By Anthony McClean, Editor In Chief Emeritus NEW HAVEN (BASN) —...
The Future is Fading
At all levels — T-ball to the major leagues — the number of black baseball players is shrinking
FLORIDA– A cool breeze blows across the old ballpark that carries Jackie Robinson’s name.
Under a setting sun, Stetson University plays Bethune-Cookman College on the very field where Robinson integrated modern baseball 60 years ago today.
That spring training game against the Brooklyn Dodgers gave Robinson the opportunity a season later to break into the all-white major leagues.
But his legacy, while honored, is fading. From T-ball fields to major-league stadiums, baseball is striking out in black America.
Nowhere is that trend more visible, and ironic, than at historic Jackie Robinson Ballpark on this day, where white and Latino players far outnumber native-born blacks.
Bethune-Cookman, a historically black college, has five black players on its team, while Stetson has none.
“A couple of years ago, there was some outcry (among alumni) that we didn’t have enough black players,” said Lynn Thompson, Bethune-Cookman’s athletic director. “Our resolve is to get the best team and talent we can. If you are going to be in the game, you have to find good players wherever they are, no matter what they look like.”
Baseball fields in black neighborhoods often go unused, or are disappearing altogether, as youngsters pursue careers in basketball and football.
“A lot of kids say baseball’s boring,” Thompson said. “You never see kids playing pickup games anymore. They’re all playing basketball and football, even my 13-year-old son.”
Recent studies indicate that the disinterest in baseball is showing up at all levels of the game.
Just 9 percent of major leaguers last year were United States-born black players, compared to 17 percent in 1989 and 27 percent in 1974. Most noticeable in 2005 were the Houston Astros, a team without a black player on the roster for most of the season.
The future looks even less promising, with black athletes making up between 3 and 6 percent of college baseball teams, depending on the year. The numbers are believed to be even lower in high school and recreational youth leagues.
“There’s definitely a growing gap between African-American culture and baseball,” said David Ogden, a University of Nebraska at Omaha professor and baseball-trends researcher. “The doors Jackie Robinson worked on opening may not be closing, but the hinges are definitely getting rusty.”
FAMILIES, FRIENDS DON’T PLAY
Many factors come into play for black America’s abandonment of baseball.
Ogden said in past generations families passed the game down to their children. Now, many working parents, some of whom are single, cannot afford or find the time to take their children to practice or games.
“But it goes beyond that. It involves peer influence,” he said. “If your friends don’t play, you won’t. Black kids don’t see many of their peers playing baseball.”
Ray Doswell, the curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, added that baseball is an expensive sport to play, requiring equipment, insurance and fees.
“With basketball, a kid can go out and shoot by himself,” he said.
But Doswell said the bottom line is: “There’s not as great an appreciation for the game. There are more options for kids today.”
Doc Graham, a 77-year-old former Negro Leagues player from Daytona Beach, said the black community needs to make youth baseball a bigger priority.
“We don’t have enough black people interested in the kids. They’re so busy with their agenda, they’re not responding to the youth,” he said. “We also need a commitment from the city.”
Percy Williamson, who heads the city’s leisure services department, said younger kids this spring are being offered T-ball, as well as machine-pitch baseball for the first time in years.
“We’re trying to get it back to where it used to be. But today’s kids just don’t have the interest,” he said. “A lot of them have migrated to basketball and football. A lot are not participating in any sport, sitting in front of the computer screen.”
Major League Baseball and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America co-sponsor a program for teenage children called Reviving Baseball in the Inner City (RBI), which former major-leaguer John Young started in 1989 in Los Angeles.
More than 200 cities nationwide are involved. None are in Volusia or Flagler counties, where many towns fund and run their own youth baseball leagues.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Volusia/Flagler Counties operates nine after-school programs, assisting kids who need homework and computer help.
“There’s no competitive baseball program. We’ve gone in a different direction,” said Joe Sullivan, the executive director. “We’ve talked about the RBI program. We’d like to do it. But it’s usually in more established clubs.”
The waning numbers of black ballplayers indicate the RBI program has not reversed the continued slide of black baseball players in America.
‘IT’S A WHITE BOYS’ SPORT’
No one follows the racial trends in baseball more than Richard Lapchick, who heads the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
Each year, his department releases a Major League Baseball “racial and gender report card.” The numbers continue to drop.
“Younger kids are the key,” he said. “The feeder system is not providing the flow.”
Ray Sadler played outfield for the Daytona Cubs and is now a prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
He saw a better opportunity in baseball as a professional athlete.
“I played football a lot, but I chose baseball because I think I’ll have a longer career,” he said. “I don’t think I could have done two (pro sports). So I chose one. I chose baseball.”
But Sadler is an exception among black athletes.
Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, where almost four of every 10 students are black, has two black baseball players.
“I think we’re the leader,” said head coach Mike Burton. “It’s not funny. It’s sad. Ninety-five percent of the teams we play have none.”
Burton said the day of the three-sport high school star is gone. So black athletes, looking to follow their NBA and NFL idols, are choosing basketball or football.
Burton said he believes many black athletes are making a mistake because there are so many college and minor-league baseball teams.
“The opportunities far outweigh any other sport,” he said. “More doors are open. College, pro, it’s just amazing.”
Aaron Mallory, an 18-year-old senior, is one of Mainland’s black players, an outfielder on the team for three years. He also played football, but prefers baseball. He has been swinging bats and fielding balls since age 6.
“I just wanted to be different. I like to be different,” he said with a grin, when asked why more of his friends aren’t playing. “I like baseball because you have to think. There are a lot of quick decisions. A lot of guys are missing out.”
The scarcity of talented black high-school players nationwide is a dilemma for Mervyl Melendez, Bethune-Cookman’s head baseball coach. His team’s 32-man roster has five black and three biracial players.
“It’s very challenging,” he said, even for a predominantly black college in recruiting wars with national powers like the University of Florida and Florida State University. “If we only focus on getting black players, we won’t have enough players to build a team.”
At 62, Tom Bush watches with regret as baseball’s racial makeup moves full circle.
He coached DeLand’s segregated Southwestern High School baseball team in the mid-1960s and later led DeLand High School’s squad. Now the ballpark announcer at Deltona High School games, Bush is disturbed by the few black players he sees.
“I ask kids why they don’t play, and they say, ‘That’s the white boys’ sport.’ They see it as a white sport,” he said.
Ironically, Jackie Robinson helped a nation change that image 60 years ago today.
“He paved the way, and look what has happened,” Bush lamented. “So many of these kids probably would be great ballplayers. And we’ll never know it.”