A special day to be a Dodger: What Jackie Robinson Day means to me
This story appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
I always thought it was special to be a black player on the Dodgers. I was even a little envious of those guys, especially on Jackie Robinson Day. I used to think how awesome it was not only to wear his number 42 on your back but also his team’s name across your chest, and how that was something I would love to do one day. Being in Philadelphia for so long—14 full seasons—I didn’t think it would ever happen, but it will on April 15. Putting on Jackie’s uniform, in my first season with Los Angeles, will be a powerful moment for me.
The Dodgers and Branch Rickey had the courage to not only change baseball but also to help push America into the civil rights era, and Jackie had the courage to not fight back against all the abuse he took. Sometimes I ask myself, Could I have done that if I were in his shoes? I’m not sure. I do know that the sacrifices that he made are a significant part of the reason why all African-Americans, and Latin Americans too, can play the game today.
I can’t imagine my life without baseball. One of my first memories is of sitting on my dad’s shoulders and watching my mother play softball at a field off High Street in Oakland, next to a rock quarry. I don’t know if it was the sound of the bat, the movement, the strategy—but it was like this is what I want to do. I was about four. Back then in the Bay Area if you weren’t playing baseball, you were wasting your time. Everybody played ball, and when I wasn’t playing it myself, I was watching the A’s, especially Rickey Henderson. Yes, Rickey was a great player, but he was also an entertainer, and I loved that. I’d imitate him stealing a base in my living room, lining up on one couch and sliding into the other.
Jackie Robinson Day is a celebration, but it’s also an appropriate occasion to consider why there don’t seem to be as many baseball-loving African-American kids, and why there are fewer African-American players in the big leagues than in the past. It’s a complex issue, but I have a few ideas. One is that baseball is now a very expensive sport. It didn’t used to be that way. You could try out for a team, and all you needed was a glove and cleats. Now, with all these year-round travel teams, parents have to pay for transportation, hotels, lots of gear—and if you can’t afford it, they’ll move on to someone else who can. That is a big factor. I’d love to see Major League Baseball develop and support more youth baseball leagues that are accessible to everyone.
I believe the way the game is marketed has a lot to do with why black kids are picking other sports, especially football and basketball. Baseball is stuck in a lot of its old ways—you play the game, put your head down, shake hands and go in the clubhouse. There isn’t much room for the entertainment part of it. And while other leagues encourage players to do cool commercials and things like that, we don’t have the Peyton Mannings doing Nationwide ads or the Chris Pauls doing those spots for State Farm, showing their personalities and senses of humor. I came up in the Derek Jeter era. He was the Man. No one was even close in popularity, and he made shortstop sexy again. But I think baseball relied on him so much that it was a little slow to do some of the progressive things that other leagues were doing. Now that Jeter’s gone, who is next? I think the league will have to really push to market many different stars with many different types of personalities to attract different types of kids. You’re only going to want to be what you can see.
When I was a rookie, I went to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City and got to speak to Buck O’Neil, who told me stories about all he went through as a player and a manager. I loved that. At that point, I started wearing cropped pants, with high socks, every Sunday as a tribute to the Negro leagues. I did it early in my career, but I haven’t for a while. On Jackie Robinson Day, though, I’m planning to wear my pants that way again, in honor of not just Jackie but all the pioneers who made my life in baseball possible. When you see me in high blue socks on Wednesday, you’ll know why.