Morgan seeks to preserve Jackie's legacy
Hall of Famer looking to address decline in numbers of African-American players
Joe Morgan loves "42," the movie about Jackie Robinson that made its debut on Friday across the country. As for whether the Hall of Famer, Cincinnati Reds executive and former ESPN announcer has the same warm-and-fuzzy feelings about the state of African-American players in today's game -- well, not so much.
Morgan sees issues, but he also sees solutions.
Let's start with the heavily promoted movie, with the accomplished Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey and the relatively obscure Chadwick Boseman as Robinson. Morgan flew to Los Angeles this week from his native Northern California to join other baseball greats for the premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre.
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"I enjoyed the movie, because I don't think they went overboard in any one area," Morgan said over the phone from Oakland, where he has lived since he ended his 22-year Major League career with the 1984 A's. "All the movie did was make you think a little bit, about where you are. You know, if you were around in '47, what were your thoughts?
"I also think it makes people look and see where we were and where we've come from and how much farther we still have to go."
Which brings us to African-American players in today's game. The numbers keep dwindling. On Opening Day, just 8.5 percent of all players in the Major Leagues were African-American. According to a USA Today study, that was the lowest percentage since the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate in 1959.
Commissioner Bud Selig knows this damages Robinson's legacy, and he has consistently acknowledged as much.
"Major League Baseball has an enormous social responsibility to provide equal opportunity for all people, both on and off the field," Selig said this week in a news release. "I am proud of the work we have done thus far with the RBI [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities] program and the MLB Urban Youth Academies, but there is more that we must accomplish."
"This problem didn't just start, and it's been around this level of seven or eight percent [of African-Americans players in the game] for the last eight to 10 years or so," Morgan said. "I don't know why all of a sudden there seems to be a great push to do something. Maybe it's the Jackie Robinson movie. I don't know what it is, but I've been talking to [MLB] and to everybody else about it for about 15 years."
Actually, longer than that.
I've known Morgan for more than 35 years, starting with his time as a vital cog in Cincinnati's fabled Big Red Machine during the 1970s. We've chatted often throughout the decades about the problems faced by African-Americans in baseball at all levels.
During the early 1980s, for instance, when I worked for the San Francisco Examiner, I covered a Giants team with Morgan as its clutch second baseman, undisputed leader and eloquent spokesperson for those who began to notice a dramatic slide in the numbers of African-American players across the Major Leagues.
I did a detailed study in 1982 for the Examiner on the situation, and here's what I discovered: African-Americans comprised around 25 percent of Major League rosters in the mid-1970s. But that figure was barely 19 percent at the time of my study.
Morgan blamed the tunnel vision of old-time baseball scouts back then, and he told me, "If you're not looking for African-American players, you're not going to find them."
What does Morgan say now?
"Since [scouts] weren't looking for [African-American players] the way they should have, they let a lot of African-American athletes go to other sports and so forth -- and now we're seeing the results," Morgan said. "I grew up a Giants fan, but I just read the other day that they didn't have one African-American player in their entire Spring Training. Are you kidding me? That's 40-something players on the roster and some invitees."
The St. Louis Cardinals, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers joined the Giants with the distinction of lacking an African-American player on their Opening Day rosters.
There has to be a solution.
"I mean, there's always a solution," Morgan said, adding that baseball needs to increase its number of African-Americans among full-time scouts and team executives in general. "I don't like to be pessimistic, because there always is a solution. But whether people are willing to go that extra mile with the solution is the question."
This was my question: With baseball spending recent years constructing massive academies in other countries -- primarily throughout Latin America -- why doesn't it enhance its RBI programs by building those same types of academies in heavily populated African-American areas in the United States?
That was also Morgan's question.
"I talked to Bud about the lack of baseball academies in this country around 15 years ago, and I give him credit, because he got to work on doing that," Morgan said. "They built the one in Los Angeles. They built another one in Houston. We're in the process of building one in Cincinnati, and I'm helping them do that one.
"But the number still pales in comparison to how many opportunities they have [through academies] to make the big leagues in other countries compared to [African-American athletes] in this country."
Jackie Robinson also knew about being outnumbered, but that eventually changed with time.
So there is hope.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.