Baseball’s Blacks Still Struggling

By Courtesy of The Minneapolis Star Tribune By Rachel Blount
Updated: July 6, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS — The Negro Leagues traveling exhibit “Times Of Greatness” features a sepia-toned photograph, mounted on chicken wire, of an old team bus. The chicken wire was similar to the kind that once separated seating areas of blacks and whites at baseball parks. The bus freed teams from segregated train-car schedules and could function as a hotel or locker room in towns that refused to accommodate black players.

The exhibit came to the Metrodome recently, where it reminded fans of the indignities heaped upon great talents who merely wanted to participate in America’s game. Today, many of those men are in the Hall of Fame — but fewer African-Americans are building upon the history they created. American-born black players make up only 8 percent of major-league rosters this season, a fact that so alarmed Torii Hunter that he took matters into his own sure hands.

The Twins’ center fielder decided to start a fund to encourage and enable more black kids and teens to play baseball. His phone has not stopped ringing since his plan received widespread attention in a USA Today story last month.

“You should see the e-mails I’m getting from all over the country,” Hunter said. “I’m getting responses from guys I didn’t want to bother during the season, like Reggie Abercrombie from Florida, Tony Clark from Arizona, Frank Thomas. They’re saying, ‘Why didn’t you call?’

“When I look around during batting practice, I might see one African-American. Baseball is such a great game, I don’t know why more kids aren’t playing it. We have to do a better job of bringing them in.”

The NBA and NFL market themselves brilliantly to urban audiences, making themselves the sports of choice for many African-American athletes and fans. Hunter postulates that parents, wooed by that marketing machine, encourage their kids to play basketball and don’t educate their children about baseball’s rich African-American history.

Inner-city kids often don’t have access to a decent baseball field, which is expensive and labor-intensive to maintain, or to the money required to pay for equipment, instruction, registration fees and team travel.

“My dad was able to buy me a bat and get me in an organization, and it cost something like $70 — and that was back in the day,” said Twins outfielder Shannon Stewart, among the first to pony up a $10,000 donation for Hunter’s vision. “It can cost a lot. And kids see Allen Iverson doing commercials, but they don’t see African-American baseball players promoting the game like that.

“If I was a kid now, I’d probably want to be like Allen Iverson. I think Torii’s program is really going to help, because if kids know big-time pro athletes like Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart and Gary Sheffield are doing something to help them, that’s better than if it comes from an organization.”

Efforts such as RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and the Twins’ Fields for Kids and Rookie League programs have created new opportunities for kids to play. Hunter believes the star power of his project will strengthen the allure by putting famous — and caring — faces on the sport.

In August, Hunter’s project will help sponsor four teams in a two-day exhibition at the Little League World Series. Next year, it will help fund the Little League Urban Initiative Jamboree, a 16-team event in Williamsport, Pa.

“It’s so easy to get into the game now, but kids aren’t playing,” said Twins first base coach Jerry White, the only black man among Twins coaches. “Kids just have other things, other opportunities these days.

“It’s too bad. The table is set. All you have to do is pull up a chair.”