Baseball’s Changing Landscape: African-American Participation Continues To Decline

By Jaymes Powell Jr.
Updated: July 31, 2006

RALEIGH, N.C. — This past weekend, Major League Baseball inducted 17 former Negro League players and executives into the Hall of Fame today. Sadly in many ways, the ceremony can be seen as both a celebration and a wake.

Sunday’s event calls attention to the great athletes who played in the Negro Leagues while denied access to the majors, but it also calls attention to the slow death of baseball in black America.

“Baseball doesn’t have very much value [in the African-American community],” said assistant professor David Ogden of the University of Nebraska-Omaha, who has done extensive studies on the decline in the number of African-Americans in baseball. “… African-American kids see it as a slow, Caucasian sport. It’s a slow game for white kids.”

Shaw University’s cancellation of its CIAA championship baseball program this month put a local face on a national trend: By and large, the African-American community has turned its back on a sport it once revered.

The fall of baseball in the African-American community comes at all levels of the game. From Shaw’s decision to drop the sport to the lonely handful of players in Wake County high schools to the shrinking number of major leaguers, the national pastime is an afterthought for many black Americans.

The decline is dramatic:

* In 2005, just 8.5 percent of MLB players were African-American, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. It was the lowest percentage found since the 1980s by Richard Lapchick’s Institute, which publishes an annual Race and Gender Report Card. Major League Baseball says it does not track numbers of ballplayers by race.

This year’s St. Louis Cardinals do not have an African-American player on the active roster, according to team spokesman Jim Anderson.

* According to the NCAA, eight historically black colleges and universities have dropped baseball since 1996.

* There is a greater percentage of male African-Americans in college sports such as soccer and gymnastics than in baseball.

* None of the games during the past two World Series has been among the top 10 most-watched shows in African-American households, according to Nielsen Media Research.

“People’s tastes change. As a result [young African-Americans] are not getting into the pipeline,” said Ray Doswell, curator of the Negro League Hall of Fame. “As younger kids come after them, they don’t see themselves in the game.”

It wasn’t always like this.

Despite pervasive racist attitudes that kept black Americans out of the majors, the Negro Leagues helped make baseball the African-American community’s favorite sport in the decades before and after World War II. All around the country, African-American fans turned out in droves to cheer on the likes of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.

But starting in the 1960s, African-American participation in baseball nose-dived, baseball Hall of Fame historian Jim Gates said.

“In 1947 [when Jackie Robinson was admitted to the majors], there was a huge influx of African-Americans [into baseball],” Gates said. “But then something changed in the ’60s, and it has never come back.”

Gates said basketball has become the “de facto sport of choice” for African-Americans, followed by football. He said there are pockets in the country — such as Miami, New York and Los Angeles — where African-Americans still gravitate toward baseball, but those are the exceptions.

Kasey Welch, a senior pitcher who helped Shaw to the 2006 CIAA baseball title, is from the Los Angeles area. When he arrived in Raleigh, he quickly learned that Research Triangle is not a baseball hotbed for blacks.

“Out [in Los Angeles] there are a lot of black kids who play. Out here, I never felt that same connection,” Welch said. “Everybody in North Carolina seems to play basketball or football. They weren’t into baseball.”

Across the country, the lack of African-Americans playing the game is striking.

In 2004, black, non-Hispanic men made up 18.1 percent of NCAA athletes. Basketball was 42 percent black, non- Hispanic and football 32.3 percent. Baseball had 4.5 percent black, non-Hispanic representation.

There was a greater percentage of black, non-Hispanic male gymnasts (4.6 percent) and soccer players (5.9) and rifle wasn’t far behind (3.2).

Those numbers are echoed in North Carolina. Last season, N.C. State had three black players, North Carolina had one and East Carolina and Duke had none.

There were few black players on Wake County high school baseball teams last season. And at one Durham high school, the sport struggled to survive.

Durham Hillside canceled its baseball season last spring. The team had 12 players, 10 of whom are black, but had trouble getting enough players for games.

“Baseball is becoming more of a year-round sport, Hillside athletics director Bob Hill said last spring. “It is expensive if you are going to play on an AAU team or in a fall league. A lot of our guys are involved in football or basketball in the summer.”

But baseball will return to Hillside next spring, Hill said.

“We talked to the players, and we decided together that it would be best to start fresh next year,” Hill said.

There are several theories behind the African-American community’s disconnect from the game. Some say that the cost of equipment and the lack of open space in urban areas limits access to the sport.

But baseball needs about as much equipment and space as football.

Then there is the white flight theory.

“As baseball integrated, baseball was also moving away from large, urban areas where blacks were centered,” Doswell said.

Former Duke basketball star and current Shaw men’s basketball coach Robert Brickey has a different idea.

“Baseball is a relatively slow game. A great game is a pitcher having a shutout,” Brickey said. “You don’t want to see that, do you?”

African-Americans aren’t going to games in great numbers as spectators, either.

Ogden studied television crowd shots from 25 major league games in 2002 and determined that only about 5 percent of the fans in the crowd shots were black. The study also cited a Kansas City Royals report that said even on “African-American Heritage Night” only 3 percent of the fans were African-American.

The Durham Bulls attract relatively few black spectators despite playing in a stadium surrounded by black neighborhoods.

In a telephone survey of 2,748 African-Americans in the Triangle conducted by its market research group, the Bulls found that 14.8 percent of those sampled attended a Bulls game in 2005, team vice president George Habel said. The number increased slightly to 16.5 percent in 2006.

Habel said it is obvious that the African-American community is now focused on other sports.

“We’ve lost a generation of African-American fans to the NBA,” Habel said. “That captured their attention.”

Habel wondered aloud if players such as Bulls up-and-comers B.J. Upton, Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes could change the sport’s fortunes.

“Will the B.J. Uptons bring more attention? I can’t say it’s had a big impact on [African-American] attendance,” Habel said. “I wish I could. I’m afraid it doesn’t.”

Many historically black institutions have eliminated their baseball programs. The CIAA, a historically black Division II league, has only five baseball teams after Shaw’s decision to drop the sport.

Howard University, considered by many to be the capstone African-American university, dropped its baseball program in 2002. Four other schools in the MEAC, an historically black Division I league, don’t offer the sport.

There are efforts to reverse the trend.

Major League Baseball has started a program called RBI (Returning Baseball to the Inner city) in hopes of drawing black youth into the sport — as players, fans or management.

Welch’s father, Alton, coached baseball and says the sport is getting on the right track with the RBI program.

“There are a certain amount of great athletes in every city,” Alton Welsh said. “Baseball has now decided to fight for those athletes. They also let those kids know that they don’t have to play football or basketball.”

Doswell, the Negro League Hall of Fame curator, hopes black Americans will come back to the game and reclaim the proud history of baseball in the African-American community.

“There’s a legacy that has contributed to American society,” Doswell said. “In the early part of the [last] century, baseball was an essential part of that.”