Former Big Leaguer Hopes Clinics Will Draw Boys Back to Baseball

By Reginald T. Dogan, Pensacola
Updated: June 17, 2006

FLORIDA—With a baseball bat and glove slung over my shoulder, I remember heading to an open field with the boys in my neighborhood for a sandlot baseball game.

My father, an avid baseball player and fan, introduced my brothers and me to the game. I still cherish the faded snapshots of my father playing catch with his sons.

Baseball then was as American as Chevrolets and apple pie.

Today, Toyotas have surpassed Chevrolets, and tiramisu has replaced apple pie.

Sadly, baseball is no longer one of America’s favorite pastimes — especially for inner-city black boys.

Over the years, there has been a sharp decline in the number of black athletes playing baseball.

Nearly 60 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by integrating major league baseball and a generation after blacks represented roughly a quarter of every big league roster, the African-American ballplayer is becoming a rarity again.

Former big-leaguer Jake Wood of Pensacola, who signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1957, remembers baseball in America during its heyday.

It was sandlot baseball that piqued his interest. Without it, he never would have made it to the big leagues.

Wood, now 68, is trying to help inner-city boys regain interest in America’s once-favorite pastime.

On Saturday, Wood, along with Talmadge Nunnari, who played professionally with the Montreal Expos and Pensacola Pelicans, held a free clinic at the Boys & Girls Club on North H Street to introduce more than 40 boys to the fundamentals of baseball.

The day before, Wood rode around Pensacola looking for baseball fields for future clinics. He was dismayed to find so many parks unkempt and unused.

“It’s sad that kids in general aren’t playing baseball in America,” he said. “I want to revitalize baseball in the inner city.”

Why has interest in baseball dropped so precipitously in recent years?

The mass marketing of basketball and football is a good start.

More boys want to be like Mike (Jordan) or run like Emmitt Smith or catch like Terrell Owens.

But there also are complex social and economic reasons that have redirected young black boys to the football gridiron or the hardwood basketball court.

Baseball requires bats, balls, gloves, a large field and maybe even Little League participation. Basketball requires only a ball and a court.

“Too many parents can’t afford for their kids to participate,” Wood said. “That’s a crime when it comes to children.”

The demise of the two-parent household and the dedicated neighborhood coach also have cut the tie between baseball and young black boys. Baseball requires a father or father figure. Both often are lacking for the inner-city child.

Contrary to popular belief, the decline of America’s national pastime is not insignificant but is indicative of a dangerous trend in the U.S: the loss of at least part of our national identity.

We owe it to ourselves as Americans not only to save our children, but in the process, to save the game for them.