Can Earvin Johnson Bring the Magic Back to Baseball?

It was 1987: the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic breaking of the color-line in Major League Baseball.  The first Ms. Black Miss America had been crowned (and crowned again) three year earlier; Michael Jackson was the “King of Pop” and Bill Cosby was the pudding pop champ of advertisers and network television.  Surely  baseball, once at the cutting edge of integration in professional sports, would play a leadership role with regards to integrating the management level in professional sports. And what better candidate to make that point than Al Campanis, then the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers? This, of course, was the same organization that forty years earlier were brave and financially savvy enough to make Robinson their starting second baseman. 

The reality was, that since Frank Robinson (no relation) was hired to manage the Cleveland Indians in 1975, the Chicago White Sox followed suit in 1978 hiring Larry Doby as manager, and Robinson was hired by the San Francisco Giants in 1981, there had been no other Blacks hired as managers in the Major Leagues, notable at a time when the percentage of Black players in the league was more than 20%. When Nightline host Ted Koppel prodded Campanis about the lack of Black managers in the league, the Dodger GM responded with the now infamous words “No, I don't believe it's prejudice. I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager…So, it just might just be—why are Black men, or Black people, not good swimmers? Because they don't have the buoyancy.”

Five year after that notorious interview, Cito Gaston became the first Black manager to win the a World Series championship with the Toronto Blue Jays. Nearly decade later then New York Yankee General manager Bob Watson, also Black, hired Joe Torre to manage the team, beginning their dominant run of the late 1990s, winning four championships in five years.  Hell, even as we mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of Campanis’ statements, Bronx-representative Cullen Jones is the American record holder in the 50 Meter Freestyle. How's that for buoyancy?

Campanis, who died in 1998, may have been surprised when it was announced that Earvin “Magic” Johnson was a leading member of the ownership group that bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for a record $2.15 Billion. Jackie Robinson’s breakthrough, which help define the direction of civil rights advancements in the decade that followed seems to have come full circle. 

The question is not whether Johnson can succeed in making the team a profitable investment, but whether he can bring the magic back to the sport for a population that has abandoned it in droves.

With regards to the sport and Black fans, Johnson faces a dramatically different world than the one Robinson endured sixty-five years earlier. Johnson, with his business acumen, will likely succeed in making the team a profitable investment, but can bring the magic back to the sport for a population--young Blacks--that has abandoned it in droves over the last generation?

Fan support, in general, for baseball has been diminishing steadily for years—part of the reason the league turned a blind eye to steroid use in the late 1990s (as long the juiced up players could keep fans in the stands).  There are lots of possible reasons for the decline, from the increased popularity of the NFL, NBA and even NASCAR. There’s no denying that baseball has not translated very well for the digital generation with its intricate details—try explaining a balk or infield fly to an eight-year-old, who is only watching to see someone hit a homerun. Kids are used to seeing things move fast or in 140-characters. You don't get that from baseball. 

For Blacks watching the game, there is the added dynamic of seeing fewer and fewer players on the field, who look like them. In recent years, Black players have made up less than ten percent of players in the major leagues-- a drastic decline since the late 1970s peak of nearly 30%. Even our HBCUs across the nation have had trouble mounting baseball teams with any Black ball players, highlighting how few young Blacks take an interest in the game on the sandlot level. 

In some ways, Earvin Johnson is uniquely suited to take on this challenge.  Along with Larry Bird, Johnson is largely credited with transforming the NBA from a league thought to be unmarketable to Whites outside of urban areas—when even the New York Knicks were referred to as the “Nigger-bockers”—to one of the most recognizable brands in the world.  It remains to be seen how successful Johnson will be, but I’m sure as baseball marks the start of the new season, Jackie Robinson is somewhere watching with a broad, sly smile.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books including the forthcoming Looking for Leroy: Legible Black Masculinities.  He is professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University and host of the weekly video webcast Left of Black.  Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.