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Schmuck: Jackie Robinson and the final straw that persuaded baseball to honor him

There is no reason to wonder why Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day every April 15.

Robinson's place in baseball history is well-known and rightfully revered. He stood up against the institutionalized hatred of the Jim Crow era to open the major leagues to African-Americans and soften the heart of a nation steeped in racism.

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The only thing to wonder about on the 70th anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers is why it took MLB more than a half-century to fully recognize his sacrifice and achievement.

Or why we owe former Dodgers general manager Al Campanis an ironic debt of gratitude for forcing the game to take a hard look in the mirror at its inability to fully assimilate African-Americans and other minorities at every level of the industry.

It was Campanis' stumbling interview on ABC's "Nightline" with Ted Koppel in 1987 that laid bare baseball's patronizing attitude toward blacks and forced the sport to begin taking the concept of equal opportunity more seriously. There is still plenty of room for improvement in that area, but Campanis inadvertently drew back the curtain and confirmed for the rest of society what African-Americans already knew.

The "Nightline" interview was part of a show that was intended to recognize the 40th anniversary of Robinson's groundbreaking first major league game and examine his legacy. Instead, it reignited the conversation about race and inequality in professional sports.

Ten years later, baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced on the 50th anniversary of Robinson's debut that his No. 42 would be retired throughout baseball. But it would be an additional seven years before Selig designated April 15 as the perennial "Jackie Robinson Day" to be celebrated by all major league franchises.

Obviously, the issues of race and prejudice do not lend themselves to easy answers or simple solutions, and even the role that Campanis played in delivering a shock to baseball's exclusionary front-office hiring practices illustrates the complexity of those issues.

Campanis and Jackie Robinson were close friends until Robinson's death from a heart attack in 1972, their friendship dating to their days as Dodgers minor leaguers in Montreal in 1946. Campanis volunteered to room with Robinson at a time when other teammates were drawing up petitions to try to keep him out of the majors. Campanis also tutored Robinson on how to protect himself when opposing players tried to spike him, which happened more often because he was black.

Yet there was little question that the comments of the 70-year-old Campanis on "Nightline" reflected archaic stereotypes about the intelligence and capabilities of African-Americans. He resigned shortly after the interview and died 11 years later, actually taking some solace in the fact that his disgrace led to some racial progress in baseball.

While MLB has made progress in its hiring practices, it has lost ground over the past generation in its ability to attract African-American athletes to the sport. The year before the Campanis controversy, 18 percent of major league players were African-American according to a study produced by the Society for American Baseball Research. Last year, only 6.7 percent of the players in the majors were African-Americans.

For a variety of reasons — some societal, some preferential — young black athletes have gravitated more toward basketball and football over the past 30 years as both the NBA and NFL have overtaken baseball in popularity in the African-American community.

Major League Baseball is attempting to reverse that trend by building and upgrading youth baseball facilities in urban areas around the country through its RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and enlisting popular players such as Orioles center fielder Adam Jones to act as ambassadors for the sport in their communities.

MLB also is attempting to make the game more attractive to American youth in general with its effort to speed up games by reducing gaps in the action.

Still, it's important to celebrate "Jackie Robinson Day" as both a tribute to a great American and a continuing reminder of a time when the game disgraced itself by keeping a large segment of our population from taking part in something that billed itself as the national pastime.

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Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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