Pastime Has Look Of Past: Fewer African-Americans Are Playing Baseball

By Mark Emmons
Updated: June 15, 2005

John Mayberry Jr.

John Mayberry Jr.

STANFORD, Ca. — John Mayberry Jr. can’t help noticing how few African-Americans are sprinkled, here and there, throughout baseball. He has seen it his entire life.

The Stanford star was the only black player on his summer team. It was just Mayberry and another guy on his high school squad. There were only two this season on the Stanford roster. And Mayberry, the 19th pick in this month’s amateur draft, doesn’t expect it to be much different in professional baseball.

“There were definitely a lot more guys playing on my dad’s teams,” he said of his father, John Mayberry, who was a 1970s All-Star with the Kansas City Royals. “Amos Otis. Willie Wilson. Hal McRae. It jumps out at you because you just don’t see those kinds of guys today.”

At least not in baseball.

While the number of major league ballplayers from the Caribbean and Latin American nations (not to mention the Pacific Rim) has increased and given baseball an international flavor, the percentage of African-Americans has sunk to the lowest point in decades.

About 9 percent of ballplayers in the majors are black Americans, according to a study released in April by sports sociologist Richard Lapchick, who prepares annual racial and gender report cards to chart diversity in sports leagues. That figure is down from 19 percent in 1995 and 27 percent in 1975.

Meanwhile, African-Americans make up 13.3 percent of the national population.

“If baseball is called the national pastime, and it doesn’t look like the nation it’s supposed to represent, then it’s really not representing America as a whole anymore,” said Lapchick, head of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

The reasons for the decline are not clear-cut. Speculation ranges from lack of playing fields in inner cities to the rising costs of baseball equipment and youth traveling teams. Cultural forces are also at work. Baseball just doesn’t have the buzz of basketball and football in the minds of young blacks.

And consider this provocative notion: Baseball can be perceived as a white, suburban sport, making it less inviting to black athletes.

Even ballplayers have a hard time explaining the puzzling trend, which comes at a time when some of the game’s most exciting and dramatic stars — such as Barry Bonds, Dontrelle Willis and Derrek Lee — are African-American.

“It is odd,” said Charles Thomas, who was just sent down by the A’s to Triple-A Sacramento. “But for whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to be that popular in the black community.”

Baseball, the sport of Jackie Robinson, is worried enough to have launched several programs in hopes of attracting more young African-Americans to the game.

“But I suspect the numbers will continue to go down,” said Giants outfielder Marquis Grissom, whose team bucks the trend, with 16 percent of the active roster consisting of black players. “I don’t see any changes coming. I don’t see enough structured baseball programs in the black community. Right now there’s not even enough African-American kids who want to play.”

Tortured relationship

Sports in this country long has been seen as a way for each era’s lower socioeconomic classes, of all ethnicities, to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and grab a piece of the American dream.

Yet major league baseball has had a tortured relationship with race. The game didn’t integrate until 1947, when Robinson broke the color barrier. Minorities were slow to assume leadership positions. Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis became infamous for his bumbling 1987 attempt to explain that complex issue, saying minorities might lack the “necessities” for such jobs.

Considerable progress has been made over the years, but some of the stigma lingers.

“Let’s face it: Baseball always has been labeled as a white guy’s sport,” Giants rookie Jason Ellison said. “It was that way right up to Jackie Robinson.”

Ellison’s attraction to baseball began while he growing up in a small Washington town where a majority of the community was white.

“Everybody I knew played the game, so I was around baseball,” Ellison said.

Another factor was that Ellison’s dad loved the game. Certainly Mayberry’s father was an influence on his son’s interest in baseball. And the idea of sons learning the game from their fathers is at the root of the nostalgia that helps make baseball popular.

But veteran major league catcher Charles Johnson, who was released by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Monday, said the game is not being handed down from generation to generation in African-American families.

“I don’t know if that has anything to do with the lack of the male influence in the black community,” Johnson said. “You see kids raised by moms and grandmothers, and the dads aren’t there to pass on the game.”

At San Jose State, participation goes in cycles, Coach Sam Piraro said. In 2002, the Spartans had seven black players. They had none this season. Economics can be a factor, Piraro said he believes, because most baseball programs don’t offer full scholarships.

“If good athletes have the choice of several sports, they might go to basketball or football, where they have full scholarships,” he said.

Another phenomenon is the explosion of youth club sports and traveling teams, which can cost thousands of dollars.

“Some sports, like baseball, have become almost country club sports with the travel-team philosophy,” said Bill Hutton, the baseball coach and athletic director at sports powerhouse Archbishop Mitty. “That eliminates people, of any ethnicity, who can’t afford it. If people can’t pay, they can’t play.”

A long process

Ron Washington, the third-base coach for the A’s, said he believes young athletes today aren’t as willing to make the often lengthy trek to the major leagues. Washington spent 10 years laboring in the minors before he got his shot.

“With baseball, the process just takes too long,” Washington said. “In other sports, they can become millionaires so fast, so why have to put all the work into it in baseball?”

It also doesn’t have cachet with many young blacks. Michael Taylor, who just finished his freshman season at Stanford, said most black athletes in his hometown of Apopka, Fla., gravitated toward basketball and football.

“It’s a thing of pride in the community,” Taylor said. “If you’re a very good black athlete, it’s sometimes seen like you’re wasting your athleticism to play baseball.”

He also wonders if the game’s racial past might play a role in the choices many young athletes make today.

“Maybe there’s a feeling by some people of, `Who really wants to be part of the sport where it’s perceived that you’re not wanted?’ ” he said. “Maybe that history put a scar on African-Americans’ attitude about baseball.”

Michael Sokolove found a similar sentiment while researching his book “The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and The Boys of Crenshaw” — a look back at a 1979 inner-city L.A. high school team that mostly squandered its considerable baseball potential.

“The farther they advanced in baseball and moved away from the all-black teams they had started on, they entered worlds that felt white to them,” Sokolove said. “That’s maybe nobody’s fault, but if you walk into a world that feels white, maybe you feel like it might not be for you.”

The lack of a cross-cultural African-American baseball icon hasn’t helped, either. Sokolove notes that at one point Ken Griffey Jr. was on the verge of transcending his sport, much like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. But injuries derailed Griffey.

“The best African-American ballplayer is Bonds, but he’s a sour figure for all sorts of reasons,” he said. “Griffey was cool. If Bonds had that image, maybe that would have made a difference.”

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has taken steps to increase youth participation. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) youth outreach program, run in conjunction with Boys & Girls Clubs of America, has 120,000 kids in more than 200 cities. Major League Baseball also donates money for the building of inner-city fields and is constructing a baseball academy in Compton.

“Baseball probably has taken an unfair rap because they’re trying hard to bring about changes,” Lapchick said. “But when we talk about race, things are slow to change in our society as well as in sports.”

Grissom wants to one day buy unused fields in his hometown of Atlanta to spur interest in the sport. But for now, he will continue to do the one thing he believes can make a difference: keep playing.

“I get to be where black players like Willie Mays and Willie McCovey once were,” Grissom said. “They paved the way. Now I need to keep the legacy going.”