To players today, however, that’s exactly what it is. The potential is certainly there, perhaps more than at any time since Jackie came along, for today’s stars to have a real impact on their communities. Imagine what could be accomplished if the players, both black and white, were to really dedicate themselves — not just their money, although that would certainly help — to camps and counseling centers and baseball programs in the inner city.
Some of the players have their own charitable foundations, and I applaud them for that. (I believe Dave Winfield, for instance, is very sincere.) But as often as not these good works are really publicity stunts. They’re engineered by agents, who are acting in the interest of the player’s image — in other words, his marketability. Players these days don’t do anything without an agent leading them every step of the way (with his hand out). The agent, of course, could care less about Jackie Robinson.
The result is that today’s players have lost all concept of history. Their collective mission is greed. Nothing else means much of anything to them. As a group, there’s no discernible social conscience among them; certainly no sense of self-sacrifice, which is what Jackie Robinson’s legacy is based on. It’s a sick feeling, and one of the reasons I’ve been moving further and further away from the game.
The players today think that they’re making $10 million a year because they have talent and people want to give them money. They have no clue what Jackie went through on their behalf, or Larry Doby or Monte Irvin or Don Newcombe, or even, to a lesser extent, the players of my generation. People wonder where the heroes have gone. Where there is no conscience, there are no heroes.
The saddest thing about all of this is that baseball was once the standard for our country. Jackie Robinson helped blaze the trail for the civil rights movement that followed. The group that succeeded Jackie — my contemporaries — did the same sort of work in the segregated minor leagues of the South. Baseball publicly pressed the issue of integration; in a symbolic way, it was our civil rights laboratory.
It is tragic to me that baseball has fallen so far behind basketball and even football in terms of of racial leadership. People question whether baseball is still the national pastime, and I have to wonder, too. It is certainly not the national standard it once was.
The upside of this is that baseball, and baseball only, has Jackie Robinson. Here’s hoping that on the 50th anniversary of Jackie’s historic breakthrough, baseball will honor him in a way that really matters. It could start more youth programs, give tickets to kids who can’t afford them, become a social presence in the cities it depends on. It could hire more black umpires, more black doctors, more black concessionaries, more black executives.