"Have you seen what we've got now?" asks Don Newcombe, sitting proudly in the stands at Dodger Stadium on a Wednesday night that was bathed in symbolism and dedicated to his great friend: Jackie Robinson. "We've got some real numbers now. I wasn't even really aware of it until Frank McCourt told me the other day . . . we're making progress."
Newcombe was referring to the six African Americans who have begun this season wearing Dodgers blue: James Loney, Juan Pierre, Matt Kemp, Cory Wade, James McDonald and Orlando Hudson.
Progress? Seen from a certain angle, certainly.
Sixty-two years after Robinson broke the baseball color barrier, forward motion on baseball's diversity front -- judging, at least, by total numbers of African Americans -- comes in jolting, jarring drips and drabs.
Note that in 1959, African Americans represented 17.25% of all major leaguers. That number kept rising, only to suffer a hard, sharp fall after the early 1980s.
Ironically, the Dodgers were a bellwether; by the 50th anniversary, in 1997, there was not a single American-born black player in their everyday lineup. Not one.
According to a new study from the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, Major League Baseball's homegrown diversity reached a low in 2007, when only 8.2% of players, or 98, were black Americans. Last year that number rose to 10.25%, or 121 players, the most since 1995. The percentage in the NBA? Roughly 75%.
So, back to that number again: six.
Six African American Dodgers is a humble sign that baseball's push to boost inner-city participation, and its efforts to show a more welcoming side with events such as Wednesday's -- every major leaguer wearing Robinson's No. 42 -- may be having an effect.
"Baseball is doing the right things," says Newcombe, 82, still large and imposing and positive. He cites himself as an example. Before this season began, he was made a special advisor to McCourt, the Dodgers' chairman.
"The Dodgers have always showed me great respect," he says. "But this, this brings a modicum of great respect, proper respect. Think about it, a black man in a position like this . . . think of what it says to people."
Newcombe can't stop telling stories. Because he was one of the first African Americans to play in the major leagues, because he was Robinson's close friend and confidant, he has wisdom deep in his bones and perspective few if any can match. He talks, I listen.
Sitting there, we discuss the difficult puzzle created by the merging of race and nationality; the fact that baseball has so many players now with African roots and Latino heritage. (There's also the case of the Dodgers' Russell Martin, a black player born in Canada and raised partly in France.) Include these men in talk of baseball diversity and the overall numbers swell.
"Look at Manny," Newcombe says, pointing at Manny Ramirez. "He is not African American but look at his skin. . . . He is a black man. Where can you go where a black man is making $25 million for six months of work? It's amazing when you think how times have changed since Jackie."
He continues, pressing everything back to Robinson. Newcombe says his former teammate would be proud of this current crop of Dodgers for their burgeoning diversity, and for having owners who "get it" when it comes to inclusion. But then he notes that No. 42 would hardly be content. Progress doesn't mean baseball has arrived at a moment when American blacks feel fully comfortable with the game -- on field or off.
All you had to do to see this was to scan Wednesday's crowd, with its typically small smattering of African American fans.
"Look, the only thing to do is for baseball to improve, because it couldn't get any worse than it was," says Newcombe, folding his big hands together. "But I'm looking at this team and thinking positively. You know, there was a time when things were really rough early in my career and Jackie pulled us [Newcombe and Roy Campanella] together, and he said, 'Yeah, we are bitter now, but we are going to change one letter in that word bitter: an I to an E. We are going to turn bitter into better. . . . '
"It was the perfect thing to say: 'I guarantee things will get better.' I think that is how you have to look at baseball now."