Yesterday, by decree of Major League Baseball, was Jackie Robinson Day. A player on each big league team was designated to wear Robinson's uniform number, 42. The Dodgers, Robinson's club in its Brooklyn incarnation, intend to go one better; every player will wear the hallowed number.
Jackie Robinson Day is an exercise in racial public relations. Baseball desperately wants to repair its connection to the black community, whose younger generation seems to regard the national pastime as only slightly more relevant than curling.
How did this happen? In the bad old days of segregation, Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell were cultural icons, and young black athletes gravitated to the game. Robinson was followed by a starburst of great players. Willie Mays, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Don Newcombe, Monte Irvin, Frank Robinson, Willie McCovey — these were men who fell in love with baseball when it was still forbidden.
That love was unrequited, even after baseball grudgingly integrated. No one knew this better than Robinson. He watched as great franchises such as the Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees resisted integration for a decade or more. He saw black players forced to repress their athletic creativity and cultural identity in order to conform to the conservative norms of baseball. And he keenly felt his own exclusion from the game after his playing days were done.
Sick with diabetes, Robinson was honored by Major League Baseball at the 1972 World Series. He was under-whelmed. "I'd like to live to see a black manager," he said with bitter irony. Nine days later, he was dead. Thirty-five years later, there are just two U.S.-born black managers and one general manager in Major League Baseball.
Football and basketball are the African American sports now. You see it in the stands, where the number of black fans at baseball games sometimes doesn't reach triple digits. You see it on the field too; most of today's great black players come from Latin America.
The most luminous exception is Barry Bonds, who will be wearing 42 for the San Francisco Giants on Sunday, instead of his customary 25. Bonds is easily the greatest player of his era. He is a seven-time MVP. He holds the record for most home runs in a season. Now he is closing in on the all-time home run title, which Hank Aaron took from Babe Ruth in 1973.
Bonds is a cantankerous figure (he has that in common with Jackie Robinson) and widely hated by sportswriters and fans. Baseball purists despise him for allegedly having used steroids. This, they claim, profanes baseball's holy of holies, its statistical integrity. How can you compare records if they are compiled under unequal conditions?
This is, in a word, nonsense. Ruth broke into baseball when a dozen homers led the league. Then the grandees of the game decided to soup up the ball — a form of artificial enhancement at least as intrusive as steroids — and presto, the Babe (and, in his wake, others) hit 50 a season out of the park.
Despite this great break with the past, baseball venerated Ruth. When Hank Aaron, a black man, broke his record in 1973, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn didn't bother coming to the game. The snub left Aaron embittered. He (and millions of his fellow African Americans) correctly saw it as another example of baseball's Negro Problem.
Now it is Bonds' turn. He'll probably pass Aaron this season, a feat that will be greeted — outside of San Francisco — with near universal resentment and animosity by white fans and writers (the press boxes of baseball are even more monochromatic than the stands). Commissioner Bud Selig says that a new home run mark will be treated as a routine event, just another record being broken. He might not bother to attend.
Baseball's few remaining black fans will see the double standard. What's so bad about what Bonds is accused of, they will ask? He used drugs? See Jim Bouton's great baseball diary "Ball Four," on the rampant use of amphetamines in the Golden Age of Mickey Mantle. Bonds broke the law by allegedly taking illegal substances? The Babe himself openly boozed his way through Prohibition. Bonds broke baseball's rules? If that were a major crime, spit-baller Gaylord Perry wouldn't be in the great hall at Cooperstown.
Whether Selig and the writers and the fans like it or not, Bonds is the black Babe Ruth. If they demonize him, put a disqualifying asterisk next to his records and ban him from the Hall of Fame, a thousand Jackie Robinson Days won't bring back the missing millions of African American fans. It's fine to venerate No. 42, but Robinson is a page in the history books. It's what happens to No. 25 that will determine the next chapter in the star-crossed relationship between blacks and baseball.