Annual reports on the decreasing percentage of African Americans in Major League Baseball have become as recognizable a part of Jackie Robinson Day as all players wearing No. 42, though the White Sox are hoping to contribute to the reversal of that decline.
According to USA Today, 7.8 percent of major leaguers on 2014 Opening Day rosters were African American. Three teams (Arizona, San Francisco and St. Louis) don't have a single African-American player on their respective rosters. Thirty years ago, nearly one in every five major leaguers was African American, so the decline — and loss of talented athletes to sports like basketball and football — has been a concern for baseball's higher-ups in recent years.
"We've gone from a much higher percentage playing baseball to now by not being aware of the fact that it was happening," White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said. "Essentially Major League Baseball never really did anything to facilitate kids playing baseball. ... Eventually we came around to the realization that in the case of the minorities, particularly African-Americans, that if we want them in the big leagues we gotta go the next step and make it possible for them to play. We gotta help them play."
The White Sox are heavily invested in getting more young African Americans playing the game, with a handful of baseball academies around the Chicago area in order to provide those necessary facilities. Executive vice president and former general manager Kenny Williams is on a committee that's developing a plan to get more African American kids playing baseball. And prior to Tuesday's Jackie Robinson Day game, Reinsdorf, Williams, David Steele (of WBEZ) and Dr. Carol Adams (CEO of the DuSable Museum of African American History) held a forum attended by five local high schools to discuss Robinson's impact on baseball and American culture.
At the panel, a student asked Williams how baseball can get more African American players into the game. Williams' response, though, emphasized more than just baseball.
"I hate when I get that question," Williams said, "because I'm conflicted."
After the forum, Williams elaborated: "I know I’m supposed to say yes, I want more African Americans on that baseball field. I just want them to go through college first. I don’t want the dream to be about sports because I want all the other things, I want the incarceration rate to begin to drop, I want the dropout rate to drop. I want the family issues resolved in some of the communities we are talked about."
But if baseball is a vehicle for someone to earn a college scholarship, Williams said he's certainly all for that. If that player never makes the major leagues but earns an education and has a successful life outside sports, it's still a positive.
For the White Sox, these are important issues. Five current members of the White Sox — infielder Marcus Semien, reliever Donnie Veal, hitting coach Todd Steverson, assistant hitting coach Harold Baines and first base coach Daryl Boston — were in attendance at the forum. On Tuesday night, they — along with the rest of their teammates and coaches — donned jerseys with No. 42 on the back.
Veal said the opportunity to wear Robinson's number is "awesome," since it provides a nationwide opportunity to reflect on Robinson's impact not only on baseball, but on America.
"People take a second to stop and think about some things that happened and how far we've come," Veal said, "and how far we still have to go."