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Where have you gone, Jackie Robinson?

 High noon of a god: Brooklyn Dodger second baseman Jackie Robinson in 1954. Photograph by Look magazine’s Bob Sandberg. Restoration by Adam Cuerden. Photograph available from the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division.

High noon of a god: Brooklyn Dodger second baseman Jackie Robinson in 1954. Photograph by Look magazine’s Bob Sandberg. Restoration by Adam Cuerden. Photograph available from the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division.

I saw Jackie Robinson in person once.  It was at Yankee Stadium on Old Timers’ Day, and Iike a lot of other wiry kids, I craned my neck to take in as many legends on the field as possible. I thought then that Robinson looked old and sickly for his age. (And indeed he would die of a heart attack, complicated by diabetes, at age 53.) The other thing I remember thinking was that he was a big man, larger than life – which he certainly was.

I was reminded of Robinson – the man who had that special combination of physical and spiritual grace to break baseball’s color barrier in 1947 – because Ken Burns’ miniseries about him is set to debut Monday and Tuesday, April 11 and 12, and because Jay Caspian Kang has written a column for The New York Times Magazine’s April 10 edition in which he suggests that racism is killing baseball. 

The column, which touched a nerve with posters when it was published online April 6 under the title “The Unbearable Whiteness of Baseball,” considers the sport’s insistence on tradition as code for racism. The strict dress code is driving the rap and hip-hop crowd from the game, Kang says. Meanwhile, the press ignores Latino players or imposes its will on them. (Kang writes that charismatic Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente hated the nicknames Bob and Bobby that reporters gave to him.)

Having followed baseball and newspapers intensely since I was a young child, I can say that I don’t remember one instance in which Clemente – who died on New Year’s Eve 1972 in a plane crash while trying to deliver aid to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua – was called Bob or Bobby or held in less than awe. As for other Latino ballplayers being ignored, the fountains of ink expended on the likes of Sammy Sosa and Alex Rodriguez to name but two would seem to defy that.

I think there’s something else going on here. Black athletes have been drawn to other sports – track and field, basketball and football among them. The biracial Colin Kaepernick – who may be staying on with the San Francisco 49ers or moving on to the Denver Broncos, it’s anybody’s guess at this moment – could’ve been a pitcher instead of a quarterback. Some people think he should’ve been. But he chose to go to the NFL, where 80 percent of the players are black. Have Kaepernick and others been drawn to football because they identify as black, or do they merely find football a more thrilling alternative to baseball? It’s hard to say and, more to the point, I think it would be harder to discern, because no one wants to think of himself as racially motivated.

But while blacks may have gone on to other sports, baseball has moved on, too – to become an international sport. In my upcoming novel, “The Penalty for Holding,” star QB Quinn Novak, who played baseball in Indonesia as a child, considers how the sport he loves has been eclipsed by football as America’s sporting religion. Instead, though, he realizes, baseball has been embraced around the world. In the Western Hemisphere alone, there are superb teams in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Venezuela.

Baseball is big in Japan and South Korea. One of the first things I saw after I landed in Indonesia was a group of young men in yellow, green and white uniforms playing in the morning haze. That image stayed with me to such an extent that it inspired an early scene in my novel.

I doubt those young men could tell you who Peyton Manning is, even though the NFL and commercials have made him as famous a football player as there is. And that’s just fine with Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers quarterback says anonymity is one of the reasons he likes to travel abroad.

Such is the relativity of fame – one more player in the complex game that is race in sports.