He was little CC Sabathia then, a 5-year-old California kid listening to his grandfather regale him with tales about a late, great player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the baseball legend who starred as No. 42, Jackie Robinson.
“That was the only player he ever talked about to me,” Sabathia said. “He talked about how good of a player he was, what he meant to the African-American community and how when his games were on, people huddled around the radio to get a listen and try to hear what was going on.”
Now he’s big CC Sabathia, a 36-year-old father of four pitching for the Yankees in his 17th major-league season. He has schooled his oldest son, Carsten, about Robinson, bringing him to see the 2013 biographical movie “42.” The 13-year-old has the images of Robinson — the man who burst through the majors’ color barrier — and former Negro League standouts Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson painted on the wall in his room.
“So he’s been well aware of what Jackie meant to the game,” Sabathia said.
Sabathia stood on the mound Saturday at Yankee Stadium wearing No. 42 instead of his usual 52. All of Sabathia’s teammates wore 42, too. So did all of the St. Louis Cardinals here on Jackie Robinson Day.
The tradition that dates to 2009 was in play around Major League Baseball. It was a day to honor the legacy of No. 42 on anniversary No. 70 of Robinson making his debut with Brooklyn at Ebbets Field — April 15, 1947. A statue depicting the Hall of Fame infielder sliding also was unveiled in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium.
The thing is, Robinson went through so much while opening the door to the major leagues for others, all that verbal, emotional and physical abuse. But the percentage of African-Americans in the majors is sliding, down to 7.1 percent of 25-man rosters and disabled lists on Opening Day, according to USA Today research. That’s the lowest since 1958.
Sabathia was one of only 13 pitchers and 62 African-American players in total. Colorado and San Diego didn’t have any.
“It’s sad, very sad,” Sabathia said. “But I said that 10 years ago and everybody acted like I was crazy. So you do what you can in the community. Obviously, I’m trying to do whatever I can here in the Bronx and my community at home [in Vallejo, California] for the kids in the inner city to keep playing and start playing. But baseball as a whole has to do better.”
Major League Baseball has tried in several ways, among them opening its Urban Youth Academy in a handful of cities and establishing its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiative, aka RBI.
“We have the RBI program, but that’s not really doing anything to me,” Sabathia said.
There are some promising African-American draft-eligible players, including California high school righthander Hunter Greene, MLB.com’s top prospect, who has attended the Urban Youth Academy in Compton.
Sabathia believes a lack of full baseball scholarships is hurting the overall cause. “That’s one of the factors for sure,” he said. “ . . . If a kid can play football and baseball and he can get a full ride to go play football and he gets a partial [scholarship] to go play baseball, a kid in the inner city has no choice but to go take that football scholarship.”
Aaron Judge isn’t from the inner city, but he once had that football/baseball choice. The Yankees’ 6-7, 282-pound rightfielder was raised in Linden, California, the adopted son of two teachers. Judge played wide receiver and defensive end in high school, and Notre Dame, UCLA and Stanford were among those interested.
But he had long since contracted baseball fever and headed to play for Fresno State, his parents’ alma mater. The Yankees made him a first-round draft pick in 2013.
“I just fell in love with baseball as a kid, at a young age, the game within the game,” said Judge, wearing a blue 42 T-shirt in the clubhouse.
Now there’s an appreciation for Robinson.
“I know I wouldn’t be in this game and be where I’m at today if it wasn’t for Jackie Robinson, all the hardship he went through,” Judge said. “The game is hard enough as it is.”
The chance to annually wear 42 and honor Robinson is a hit for Aaron Hicks, too. “For me, being a black guy, being able to play, it just means a lot,” the Yankees outfielder said. “I love this game. He definitely made opportunities for me and plenty of other guys.”
Hicks knows many young guys choose an alternative. “When you look at the inner cities, a lot of them play football and basketball,” Hicks said. “If you look at the figures in those sports, it’s predominantly black.”
Hicks, however, spent four years with MLB’s Compton academy. He went straight out of his Compton and high school experiences to become the 14th overall pick in 2008, selected by Minnesota. Hicks said the academy time was “very valuable.”
“I already had an interest in baseball,” Hicks said. “ . . . The coaching staff helped me extremely, not only with on the field but helped me focus in school.”
So what’s the ultimate answer to getting more African-American kids into the game?
“I guess we’ve just got to get the word out more,” Hicks said, “tell them how great this sport is and how much fun we have.”
The percentage of African-Americans in the majors is sliding, down to 7.1 percent of 25-man rosters and disabled lists on Opening Day, according to USA Today research. That’s the lowest since 1958. Sabathia was one of just 13 pitchers and 62 African-American players in total. Colorado and San Diego didn’t have any.