ruth was primarily a pitcher then and went 18-8 with an ERA of 2.44. He also hit .315 in 92 at-bats, with four home runs and 21 RBIs, which would have projected to about 24 home runs and 126 RBIs if he’d been playing as the outfielder he later became.
Heyward may become a great player and the Rookie of the Year, but the best 20-year-old rookie? He’ll have to stand in line.
A’S HITTING; For the last several years, the A’s have had a similar pattern: They’ll occasionally break out with multi-hit games and high run totals but in most games, they’ll scramble to score more than 2-3 games.
Marty Lurie has the best explanation for this: The A’s work the count, so they’re often In good hitter’s counts, 2-0, 3-1. Good pitchers can still overwhelm them with live fast balls – Felix Hernandez is a good example – but they light up mediocre pitchers.
That trend has continued this year, but the A’s seem to have better hitters than before, so there may be more games in the high-scoring category.
BASEBALL ATTENDANCE: There have been some shockingly low attendances around the majors this season; when the A’s drew only a little more than 12,000 on the first Friday night of the season, there were even lower figures at other parks.
The reason is obvious: The country is in a severe recession, and that’s especially true in the Midwest cities whose economies have been closely tied to the automobile industry.
But baseball has created part of the problem on its own by getting away from its blue collar roots. Owners chase free agents and drive salaries up and up and up. Twenty years ago, the A’s had the highest team payroll in the majors at $40 million. Their current payroll of $51 million is near the bottom. The Yankees, of course, are No. 1 at more than $200 million.
The owners have just kept raising ticket prices, to help pay the higher player salaries. Baseball once was the family game but it’s hard to call it that any more because of the higher prices.
Meanwhile, more and more games are being televised; virtually all the Giants and A’s games are on TV this season. Football is the best game for TV because the camera always follows the ball, as fans almost always do at the stadium, and there is time between plays to re-run the last one. But baseball is good on TV, too, and in one respect, is better than being at a game because you get a much closer look at the pitcher-batter confrontation which is at the heart of a baseball game. I often use telecasts to supplement what I learn at the park.
I’m sure many of the fans who are now staying away from the park are watching games on TV. And, who knows how many of them will return when the economy revives? They may just decide to watch games on TV and use their money for something else.
It would be nice to think that these attendance figures will be a wake-up call to owners, but I doubt it. All the economic crisis means to them is that their stocks have declined in value, and that’s only temporary. Even now, stocks are coming back. There won’t be any owners who have to sell – with the possible exception of America’s favorites with the Los Angeles Dodgers – and they certainly won’t consider cutting ticket prices;.
BEN ROTHLISBERGER: The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback won’t face criminal charges but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has made it clear that doesn’t mean he won’t be disciplined by the NFL. Any action will wait until the draft is over, so it doesn’t distract from those proceedings.
The Steelers have also said they’ll cooperate with Goodell, so it will be a joint action. The Rooney family which owns the Steelers has been involved with the NFL since the early days. In terms of working with the league, the Rooneys are on the opposite end of the spectrum from Al Davis.
There is little doubt that there will be some punishment for Rothlisberger, who is an embarrassment to the league. My guess is that it will involve a suspension of at least four games and mandatory counseling.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Think football isn’t big in the South? Consider this: Alabama drew 90,000 fans for its spring game, while Tennessee is charging media $50 to attend practice.
WRETCHED EXCESS: The NFL draft is stretched out over two nights and one day this year, in prime time on the East Coast for the first and second rounds, on Thursday and Friday nights.
This is a far cry from what it was when I covered the Raiders, 1967-71. Then, it was held in February, and there were 17 rounds. That gave Davis a chance to indulge himself with late round picks based on speed and size while still getting good players in earlier rounds to build the team.
After the draft, teams basically shut down until training camp started in July. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Now, pro football is virtually a year-round sport and the draft is huge. It seems everybody has a mock draft. When I wrote yesterday in The Examiner that I hadn’t seen the name of Mike Lupati (whom I misidentified as being from Boise State, instead of Idaho) in connection with the 49ers, I heard from a reader who told me about a site that did exactly that. Of course, I hadn’t looked at all the mock drafts because I have a life. That is not an option for your true draftnik.
Frankly, this is all guess work, because none of us ever see the team boards, which show how they rate players. I make my observations based on my long experience with NFL clubs and knowing how they operate. Some fans, though, are confident they have all the answers. One reader responded to my Examiner column by naming off the players he is certain will be taken in the first seven picks and then listed the next 10 who will be taken, and his evaluation of the value of all 10. An obvious case of not knowing what he doesn’t know.
BTW, I will be writing on the 49ers and Raiders first round picks for Friday’s Examiner.
FANTASY FOOTBALL: The fantasy football craze really began in Oakland in the mid-‘60s with GOPPL at the King’s X sports bar, then owned by Andy Mousalimas. Andy has kept the original draft sheets, which he showed me for one of the last stories I wrote for The Chronicle.
A few months back, an independent producer approached Andy and said he was doing something for ESPN on this craze. But when the show was done, it supported the spurious claim that a New York group had been the first to do it in the early ‘70s.
It’s obvious what happened: There are far more people in New York, and New Yorkers always like to think that nothing important happens outside their city. The rest of us know better.
JIM BROWN: To say that Brown is different is understating the case. I was at Canton when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame (The Chronicle had sent me because Y. A. Tittle also went in that day) and Brown basically told those in attendance the he did it his way and they could f---- themselves if they didn’t like it. When he finished, there was the sound of one hand clapping.
At Rich Lieberman’s event honoring him, Brown said, “People ask me why I quit football at 29. Well, I went to Hollywood, made a lot of money making movies and got to make love onscreen to Raquel Welch.”
Sounds like a good plan.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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