Lack Of African-American Players Hardly Unique To Pirates, MLB

By Dejan Kovacevic
Updated: May 9, 2006

Ian Snell

Ian Snell

PITTSBURGH — Ian Snell, maybe the most gifted athlete on the Pirates’ roster, could have chosen any number of paths as a child growing up in Delaware.

He was a shooting guard on his high school basketball team. A sprinter in track. A quarterback, running back, cornerback and safety on the football team.

“They had me punting, too,” he added.

Still, he chose baseball.

“I can’t really say why other than this was the one I loved,” Snell recalled. “I knew I could play all these sports and maybe a million more if I tried them, but this was the one for me.”

His story is increasingly unusual, if only because of his background. Snell’s mother is African-American, and he considers himself — with vocal pride — to count among the few black players in Major League Baseball.

And the only one in the Pirates’ clubhouse.

“Look around,” he said with a smile the other day in Washington. “It’s just me.”

There were 69 African-Americans on opening-day rosters in the majors last month, which represented 9.2 percent of all 750 players. That is down sharply from 17 percent three years ago and 27 percent 30 years ago.

According to Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society, MLB’s percentage is dwarfed by the NBA’s 80 percent and the NFL’s 67 percent. Of the four major sports, only the NHL, with 1 percent, is lower than baseball.

The Pirates are no exception.

On their 25-man roster, Snell is the lone African-American, down from four last year in outfielders Tike Redman and Matt Lawton, first baseman Daryle Ward and Snell.

On the 40-man roster, there are two others in outfielders Rajai Davis and Jody Gerut. Among top prospects not old enough for the 40-man, the one who stands out is outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the first-round pick last year and perhaps the most talented prospect in the system.

This from the area that was home to Josh Gibson and two of the greatest outfits in the Negro Leagues: the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.

From the team that fielded what was described as the first “all-black lineup” Sept. 1, 1971, one comprised of five African-Americans and four dark-skinned Latin Americans.

From the franchise that won a World Series in 1979 with 10 African-Americans: Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, Bill Madlock, Bill Robinson, Jim Bibby, John Milner, Lee Lacy, Mike Easler, Grant Jackson and Matt Alexander.

Snell, as with most in the game, grasps at answers to explain the trend.

“Who knows?” he said. “I can’t really speak for other people, but I know there are kids who look at the draft process and the idea of leaving home and needing to wait five or six years to play in the majors. For me, I actually wanted to get away because I felt I would have gotten into trouble back home. I decided not to stay with my friends, and baseball allowed me to do that, to find my own world. But maybe other kids want to stay where they are.”

Of the many factors that have contributed to the diminishing number of African-Americans in baseball, those inside the game point to four as dominant:

– As Snell described, baseball does not offer the shortcut to glory available in basketball and, to a lesser extent, football. LeBron James and others set highly visible examples of attaining NBA stardom right out of high school. NFL draft picks must attend college, but their path is nowhere near as arduous — or discouraging — as the half-dozen years it generally takes to reach the majors.

Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield described this as a problem in engaging youth across the board, not just African-Americans.

“Hitting a baseball is very difficult. There’s a lot of failure in it,” Littlefield said. “Basketball and football have their challenges, too, but it’s hard to keep failing in baseball. I think that’s part of why you’re seeing, in general, basketball and football are getting more athletes than years ago.”

– The NBA has promoted its game heavily to African-American youth, tying in elements such as rap and hip gear into its advertising, and has become almost one with urban culture. Baseball, which builds its charm on nostalgia, has done little in the way of promoting to youth of any race.

“We’re losing them to basketball, for the most part,” said Ed Creech, the Pirates’ scouting director. “It might be that you as a kid just look around and see that’s what your friends are doing. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.”

– Baseball is an expensive sport to play.

Ward, now with the Washington Nationals, cited that as most relevant.

“A lot of blacks just don’t have the money to go out and get a $125 glove or a $150 aluminum bat or a dozen wooden ones. And how about what it costs to take care of the field?” he said. “Who comes up with that money?”

He mentioned, too, the challenge of organizing an informal game.

“How tough it is to find nine players to a side? Or umpires? When you’re looking to play basketball or even football, you can get everyone to come outside and play with just a ball.”

– MLB and its 30 member teams have made few extra efforts to address the matter.

Although MLB four years ago opened a baseball academy in Compton, Calif., a community dominated by African-Americans, it remains the only facility of its kind.

By comparison, every team in the majors owns and operates academies throughout Latin America — the Pirates have them in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic — that offer baseball instruction, schooling, equipment, even food and essentials, all aimed at developing talent there.

The reason for the emphasis there is twofold: One is that baseball is the most popular sport in some of those countries, so the talent pool is great and growing. The other is that international signings tend to be cheaper than draft picks. Amateurs inside the United States and Canada must be drafted. Moreover, international players need to be only 16 to be signed and have no worry about achieving a high school diploma, much less a college degree, to play baseball.

“The one thing I hear the most is that the school requirements keep getting harder,” said Pirates first base coach John Shelby, the lone African-American on the staff. “I know that’s the same for all sports, but you’re seeing baseball teams wait to draft kids until they’re through college.”

Shelby said he frequently raises the subject with his son, John T. Shelby III, a junior infielder at the University of Kentucky.

“He’s the only one on the team,” Shelby said. “It’s a shame, but there aren’t a lot of us playing baseball anywhere at any level. I’m always asking him if he sees others in the Southeastern Conference, and he tells me it’s one or two every time out.”

The estimate probably was close: In a study conducted by the NCAA three years ago, only 6.7 percent of Division I baseball rosters were African-American, compared to 58 percent in basketball and 45 percent in football.

What will make the most significant difference in reversing the trend, many seem to agree, is resuscitating baseball’s roots in the African-American community.

MLB has two major elements in place.

One is the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, or RBI, that began in 1989 and has expanded to 120,000 children in 185 cities, including a chapter in Pittsburgh since 1994 that is partially funded by the Pirates. African-American participation has dropped from 65 percent three years ago to 50 percent now, but that could be because of growing interest among other minorities.

The other is the Compton academy, a $3 million facility that offers instruction to boys and girls 11-17 years old and has produced 20 or so draft picks a year since opening. The RBI World Series, played in Pittsburgh last year, will be in Compton annually from now on. There has been discussion of more academies, but nothing substantive yet.

On the local end, the Pirates have taken several initiatives:

– They have had a minority business advisory board in place since 2002, composed each year of six to eight African-American business leaders to work on development of various programs.

– They annually have an African American Heritage Weekend at PNC Park. Luncheon speakers in the past have included Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neill and Sharon Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson. The event this year, Aug. 11-12, will include giveaways of Homestead Grays caps and Satchel Paige bobbleheads.

– Gospel choirs and African-American fraternities and sororities have been invited to perform on Federal Street before games.

– The Pirates assist Sean Gibson, Josh Gibson’s great grandson, in his goals with the charitable Josh Gibson Foundation.

– They will play host to a regional round of the RBI World Series in conjunction with the All-Star Game.

– Another “major initiative” related to Pittsburgh’s Negro Leagues history will be unveiled in late June, Pirates spokeswoman Patty Paytas said.

“The Pirates have been heavily involved in the African-American community in Pittsburgh for quite some time,” Paytas said. “We believe it’s important that we recognize our ballclub’s and region’s strong African-American baseball history that not only encompasses the Pittsburgh Pirates, but also the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays.”

Ultimately, as seems widely accepted in the game, the resuscitation of African-American interest in baseball will not be easy.

“I’ve watched it declining for years now at every level, and that’s going to be tough to reverse,” said Creech, the scouting director. “Believe me: I hope it happens. But it’s going to take some work.”

Ward, of the Nationals, expressed hope that African-Americans in the majors would become more involved.

“We made it this far, and we’re the only role models left, however few of us there are,” he said. “This is going to take some effort from people like me. If that takes showing up at an RBI event, that’ll help. If it takes money, there’s that, too. We need to make it happen.”