DETROIT — Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter posed an interesting question.
“What if Jackie Robinson had quit?” Hunter asked. “He had to endure so much, and what if he quit?
“But he didn’t fight back or break any rules and played through it. You never know how this country would’ve been different if he did not succeed.
“Jackie changed the mindset of this country way more than just baseball. It would have happened eventually with somebody else, but we would not be where we are today. It took a real strong man to endure that. And if we all don’t listen to his lesson, we’ll fail.”
Hunter was referring to the decline in African-Americans in the majors.
The New York Times on Wednesday cited statistics from Mark Armour of the Society of American Baseball Research that showed roster percentages of US-born black players was at its high of 19 percent in 1986, and declined to 8.5 percent on Opening Day rosters this season.
The Tigers have three African-Americans on their 25-man roster — Prince Fielder, Austin Jackson and Hunter — for a 12-percent total.
The team will also take a lead in addressing the needs of increasing percentages. Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski was selected as chairman of baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s 17-member diversity task force, which met Wednesday for the first time.
“A lot of people can say, ‘This is a problem,’ ” Dombrowski told the New York Times. “But trying to come up with a plan and recommendations to get all of these ideas tied together will be extremely important.”
Hunter doesn’t want to see baseball “fail” again by neglecting a way to move forward. He played his first major league game in 1997, the year that it was announced that Robinson’s No. 42 would be retired across baseball.
“But I felt I was not worthy of wearing his number,” said Hunter, who wears No. 48. “I have no idea of what he went through to play. Forty-two is just a special number.”
All uniformed personnel participating in major-league games Monday — the 66th anniversary of Robinson’s first game — will wear his No. 42. And a new Robinson biopic, “42,” debuts Friday in theaters.
On Jackie Robinson Day in Toronto on April 15, 2007, Tigers left fielder Craig Monroe trotted onto the artificial grass at Rogers Centre along with center fielder Curtis Granderson and right fielder Gary Sheffield. The three African-American sluggers each wore No. 42 on their gray road uniforms.
“Something about all of us wearing it together gave me a thorough understanding of what it meant,” said Monroe, now an analyst for FOX Sports Detroit. “I thought of what he went through for us to have the opportunity. We could never give back to him for what he did for us. Yeah, it was pretty emotional.
“I can’t imagine what he went through — always having to turn the other cheek. To see No. 42 on all of their backs — that was cool.”
The last Tiger to wear No. 42 was the late Jose Lima, a starting pitcher in 2001 and 2002. It’s a little-known fact that both Alan Trammell (1977) and Ron LeFlore (1974) wore No. 42 before quickly switching to No. 3 and No. 8, respectively.
New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, grandfathered into wearing No. 42, will be the last to don it in a major-league game when he retires after this season.
Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said he’s met Robinson’s wife, Rachel, and his daughter, Sharon.
“But we didn’t talk about Jackie,” McClendon said. “We just talked about some things in general.
“Jackie, obviously, was so important to opening the doors for me and all minorities who have played the game, along with Larry Doby.”
Doby was the first African-American to play in the American League, for the Cleveland Indians, debuting on July 5, 1947. The slugging center fielder was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998 but has become something of a footnote in history, despite facing the same challenges less than three months after Robinson.
“But Larry is not forgotten by the men he meant so much to,” McClendon said. “He means a lot to me. My dad told me about Larry and what a hell of a player he was.”
McClendon wonders why the media still focuses so much on race.
“It’s always been that way,” said McClendon, recalling the Little League World Series in 1971 , when he led Anderson Little League of Gary, Ind., to the championship game against Tainan City, Taiwan. “We were described as the first All-Negro League team to make it to the Little League World Series. And in Pittsburgh, I was the first black manager or coach of a major franchise.
“That should not have mattered. It’s not about the color of your skin, but if you are best-qualified for the job. You’d think those times are behind us, but we keep taking steps forward.”
Tigers center fielder Jackson said it’s difficult to imagine the first steps taken by Robinson.
“I’m sure it was tough,” Jackson said. ”He was able to keep playing. I know it’s tough when fans say stuff now, not to turn around and say something. I definitely couldn’t imagine being called out in a certain way and not being able to respond.
“I don’t think too many of us have really been faced with racism, to that extent anyway. I don’t think any of us really experienced that. I think really seeing video and stuff like that of those times, it’s hard to imagine somebody being treated a certain way and being able to come out on top.
“When you’re younger, it’s kind of tough because I don’t think you realize the magnitude of what he did for the game of baseball in general. When you’re younger, you do biographies on him in school and stuff like that.
“When you get older, you really start to realize the impact he left.”
And how things might be totally different had Jackson Robinson simply quit.