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Jackie Robinson's legacy resonates with Magic Johnson

Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with Dodgers, and now Magic, a Dodgers co-owner, is working to increase African American participation in the game.

April 13, 2013|By Bill Shaikin
  • Magic Johnson has made it a priority to renew the ties between the Dodgers and the family of their most historically significant alumnus, Jackie Robinson, above.
Magic Johnson has made it a priority to renew the ties between the Dodgers… (Curt Gunther/ Keystone…)

The men had celebrated into the wee hours of the morning. Sleep would come, later. The Dodgers were theirs, and for the first time these men could introduce themselves as owners rather than bidders.

Mark Walter, the incoming chairman, sat in a conference room, patiently explaining that, no, the new owners did not believe they had overpaid. Stan Kasten, the incoming president, talked about supporting the Dodgers' thin front office rather than dismantling it.

Magic Johnson had plenty to say too, but he took a moment. His first words were the most important ones to him, coming out slowly, as if talking too fast would diminish their impact.

Jackie Robinson's team. He owned a piece of Jackie Robinson's team.

"If it wasn't for Jackie, then I wouldn't be able to own the Dodgers," Johnson said.

These are wonderful days for the Robinson family, and for the Dodgers family.

Rachel Robinson, 90, accepted Johnson's invitation to fly from New York and join the Dodgers on Monday, for the annual celebration of the day her husband broke baseball's color barrier.

Johnson has made it a priority to renew the ties between the Dodgers and the family of their most historically significant alumnus, and to support the Jackie Robinson Foundation in its college scholarship programs and its efforts to build a civil rights museum.

The Jackie Robinson story cannot be told too often. The film "42" opened in theaters Friday, telling the story once more, with old-school authenticity and new-school technology.

"Jackie Robinson running onto Ebbets Field is not only the most important and powerful moment in baseball history," Commissioner Bud Selig said, "but it also changed the course of American history."

The Robinson legacy demands more than a good movie and a page in the history books, more than each player wearing Robinson's number on the same day every year.

To that end, Selig last week appointed a task force to find out how to get more blacks interested in baseball. Four teams — including the World Series champion San Francisco Giants — started the season without an African American player on their roster, according to USA Today.

The decline in the percentage of African American players in the major leagues — from about 27% in 1975 and 19% in 1995, to about 8% today — is not a new issue.

Under Selig, baseball has launched academies and youth programs in America's inner cities. According to MLB, the seven African Americans selected in the first round of last year's draft were the most since 1992.

Selig wants the task force to go beyond what baseball can do on its own. For instance, when college football teams get four scholarships for every starting position and college baseball teams barely get one, Selig wants to know how to change that. It's hard enough to fight the glamour of the NFL or the NBA, harder still to tell an athlete to pick the sport he has to pay to play in college.

But it is Johnson, not Selig, who paid for a private screening of "42" for five urban high school baseball teams in Los Angeles. Johnson said the Dodgers could shower every inner-city school with free tickets and it might not help produce more major leaguers.

"We have to bring the game to them," he said. "We have got to bring the kids to the [neighborhood] park, as young, young kids, to let them see how exciting it is to be a baseball player."

Johnson already delivers a stump speech to young black athletes who say baseball is too boring and too expensive to play, that the road to riches and glamour runs through the NFL or NBA.

"Every school I go to now, I talk about the Dodgers," he said. "You can be famous in baseball, and you can make more money than you can in football and basketball. That is what I am preaching to them. I know they want to be cool. Well, it's cool to play baseball as well.

"I point out a guy like Matt Kemp. He is a baseball player, and he is a part of the hip-hop generation. He dated a beautiful young lady like Rihanna. That resonates with these kids. They understand that."

For all the distinguished baseball folks Selig appointed to his task force, it is baffling that he did not invite Johnson to join. How better to extend baseball's reach into urban America, after all, than to tap into the expertise of a Dodgers owner whose businesses reach there every day?

"I would love to be a part of that," Johnson said. "I have great ideas. And what everybody should understand about me: I have been to every urban corridor in the country. It would be an easy transition for me, and an easy thing for me to do, because I already do it anyway."

Robinson's legacy is not just about baseball, or about sports. It is about breaking barriers in the front office, in the ownership suite, in the business world. Johnson has broken barriers in all three places, in worlds to which change has not come as readily as Robinson had hoped.

"I think this was meant to be," Johnson said. "Some things are meant to be. He was meant to play for the Dodgers. I was meant to be, one day, an owner of the Dodgers."

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