The few, Proud: Black Pitchers

Updated: November 19, 2007
Dontrelle Willis
dontrelle willis

JUPITER, FLA.——Dontrelle Willis and Darren Oliver don’t think of themselves as living history, just as pitchers trying to make a living. But in a way, they are rarities.

They’re endangered, part of a trend that threatens to make baseball a game without blacks in a way Jackie Robinson could never have imagined.

Come opening day, there’s a strong possibility only three African-American starting pitchers — three pitchers out of the 150 who will make up Major League Baseball’s five-man rotations — will be in big-league uniforms. Willis and Oliver, both of whom pitch for the Marlins, are two of them. The other is Cleveland Indians hurler C.C. Sabathia.

”Thank goodness for a Dontrelle and a Darren Oliver,” said former pitching star Vida Blue, one of only 12 black pitchers to win 20 games in a season. “They’re like dinosaurs.”

Blue hails from the halcyon days of black prominence in baseball, the 1970s. But those days are fading quickly with the ever-increasing popularity of football and basketball and the influx of Latin players in baseball.

And while there are other African-American pitchers in training camps this spring, such as James Baldwin with the New York Mets and Shawn Chacon with the Colorado Rockies, none appears primed to assume a starter’s role.

”It’s not only a problem, it’s a very disturbing one,” said Don Motley, executive director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

Said former major leaguer and Marlins executive Andre Dawson: “I just don’t see it getting any better.”

It’s not just the number of black pitchers that’s declining at a startling clip — black players are disappearing at every position with every new season.

According to a Sports Illustrated study, only 10.5 percent of all players on opening day rosters last season were African-American, down from 27 percent in 1975. By 1992, that ethnic ratio had dipped to 17 percent.

Hispanics, an ethnic group that includes black Hispanic players, made up about 28 percent of major leaguers last season, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida.

While the sport has implemented programs intended to rejuvenate interest in black communities, Bob Watson — discipline czar for Major League Baseball and the league’s top minority executive — said, “It’s going to take a while.”

”The stud player isn’t playing baseball anymore,” Watson said of black athletes.

“He’s playing basketball and football.

We lost the prestige of being America’s pastime back in the early 1970s. And it really started going downhill when basketball was taken over by the shoe companies, and shoes became part of the social culture. The National Football League had Monday Night Football, and baseball lost the marketing war.”


Lenny Harris has witnessed the decline in interest among blacks firsthand. Harris grew up in Miami and has spent 16 seasons in the big leagues. He is baseball’s all-time pinch-hits leader and is active in promoting the sport in South Florida communities such as Liberty City and at Gwen Cherry Park, donating both his time and money. Harris said when youth leagues in Miami hold tryouts, there’s no shortage of kids eager to sign up for basketball and football. That’s not the case when it comes time to register for baseball.

”It’s hard to get them to play,” Harris said. “It’s hard to get them out on the field. You’ll get 80 kids to show up for the football season. Same with basketball.

But in baseball, you may see only eight or nine kids show up.”

Dawson said he attended one of his son Darius’ high school games for Gulliver last week and that Darius was the only black player on either team.

Kids are excited when Harris gives them shoulder pads and helmets but act indifferent when they’re handed a new glove, he said. Even more striking, Harris said, is the disdain young blacks show for pitching.

”You tell the kids to run to their favorite position and nobody goes to the mound,” said Harris, a non-pitcher throughout his career. “They all run to the infield or outfield.

They don’t want to pitch.”


Dr. Richard Lapchick, who heads the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida, has compiled data that underscores the shrinking population of black players in baseball, and among pitchers in particular, over the past decade. Eight percent of all pitchers, including relievers, in 1995 were black. That figure had dwindled to only three percent in 2002, the last season for which he has gathered statistics.

Lapchick said he believes the reasons for the decline are rooted in baseball’s history and in stereotyping.

”You almost had to be a star player to make it on a long-term basis in baseball,” Lapchick said of black athletes. “I think some of it is kind of a self-predication, that you’re not going to get a chance to pitch in Major League Baseball because those places are reserved for whites. African-American kids got discouraged from playing baseball. It’s probably as controversial a subject as you could come up with in discussing certain positions, like quarterbacks. They were thinking positions, leadership-making positions, and the opinion was African-Americans weren’t capable of playing them. We’ve seen that smashed in the NFL with the quarterback.”


And yet, at one time, black starting pitchers appeared to have crushed that stereotype with the successes of such stars as Blue, Bob Gibson, Don Newcombe, J.R. Richard, Ferguson Jenkins, Dwight Gooden and Blue Moon Odom.

Now their numbers are so few that Jim ”Mudcat” Grant has formed the ”Black Aces,” a sort of alumni group no different than, say, veterans of Guadalcanal.

”It’s a sad commentary to me as a former Afro-American pitcher,” said Blue, a member of Grant’s group.

“It used to be cool to know that you were going to be featured in Ebony and Jet. There used to be page after page of five or six Afro-American players in every issue. But there’s still hope.

I still haven’t given up the hope.”

One reason for Blue’s hope: the star presence of Willis, who won 14 games and National League Rookie of the Year honors after the Marlins called him up from the minors last May. Blue and Lapchick see Willis as a potential lightning rod — much like Tiger Woods has been in golf — to aspiring black athletes.

”When they see Dontrelle play and his exciting personality, that will increase the interest level,” Lapchick said.

Said Blue, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area where Willis grew up: “Dontrelle’s in that position to really make a difference. He’s got to carry the torch now.

There’s Afro-American kids watching him and admiring him.”

Willis said he not only understands the impact he might have in rejuvenating interest among black kids, but also embraces it.

‘I had kids come up to me and say, `You’re my favorite pitcher,’ ” Willis said of his encounters when he returned home to California after the World Series. ‘They say, `How do you throw the ball like that?’ and ‘How can I throw the ball like that?’ ”

Willis said he tells them, “You don’t have to be like me. You can be like Mark Prior or any other pitcher.”


But all admit baseball is facing an uphill battle. Oliver said, if he had had the ability, he would probably have selected a professional career in basketball over baseball.

The riches are greater in basketball and the career path is shorter.

The wait to make it to the top in baseball often means years spent in the minors. In basketball, players such as Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and LeBron James have jumped straight from high school to the pros.

”For blacks, if you can run real fast, you go out for track,” said Delvin James, a black pitcher who is in spring training camp with the Marlins. “If you jump real high, you play basketball. If you’re big, strong and fast — all of the above — it’s perfect for football. If they’ve got a chance for Division I [at the college level] for three years or minor league for six years, they take D-I.”


James said he considers himself typical of a black athlete who discovers baseball late. He never watched a big league game on television, much less attended one in person, while growing up in Texas. He didn’t take up baseball until he was 17 and discovered he could strike out hitters. But he found himself lagging on baseball’s long learning curve.

”I was playing football at six,” James said. “But when I started playing baseball in high school, the other guys were throwing curveballs, change-ups and knuckleballs.

I was just trying to throw the ball over the plate.”

Save for a brief stint with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2002, James has spent the past eight years refining his craft in the minors. What’s more, James said when he returns home in the offseason, his friends find it odd he plays baseball.

”To them, it’s a weird thing for a black guy to be playing baseball,” James said.

`They probably couldn’t tell you who Satchel Paige was. I have a cousin who’s a pitcher. He’s 6-8. But all he talks about is going to the NBA, not realizing he’s got a great chance to play baseball.”

Many feel baseball needs to figure out a way to correct the problem before it’s too late. Motley said baseball should find corporate sponsors to spend money on youth baseball programs at the middle school level.

”Should baseball be concerned?” Blue said. “Yes, they should. But I’m not sure baseball is.”

James said players such as Willis should help to serve as a magnet.

”I think it’s going to take some young black pitcher to step up like Dontrelle did, and I think you’ll see more black pitchers,” James said.

Said Willis: “I hope I can do something at the position to help, that the numbers will increase. I want everybody to play. They don’t have to be African-American. I don’t think it has to do with black and white. But I feel like I have a responsibility, not so much in performing, but in showing everybody it can be done.”