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Thompson: Baseball needs to find its next Jackie Robinson

Nate Thompson • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:28 PM

After viewing the crowd-pleasing Jackie Robinson biopic, "42", Saturday evening, you realize the film strongly paints his character as a reluctant superstar.

Maybe it's due to the strict persuasion from Brooklyn's owner in 1947, Branch Rickey, for Robinson to keep his mouth shut and not fight back when degrading racism tried to crush his soul at every ballpark or team hotel across America.

Maybe Robinson purposely kept his ego in check simply to stay out of the spotlight, thus limiting any fuel for the fire spewed by his detractors who claimed he didn't belong in a white man's game.

If the film's research is correct, I believe Robinson was simply humble no matter the situation — on the field or off — a man who didn't truly realize the impact he made not only in the game of baseball, but throughout American society.

In his own words in the film, he was "just playing ball.”

When Robinson was trying to earn a roster spot on the Brooklyn Dodgers' minor league affiliate, the Montreal Royals, he shrugs off early praise suggesting he was a savior for his race in the game of baseball.

"I haven't made the team yet," he said with a grin.

It's only during his interactions with Wendell Smith does Robinson realize his instrumental impact.

Smith, the reporter who chronicles Robinson's first years in the Dodgers organization for the African-American owned Pittsburgh Courier newspaper, notices on his drives to Brooklyn's Ebbets Field that dozens of African American children are in the streets emulating every one of Robinson's moves on the ball field — including his shuffle on the base paths that drove opposing pitcher's crazy as they tried to prevent him from stealing a base.

Smith told him he'd never really seen young boys of color have a role model in the game, that is, until Robinson broke the color barrier.

Today, Major League Baseball is in search of its next Jackie Robinson, not to win battles against racism, but to boost the popularity of the sport to African Americans.

In its Player Diversity Report released on Nov. 13, 2012, Major League Baseball revealed that amongst its 30 teams and nearly 1,200 players, only 8 percent were African-American.

Commissioner Bud Selig is trying to do his part to stop the downward spiral of African Americans in the game, which was at 19 percent as late as 1995 but has plummeted ever since. Just last week, Major League Baseball announced it was creating a special committee to determine why the game is failing to attract African American ball players.

It’s been well documented the struggles of the sport today in schools such as Muskegon High, despite the rich history of the sport in the city. Really, there's no real secret to it, other then there’s no black superstars in the game today. Sure, there are plenty of very, very good African American players (as the Detroit Tigers can showcase) but none who could be labeled "their most popular athlete" among minority boys.

I've seen more TV commercials with Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade playing with his children during the past two months than any black baseball player in the past 10 years.

And Wade isn't even the most popular athlete on his own team! That of course, would be LeBron James, who undoubtedly can't walk down a street in any major city in the United States without being mobbed. (Well, for different reasons in Cleveland).

Can we say the same about Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen, or the reigning American League Cy Young award winner, David Price? I would be surprised if their opposing fan bases could pick them out of a crowd if they were in street clothes.

Today, it's not so much "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?", it's "Where is the next Ken Griffey Jr.?"

Back in the early and late 1990s, "Junior Griffey" was the definition of cool. He wore his Mariners' hat backwards in home run derby contests and drilled those shots with an easy flick of his wrist. He made spectacular catches in the outfield, and most importantly, connected with kids through memorable — and often funny — TV commercials with Nike or his other sponsors.

Sadly, the last black baseball player to gain as much attention as Griffey was Barry Bonds, and that was for all the wrong reasons.

Many may wonder why this is even an issue. I mean in a reverse discrimination way of thinking, there's only 17 percent white players currently in the NBA and a majority are European born.

But there’s a big difference between the two issues. White American males aren’t making NBA rosters because of a lack of interest. It simply boils down to the fact that there’s not a white athlete in America who can match the athleticism of Wade or James in the sport.

Still, that isn’t going to deter white athletes from playing basketball and being successful in the sport. If I'm not mistaken, the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player was white, and I still can't believe not a single player from Michigan could stop Luke Hancock's 3-pointers.

But as Larry Bird once said in an interview, the best athletes in America today are African-American. And it's troubling that the great game of baseball is being overlooked by today's generation, simply because they'd rather be the next LeBron James or Robert Griffin III.

As much I enjoyed watching "42," and the strong character of a devoted family man it revealed, I realized exiting the movie theater that I'd much rather see the next Jackie Robinson.

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