Analysis: New heyday for Jackie Robinson

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  April 7, 2005 at 6:08 PM
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LOS ANGELES, April 7 (UPI) -- As Hollywood prepares to make a new movie biography of baseball legend Jackie Robinson, a new report finds that -- a half-century after Robinson broke the color line in the big leagues -- the percentage of black players in Major League Baseball is at a 25-year low.

According to a report in The Baltimore Sun, researchers at the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport came up with that number when they analyzed the percentage of African-American big leaguers during the 2004 season. The researchers found that just 9 percent of all major leaguers last year were African-American.

The Sun said that -- for the first time in more than 40 years -- the Baltimore Orioles' Opening Day roster had no black players from the United States.

Pat Williams, senior vice president of the NBA's Orlando Magic and author of the new book "How to Be Like Jackie Robinson," told United Press International he guessed young black Americans are preoccupied with other things -- including basketball and football.

"In the schools and in the inner city, basketball is certainly the cool sport," he said. "Baseball requires so much more. You've got to have fields, you've got to have equipment. Above all you've you got to have a way of getting to the fields, which with working mothers is very hard."

Williams -- who is also an in-demand motivational speaker -- said he interviewed more than 1,100 people for the Jackie Robinson book. He said most of them shared similar thoughts about Robinson, who became the first black player in Major League Baseball on April 15, 1947, when he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"Many of the themes I picked up are similar," said Williams, "courage, competitiveness, leadership and his desire to serve other people."

Perhaps the most constant theme that shows up in "How to Be Like Jackie Robinson" is Robinson's discipline. He was under strict orders from Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey not to retaliate during his first two years in the majors for the abuse he would take from fans, opponents and even -- at first, anyway -- some teammates.

There is general agreement that if Robinson had fought back, it would have been a huge setback for integration.

"There would have been no Henry Aaron, or Willie Mays, or Ernie Banks," said Williams, referring to three Hall of Fame players who followed Robinson into the National League. "The lords of baseball would have shut that thing down and said, 'See, it didn't work.'"

Williams said many of those he spoke with told him they often asked Robinson how he was able to go through with Rickey's plan.

"Because it was not his nature to turn the other cheek," said Williams. "It was his nature to choke you. He was a competitor. He was a proud man."

The movie biography is being produced by the Baldwin Entertainment Group, which produced last year's Oscar-winning biography of Ray Charles. Howard Baldwin will join Robert Redford's Wildwood Enterprises for the project, and Redford is set to play Rickey.

"It's simply a great story -- and one that most don't know about -- how the color barrier was broken and changed the face of baseball and ultimately the country," Redford told Daily Variety.

Robinson starred as himself in "The Jackie Robinson Story," a 1950 feature that also featured Ruby Dee as Robinson's wife Rachel. No decision has been made on who will star in the new picture, but Baldwin has expressed an interest in Jamie Foxx -- who won an Oscar last year for "Ray" -- and Williams said he has heard Wesley Snipes might be a candidate.

Snipes knows his way around the base path -- having played Cleveland Indians outfielder Willie Mays Hayes in the 1989 comedy "Major League" and all-star San Francisco Giants centerfielder Bobby Rayburn in the 1996 drama "The Fan."

Williams is hoping the movie will do for Robinson what "Ray" did for Ray Charles: reminding young people that some folks they consider "old school" can also be all-time greats.

"We forget our heroes pretty quickly," he said.

Williams evoked the name of Vince Coleman, who played for 13 years in the majors with the Cardinals, Mets, Royals, Reds and Tigers, and who was notoriously quoted in the 1990s as saying, "I don't know no Jackie Robinson."

As Baltimore's Opening Day approached, former Orioles all-star player and new Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson called it a sad day for the Orioles and baseball that there are no African-Americans on the team.

"But it's not something that will shock me," he told The Sun, "because it started to happen over the years, that the overall numbers of African-Americans in baseball were shrinking at an alarming rate, but it doesn't seem to get anybody's attention."

At the same time, the paper reported that the Orioles' clubhouse is among the most ethnically diverse in baseball. Thirteen of its 25 roster players are Latinos or foreign-born -- including at least one each from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, Aruba and Canada.

Robinson was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in ceremonies last month in Washington, D.C. In 1997, on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Dodgers, Major League Baseball retired his uniform No. 42 throughout the big leagues.


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