Baseball Fades to White

Updated: November 19, 2007
Jackie Robinson
jackie robinson

NEW YORK, NY.—Sometimes, during a game, Minnesota Twins center fielder Torii Hunter does the math himself. And it doesn’t take long.

“I’m looking in the stands, and there’s no black kids in the stands at all,” he said. “So I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. I’m trying to figure out, “How did I get in this game?’ ”

Hunter’s not alone among players asking that question these days. But he’s getting close.

At a time when the international diversity of players in major league baseball has never been greater, the number of African-American players in the game has nose-dived to levels not seen since the earliest days of integration.

“No question about that, and we’ve been concerned,” Commissioner Bud Selig said.

Over the past five years, the major leagues have had more Latino players than ever, along with notable influxes of Japanese, Korean and Australian players.

But although the global popularity of baseball is on the rise and the numbers of white players from the United States remains strong, black American players are fading from the game.

The figures are dramatic enough that on opening night at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, fans likely will witness the only African-American starting pitcher in the American League in Cleveland’s C.C. Sabathia and the only all-African-American starting outfield in the league in the Twins’ trio of Shannon Stewart, Hunter and Jacque Jones.

Twins players might laugh about the return of the Soul Patrol in the Minnesota outfield, but Hunter admits he sometimes feels like a dinosaur in the game.

“And a comet came in and destroyed our butt,” he said.

Veteran black players talk about it often, Hunter said, referring to it as a “blackout.”

Reasons given for the decline range from young athletes being drawn away by basketball and football to a disproportionate lack of economic opportunities and visibility.

Whatever the causes, baseball is treating the trend seriously, as a crisis of culture, if not relevancy.

After all, what does it say about America’s oldest, most tradition-rich professional sport that the best athletes from an entire segment of the American population have little more than a marginal stake, or passing interest, in it?

“When you think of the heritage of Jackie Robinson and (Larry) Doby and (Roy) Campanella and (Hank) Aaron and Willie Mays, it’s stunning that it’s fallen off like it has,” Selig said. “We’ve gotten away from promoting baseball in the inner cities. I think there was a void there in the ’70s, maybe back into the late ’60s and going into the ’80s.

Now we’re trying to make up for time. We’re trying to do as much as we can to stimulate the game.”

Already promoting baseball with youth in 185 cities through the Reviving Baseball in the Inner City program the past several years, along with programs that fund Little League fields, MLB has stepped up aggressively this year with a $3 million Urban Youth Academy under construction on the campus of Compton Community College in the Los Angeles area.

Modeled after the dozens of Latin American baseball academies that have produced vast pipelines of Dominican and Venezuelan prospects, the Compton academy is a 20- to 25-acre facility that will include two regulation-size fields, including one with lights and grandstands, and a youth baseball field and a softball field. It will be open to kids ages 10-15 from the neighborhood free of charge and provide academic and baseball instruction.

Selig, who also instituted a Jackie Robinson Day this year to be recognized every April 15, said other cities are being targeted for the academy program with a long-term goal of expanding the program throughout the country.

“It should help,” said Twins infielder Augie Ojeda, 29, who grew up in a predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood in central Los Angeles but rarely saw his black friends play in his baseball leagues. “They had some talent. For some reason they go to high school and play football or basketball. They forget about baseball.”

One kid Ojeda went to high school with played baseball for one year and was such an outstanding athlete a baseball scout told him the club would draft him in a lower round, based on the athletic ability he showed in one high school season, if the player would agree to sign afterward. “He could hit the ball a mile. He was just raw,” Ojeda said.

“He said no. He got a scholarship to UCLA for football.”

Players and coaches said they’re optimistic about the potential for baseball’s new academy program to regenerate interest in city neighborhoods where the game once thrived, producing players such as Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis from Ojeda’s hometown a generation ago.

But some wonder what took baseball so long to do something in U.S. cities.

“They did it for the Latin players for the longest time,” Jones said. “Why are they just starting now for the African-American kids? They knew the numbers were dwindling. Why can’t they go into the ‘hood and say, “Damn, there’s a lot of kids in here that can really play the game but they have no resources to get better’? ”

Selig, who took over the commissioner’s office more than a decade ago, admits baseball didn’t do enough as the declines became more drastic in the 1990s. “I don’t think we were as aggressive as we could be,” said Selig, who has made awareness of the issue a high priority.

Since Jackie Robinson became the first black major leaguer in the 20th century in 1947, it took 12 years until every major league team was integrated with the Boston debut of Pumpsie Green. By the mid-’70s, 27 percent of major leaguers were African-American, and black players owned big-league records for career home runs (Hank Aaron), stolen bases in a season (Lou Brock) and lowest earned run average in a season (Bob Gibson).

Don Newcombe won the inaugural Cy Young Award. Frank Robinson won Most Valuable Player awards in both leagues, then in 1975 became the first black manager in the big leagues. Reggie Jackson became Mr. October.

Top black athletes were playing baseball in such large numbers that by 1971, the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first all-black lineup in major league history (seven African-Americans and two black Latin players).

“It’s such a great part of our heritage,” Selig said. “It’s a crime we’ve gotten away from that.”

Last year, the numbers of black Americans playing in the major leagues dropped below 10 percent for the first time since before full integration.

And how bleak does that figure look considering it includes such second-generation black major leaguers as Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Darren Oliver, Tim Raines Jr., Derrick Lee and Jerry Hairston Jr.? In the 1950s, that was not an access point for black players because there was no such thing as a second-generation black major leaguer.

Some players suggest the access points to the professional pipelines are drying up for urban African-Americans to at least the same degree as their interest is drying up.

Many suggest some scouts are reluctant to spend much time in some of the more dangerous city neighborhoods – and not just white scouts.

“Actually, in Oakland, where I’ve resided for years, I’m scared to go in there,” said Twins first base coach Jerry White, who is black. “And I live there.

And that’s where all the talent is.”

Powerful perceptions, founded in varying degrees of truth, also might fuel the cycle.

“I’ll tell you straight up,” Hunter said. “If a black scout goes in there and finds a black kid in the ‘hood because white scouts won’t go in that neighborhood and then comes back with a report that says, “Hey, this dude was like the best,’ they won’t believe them. They’ll think he’s trying to help the kid get out of the neighborhood.

“I’ve seen some guys 10 times better than I was where I’m from. Ten times!”

Baseball officials flatly reject that notion.

But it’s hard to call such perceptions outrageous when a glance over the 128-year history of major league baseball reveals not one black owner and only three teams that have ever employed black general managers – the same guy in two of those cases (Bob Watson with Houston in 1994-95 and the New York Yankees in 1996-98).

“I think a lot of it is kids in communities of color are seeing two things,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the head of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. “They’re seeing few African-Americans in major league baseball, and in declining numbers, and seeing few in key leadership positions, whether manager or front-office positions. So they have some opinion that has not been a fair reaction to some of the great players who have wanted to be managers or coaches or work in front offices.”

“And there is the perception that based on a pretty serious degree of reality that the number of players of color in the major leagues is not American anymore.

And the opportunities in communities are not as great as they have been in recent years.”

Besides the Twins, the only other possible all-black starting outfield in the majors on opening day is in San Francisco, where Barry Bonds and Marquis Grissom could be joined by Michael Tucker or Jeffrey Hammonds. Only three other starting pitchers in the majors besides Sabathia are black, Darren Oliver and Dontrelle Willis of Florida and Jerome Williams of San Francisco.

Teams such as Houston and Arizona might open the season without a black player on the field.

“That’s a hard subject to discuss,” said Twins coach Al Newman, 43, who lived in Kansas City until he was 14 before moving to the Compton area and eventually playing eight seasons in the majors. “We can talk till we’re blue in the face, but you lose a group to another sport because obviously they think they’re better at that sport. Or it’s more appealing.

Culturally, basketball and football are just more appealing. It used to be black folks loved the game of baseball. For every bit of Babe Ruth, you talk Josh Gibson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson.”

Even before 1947, the segregated Negro Leagues thrived as one of the most successful black-owned businesses in the country.

Selig tells the story of going to a Chicago Cubs game in 1947 with his cousin and a friend to see Robinson’s first game at Wrigley Field.

“We were the only white people in the upper deck,” he said. “That’s what’s so stunning when you think about it.”

Less than 50 years later, Jones made the 1996 U.S. Olympic team and quickly realized he was the only black player in the Olympic tournament field.

“There’s guys all over the place that can play, and I was like, “Damn, I was the only brother that was good enough to even get invited (to the tryouts)?’ ” he said.

The numbers are heading in that direction in the majors, too.

As recently as 1995, 19 percent of big-leaguers were black Americans. But that number has steadily gone down – to 15 percent in 1998, 13 percent in ’99 and 10 percent in 2002.

Some of that is attributable to the increase in international players joining the major leagues. But even after the percentage of white players dipped to a low of 58 percent in 1997, their numbers have rebounded to 64 percent last year.

“Me and Torii and other fellas around the league, we talk about it,” Jones said. “Nobody can really put a finger on why it’s less and less and less in the big leagues.”

If it’s true that young black athletes with choices are being drawn to other sports in greater numbers and that distractions such as video games are cutting the pool of potential players across the board, then the declining numbers of black players in the majors today figures only to inspire even fewer tomorrow.

“It’s a chain reaction,” Ojeda said.

Hunter, whose best sport was football as a kid, said he took baseball seriously after watching Andre Dawson hit 49 home runs for the Chicago Cubs in 1987 on WGN’s superstation.

“I was like, “Man, you can be successful at baseball as a black person?’ ” he said.

But the chances of that happening again in his hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark., already have dropped dramatically. By the time Hunter returned to his hometown two years after being drafted in 1993, his loosely organized youth league had disbanded. Meanwhile, the more highly organized, expensive league in the mostly white area of town was still going strong.

“I don’t even know if you can get it back,” Newman said. “I don’t think you can get it back to the level it was in the ’70s and the ’80s. I really don’t.

Because too much has changed.”