Changing Face of Baseball: National Pastime Strikes Out With Black Athletes

By Off the BASN Sports Wire By Tom Gage
Updated: April 10, 2005


Kids in Michigan, U.S. choose the flash of NFL and NBA over baseball’s slow pace.


Steve Perez / The Detroit News

“We played in the back yard, we played in the street, we played everywhere,” says former Tigers great Willie Horton, left, with Tigers outfielder Rondell White. “I don’t see that anymore.”


“We played seven days a week. We didn’t miss a day. We’d have 30 kids out there, now you can’t find five. It makes me sad. Yes, it does.”

–Lou Whitaker, Former Tiger infielder


Steve Perez / The Detroit News

“Most African-Americans like to play basketball or football. They like the physical sports. They like the attention. They think baseball is a soft sport.”

— Thomas Gates, Detroit Henry Ford sophomore



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The door Jackie Robinson unlocked nearly 60 years ago remains open. But the amount of traffic through it has diminished.

Baseball is losing the African-American athlete.

When the Major League Baseball season opened last week, one of 10 players was African-American, down from one in four during the 1970s.

The national pastime is becoming irrelevant to a large segment of the African-American population, a group that has produced some of the game’s greatest heroes: Henry Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds.

The hoop, not home plate, is the center of the universe for many young African-American athletes.

“We played in the back yard, we played in the street, we played everywhere,” said Detroit native and former Tigers great Willie Horton. “I don’t see that anymore.”

With good reason, many are noticing — and are alarmed.

“Yes, I’m concerned,” said baseball commissioner Bud Selig. “The coming of Jackie Robinson was the most powerful event in baseball history.”

The reasons for the decline are many: The game’s slow pace doesn’t connect anymore with kids, who are drawn instead to the flash and dash of the NBA and NFL; funding is limited for high school and youth programs; urban fields aren’t being built or maintained; and good coaches have become frustrated and walked away, so players aren’t being schooled in the fundamentals.

“There are some that say baseball is boring,” acknowledged Jeff Whitlow, 17, a senior at Detroit Country Day High who will attend Stanford on a baseball scholarship. “They don’t have the appreciation for it. … Anyone who is big and strong can play football. There’s a finesse to baseball.”

By the numbers

From a high of 27 percent in 1974, just 9 percent of the players on opening-day rosters in the majors last year were black — a stark contrast to percentages in the NBA and NFL.

Last season, 76 percent of the players in the NBA, and 69 percent in the NFL, were black.

The percentage of black players on Division I college baseball teams was 6.3, with no black baseball players at the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Central Michigan, Oakland University and Detroit Mercy. Not even Division II Wayne State in Detroit, a city 82 percent black, had a black player.

There was one black athlete on the baseball team at Eastern Michigan and three black players at Western Michigan.

The Detroit Public School League fields 23 high school teams. However, there aren’t enough players to support junior varsity or freshman teams.

Last season, Detroit Southwestern had 14 varsity players and won the PSL championship. By contrast, a well-supported suburban program such as Grosse Pointe South has varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams, each with about 20 players.

Baseball, obviously, isn’t holding on to the descendants of those to whom Robinson once beckoned with his deeds, “follow me.”

Money is an issue, too.

A PSL team, for example, receives funds (baseballs, umpire pay, transportation) for 10-13 league games. Teams must provide their own money for any nonleague games. Grosse Pointe South has 35 games scheduled this spring.

“I chose to coach in the city,” said Henry Washington, who was at Detroit Southeastern for 18 years. “But they wouldn’t give me the proper facilities. It got to be so frustrating, I got out.”

Aaron Wilson, 16, a junior baseball player at Detroit Henry Ford, said he and his teammates feel neglected.

“I have a love for the game. But you wonder sometimes how much they (administrators) care.”

Opportunities for younger kids to play from T-ball to high school are sporadic, depending on the neighborhood. But three well-known nonprofit organizations in Detroit organize leagues and teams.

The largest, Think Detroit, has 125 teams involving 1,800 youngsters ages 7-18, 95 percent of whom are from Detroit.

Orchard Children’s Services has leagues for children 8-18, and the Detroit Police Athletic League organizes teams for kids 5-14.

By college age, the pipeline for black baseball players has narrowed to a trickle, said Fred Decker, who retired as Western Michigan’s baseball coach last year after 791 wins over 29 seasons.

“I had a call some time ago from a disgruntled person asking me why we didn’t have more black players on our team,” Decker said. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, you go on every scouting trip with me next summer, and you look at the pool of players that we’ll have an opportunity to pick from, and you’ll see what the problem is.’

“The youth programs, especially in the areas where African-American kids live, are just nothing compared to what they were 25 years ago. When you don’t have participation at the young level, there’s no development program to feed into the high schools, so there’s no place for the college coach to go to get them.”

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