TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Kai Ryssdal: 1947 is one of those numbers that baseball fans know pretty well. 714 home runs for Babe Ruth. 2,130 consecutive games for Lou Gehrig. Records remembered because they lasted so long, even though they’ve been passed in the decades gone by.
1947 was the year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for black players in the major leagues. In his new book about baseball and race, “Raceball,” sports historian Rob Ruck points out that that 1947 season helped Latino players increase their numbers against long odds as well.
Rob Ruck: There were a number of fine Latino ballplayers who played major league baseball before the color line was broken. I think that they had a tough time, but nowhere nearly as difficult as their darker-skin compadres had after 1947.
Ryssdal: So here comes the touchy-but-eseential question: Did major league baseball at large, the league and the owners, when they decided to integrate both with Jackie Robinson and when they decided to fully bring Latinos into the game, were they doing it because it was the right thing to do or were they doing it for the bottom line?
Ruck: The Dodgers, and then the Giants, were getting some talented ballplayers from black America and the Caribbean. And then there’s the what the Pittsburgh Courier wrote after Jackie Robinson helped the Dodgers set attendance records in 1947: Jackie’s nimble, Jackie’s quick, Jackie makes the turnstiles click. The Dodgers made a lot of money because of Robinson.
Ryssdal: So let’s come now to present day, and you point out that the number of blacks in baseball is down remarkably in the past 35 years; it’s at a level below basketball and football. And in point of fact, you speak uncharitably about baseball and African-Americans in this book.
Ruck: In 1975, African-American ballplayers in the majors were approximately 25 percent of the game. Today, that’s down to about 9 percent. And I don’t think that’s particularly hurt black America, because they’re not lacking opportunities in sport. I think it’s hurt major league baseball a lot more.
Ryssdal: With the decline of African-Americans in baseball has come a rise of Latinos. And you talk about this a lot at the end of the book, especially those baseball academies down in places like the Dominican Republic, where — to be bold about it — you can go down there, and for not very much money as a baseball organization, find some really good ballplayers.
Ruck: Major league baseball historically has benefitted from being able to sign Latinos cheaply. Pedro Martinez signed for $5,000; Sammy Sosa for $3,500. Latin kids are also exempt from the annual draft, which means they begin their career as free agents. And that’s created an opening for men who are known as buscones, who grab these kids when they’re as young as 13 years old, take them into their home, feed them, give them medical care, train them. In return, they might take 30 percent of the boy’s signing bonus and salary.
Ryssdal: I want to follow up for a second on this idea that there aren’t as many African-American players in the major leagues as there used to be, and this line that you have, basically, where you say, blacks have been driven out of baseball. What does that mean? I mean, was it economically driven or is it a different choice?
Ruck: Integration quickly destroyed the Negro leagues and the infrastructure of sandlot clubs in the black community. After that, a black kid who wanted to play baseball had to come up through the minor leagues in the United States, which were mostly in the South and were pretty hostile environments. In the 1950s, universities start opening the door to black athletes to play football and basketball. They offer scholarships, which were a lot more beneficial to most kids than the chance to play professional baseball.
Ryssdal: Rob Ruck teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh. His book about Latinos and African-Americans in baseball is called “Raceball.” Rob, thanks a lot.
Ruck: Thank you, Kai.
Ryssdal: We’ve got an excerpt of “Raceball” on our new book blog.