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Where Are The Black Players?: Despite Efforts, African-Americans On MLB Rosters Are Still Rare
JUPITER, Fla. — When Washington Nationals lefthander Ray King was growing up in Ripley, Tenn., he would often arrive two hours early for his youth baseball games.
“Whatever sport was going on in my neighborhood, I was a part of it,” King said, “but I fell in love with the game of baseball. If the game started at 5, I wanted to be there at 3 o’clock because I love being around the game.”
When Cleveland Indians lefthander C.C. Sabathia was growing up in Northern California, he and his friends would jump the fence at their North Vallejo Little League complex to spend even more time on the diamond.
“We played basketball and football, too,” Sabathia said, “but baseball was huge.”
Not anymore, it isn’t. Not among African-Americans like King and Sabathia, anyway.
As the St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians prepared to meet in the first Civil Rights Game this past Saturday in Memphis, the University of Central Florida released a study Thursday revealing that only 8.4 percent of major leaguers last season were of African-American descent.
Richard Lapchick, director of UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, which authored the report, said the figure is the lowest in at least two decades.
That probably wouldn’t surprise Cleveland second baseman Josh Barfield. Along with Sabathia, Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore and St. Louis outfielder Preston Wilson, Barfield is one of just four African-Americans projected to be on the Cardinals’ and Indians’ 25-man opening-day rosters. Two of the three are sons of former major leaguers.
“You can’t help but notice (the decline),” said Barfield, son of former big-league slugger Jesse Barfield. “You don’t look for that statistic, but when you think about it, I’ve never had more than one or two (African-Americans) on my team. It’s kind of sad to see.”
It hasn’t always been that way.
In 1975, African-Americans filled 27.5 percent of big-league roster spots. American-born black players accounted for 19 percent as recently as 1995. The numbers have been on the wane since, however, checking in at or below 15 percent in each of the past 10 seasons.
Last year’s 8.4 percent total represents less than half of the 17.25 percent of 1959, the first year every team was integrated.
Major League Baseball has undertaken a number of grassroots initiatives over the past 20 years in an attempt to reverse the trend: Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI); The Baseball Tormorrow Fund; Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life; and MLB’s recently opened Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., are all aimed at reestablishing ties with the African-American community.
The Civil Rights Game is another example of baseball’s eagerness to bring African-Americans back into the fold.
“The way Major League Baseball can help is by creating opportunities for them to play as young guys and fall in love with the sport and become aware of opportunities,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “Anything you do to raise awareness helps. They’ve been such an important part of baseball history, and it’s entirely appropriate to honor that and try to do something to change things.”
Still, as MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon says, the number of African-American players competing at the highest level won’t increase significantly anytime soon.
“It’s like we’ve lost a generation,” said Solomon, who is black. “It took us 30 years to get here. You can’t change it overnight.”
Poles (and polls) apart
Florida Marlins lefthander Dontrelle Willis could have chosen to play any number of sports while growing up in the Bay Area, but the formidable Oakland A’s teams of the late 1980s and early ’90s most successfully captured his imagination.
“If it wasn’t for Dave Stewart, I wouldn’t have picked up a ball,” Willis said of the former A’s pitcher and World Series MVP who, like Willis, is black.
“I take that out (to the mound) with me every time,” Willis added. “No matter how it ends up, I’m going to play hard because there might be someone like me out there watching.”
Unfortunately for baseball, that’s probably a less likely prospect now than during Willis’ youth.
Whether due to the soaring popularity of pro football and basketball, the lack of inner-city facilities, the sport’s comparatively prohibitive cost or just plain old ambivalence, the love affair between African-Americans and baseball is clearly on the rocks.
A Harris Poll released on Jan. 9 revealed that a mere 7 percent of African-Americans who follow more than one sport identified baseball as their favorite. In contrast, 35 percent chose pro football.
Football’s edge over baseball across all demographics in the same poll was 29 percent to 14 percent. While such figures are symptomatic of a larger problem for baseball, they also point to a greater disconnect with African-Americans than with the general public.
The Cardinals’ Wilson says the decline in black players at the major-league level has had a trickle-down effect on aspiring black athletes.
“It really is discouraging. Visually, they don’t see themselves in the game of baseball because there aren’t many of us in it,” said Wilson, son of former big-leaguer Mookie Wilson. “So they go to the other sports that are going to give them an opportunity.”
But what led to that decline in the first place?
“It’s not a simple answer. It’s complex,” Solomon said. “It’s as if a perfect storm took place.”
Among the factors Solomon and several current black big-leaguers cite as contributing to baseball’s decline in the African-American community are:
Lack of scholarships: While Division 1 football programs are allotted 85 full scholarships apiece, their baseball counterparts have to make do with a mere 11.7. “A lot of young black kids who want to play would have to be all-expensed to go to school,” Wilson said. “Most folks don’t have that type of income, so they look at other opportunities.”
Marketing: A number of players speak critically of what they describe as baseball’s failure to successfully sell the game and its African-American stars. “It’s not marketed to inner-city youth the way the NBA is, the way the NFL is,” Sabathia said.
Wilson says those sports have gained greater market share by embracing the “hip-hop” lifestyle.
“Dwyane Wade and LeBron (James) are on TV every day,” he said. “I can’t think of seeing something about a black baseball player on TV other than who’s been in trouble.”
Solomon bristles upon mention of the subject.
“I think we take too much criticism for our marketing of our players, or not marketing our African-American players, and basketball gets too much credit,” he said. “Basketball doesn’t market players, the shoe companies do.”
Solomon says shoe companies such as Nike, upon striking commercial gold with Michael Jordan, made a strategic decision to use basketball as the primary vehicle for moving apparel in the black community.
“You can wear sneakers to school,” Solomon said. “You cannot wear cleats to school.”
Urban planning: New York Mets outfielder and former Germantown High star Ben Johnson grew up playing baseball on fields in Whitehaven.
“They were always in great shape,” he said. “Six or seven years ago, I went out there and saw they haven’t been kept up. It’s a shame.”
With many cities now strapped for cash, maintaining public baseball fields has become an expensive luxury.
It’s easier and cheaper to build a few basketball courts. Little maintenance is required.
“And there’s no barrier to participation,” Solomon said. “One kid with a ball, and the whole neighborhood can play. Baseball needs a lot of green space and maintenance, which is one reason why baseball moved out more into suburban areas.”
Longer career tracks: Top baseball players can be drafted out of high school and earn large signing bonuses, but Barfield points to the often shorter career track in football and basketball as being more attractive to young black athletes.
Whereas until last year basketball players could go straight from high school to the NBA — they now must wait an extra year — and football players need spend only three years in college before heading to the NFL, baseball players often spend several years in the minor leagues before reaching the big-time.
“Everybody knows who (Greg) Oden and (Kevin) Durant are, but I couldn’t name one college baseball player,” Barfield said. “With all the money there is to be made in basketball and football, and you can jump straight from college to the pros? It’s like instant stardom.”
Comparative cost: All you need to play basketball is a ball and a hoop.
“It just costs more,” Sabathia said. “You need cleats, bats, balls, gloves, a field. It can be expensive.”
A number of players suggested that the financial burden of playing elite-level youth baseball might be a prohibitive factor in African-American participation.
Others pointed out that the emerging black middle class isn’t exactly racing into baseball’s arms, either.
“It does make you mad when people say they can’t afford to play,” Barfield said. “There is that middle class that can afford to play but, for whatever reason, doesn’t choose to play.”
Not everyone is convinced baseball really wants to bring African-Americans back into the fold — or that it ever really wanted them around to begin with.
“I played in an organization where I can say black players were treated different. It’s how it is,” Wilson said. “In the minor leagues, some of the black kids got in trouble and they’re definitely punished more for it. (The) perception is they’re going to do it again.”
Drafted by the Mets with the ninth overall choice in the 1992 draft, Wilson says one of his earliest professional coaches attempted to sabotage his career, teaching him false fundamentals during one-on-one workouts.
Wilson suspects it’s because he is black.
“When I got drafted, it was as a third baseman,” he said. “I can honestly look back and say the guy who was the minor-league instructor, he would take me out and do extra work, and I was taught totally the opposite of the other guys.”
Wilson also said black players face a “different standard” in the big leagues.
“When my dad was in New York, Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry had their problems,” Wilson said. “But when it (came out that Keith Hernandez had used cocaine), it got swept under the rug in days. It’s almost like there’s a different standard that black players have to live up to. You have to be squeaky clean.”
Veteran infielder Tony Womack, who was released earlier this month by the Nationals, responded defiantly when asked about the dwindling number of African-Americans in the big leagues.
“I guess they think they can win without us,” Womack said before his release. “We’ll see.”
Solomon, however, says that baseball “is not going to be satisfied” until it reverses the current downward trend.
He also defended the game’s record in regard to player diversity.
MLB was the first major professional American sports league to successfully integrate, when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and it remains one of the most diverse leagues in sports: In 2005, 39.7 percent of major leaguers were either Latino, African-American or Asian.
“The sport is very diverse,” Solomon said, “even more so now with the influx of Asian players.”
Barfield, who said the arrival of dark-skinned Latino players in recent years may have initially masked the decline of African-Americans, hopes an event like the Civil Rights Game will help to re-engage the black community.
“It’s a step in the right direction for sure,” he said. “They see there’s some concern there and they’re trying to do something about it.
“It’s not gonna happen overnight. It might be a few years, but hopefully the numbers will go back up.”
Sabathia, one of only two prominent African-American starting pitchers in the majors last year — Willis was the other — has been doing his part by donating time, money and sweat at the North Vallejo Little League complex.
“I couldn’t have the field looking the way it was,” said Sabathia, who recruited old neighborhood friends to help him spruce up the infield and re-seed the grass.
Asked if his efforts have resulted in more kids showing an interest in playing, Sabathia said, “It’s been a so-so response. Better than nothing. We’ve got to keep working.
“All I can do is try to make it better.”