Jackie Robinson is a household name, a book report staple, an American hero. News of his 1947 debut in the major leagues appeared on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold. Fifty years after he first took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, teams across the MLB held moments of silence on the field, and the league's commissioner retired Robinson's number across baseball.
"For sociological impact, Jack Roosevelt Robinson was perhaps America's most significant athlete," read his obituary in the Times.
When Earl "Big Cat" Lloyd, the NBA's first black player, died last month at the age of 86, there was decidedly less hoopla. The league honored him on its broadcasts, and national newspapers ran obituaries, but for many people, news of his death was the first time they heard his name.
Lloyd was a 6-foot-8-inch small forward who debuted with the Washington Capitols in 1950, three years after Robinson broke baseball's color line. Lloyd's first game was on a sleepy fall night in upstate New York against the Rochester Royals. He finished with six points, he told me a few years ago. But that game attracted little national notice.
Robinson's debut had mattered because baseball mattered — at the time, baseball enjoyed almost unrivaled popularity, and it was central to midcentury notions of American-ness. In those pre-Super Bowl days, the World Series was the biggest event in American sports. Professional basketball was one of the sporting world's many also-rans, alongside football and boxing. Basketball was seen as a city sport, dominated on the collegiate and professional levels by the sons of Jewish immigrants from urban ghettos. There were basketball-mad small towns, of course, and the game was very popular in black neighborhoods across the country, but white America's attentions were mostly focused elsewhere.
In the postwar years, the Great Migration of black folks to the North and West and white flight — including many Jewish families — to the suburbs changed the face of cities and the complexion of the city game. The pace of integration on college teams began to pick up, creating a pipeline of young black talent to professional teams. A decade after Lloyd's first game, the NBA was full of black players and major black stars.
Fast forward to today, and the two sports have in many ways traded places in the popular imagination. Of course, the NFL has eclipsed baseball as the nation's biggest sports obsession. But the American pastime has been overshadowed by basketball, too. The NBA's regular season games regularly trounce baseball games in television ratings. Internationally, basketball is quickly becoming second only to soccer in popularity. NBA stars like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are global icons.
Much of this shift has been generational. Half of baseball's TV audience is older than 55, while nearly half of NBA fans are 35 or younger. The NBA is younger and hipper, with room to grow. At the height of baseball season last summer, the New Yorker's Ben McGrath wondered what it meant that Mike Trout, probably the best player in baseball today, was essentially a no-name to everyone but the sport's diehards. "The Trout conundrum strikes me as a significant milestone in baseball doomsaying," he wrote. "When was the last time baseball's reigning king was a cultural nonentity?"
While baseball grapples with what it means to fall out of the cultural mainstream, it's hard not to notice that its fan base hasn't changed while the rest of the country has. About half of the NBA's U.S. television audience today is made up of people of color, while more than 8 in 10 baseball fans are white. And it has been that way for some time. In a 1987 New York Times piece titled "Where Are The Black Fans?", Brent Staples wrote, "Black fans, after a romance with baseball that began at the turn of the century and flourished through the early 1950's, have abandoned the national pastime."
The irony, then, is that Jackie Robinson's considerable legacy comes from paving the way for black athletes in a sport that black folks stopped caring about at the time he exited the stage. In the meantime, the league has let his legacy flounder. The high-water mark of black participation in the major leagues peaked in 1972, the same year Robinson died. That season, about 27 percent of major league players were African-American. Last year, they made up a little over 8 percent. Seven decades after Robinson's debut, black disinterest in baseball is a given.
Today, nearly 80 percent of NBA players are black. Lloyd wasn't the catalyst for all of this upheaval; he was just on its bleeding edge. He might not have even been the first black NBA player had the schedule shaken out differently; the second and third black players made their debuts just a few days later. Even he was inclined to downplay the comparison to Robinson, who was handpicked to break baseball's color barrier by the famed MLB exec Branch Rickey.
"I take polite umbrage when someone calls me the Jackie Robinson of basketball," Lloyd told NBA TV. "I mean, here's a guy," in Robinson, "playing in a sport where 99 percent of all the players come from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida — [in] 1947, man."
Fair enough. But in the decades since Lloyd's debut, the NBA went from an also-ran league with no black presence to one of America's major cultural institutions and exports, and one thoroughly defined by American blackness. With all due respect to Mr. Lloyd, that's got to count for something.
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