Stars, Officials Trying To Reverse A Trend

By Maurice Patton
Updated: December 12, 2007

NASHVILLE — Harold Reynolds was the classic three-sport star in high school.

That versatility ran in the family, as older brothers Don and Larry both excelled in a variety of sports when they were growing up.

With an opportunity to play football, basketball or baseball in college, Harold Reynolds chose baseball — a choice that eventually led to a 12-year major league career and job as a television analyst.

But the game that drew worldwide attention for its dramatic integration by Jackie Robinson during the 1940s is seeing an equally dramatic decline in the number of African-American athletes willing to enter what was long regarded as the national pastime.

The trend has become increasingly noticeable on Major League Baseball diamonds across the country. From 1995 through 2006, the percentage of black players on big league rosters fell by more than half to 8.4 percent, according to a 2006 report by the University of Central Florida.

Meanwhile, the percentage of people of color on major league teams was 40.5 in 2006, just shy of the league’s all time high of 42 percent. Increasingly, those minority players are Latino and Asian.

“We’ve built a lot of academies in Latin countries but we never did it here in the inner cities,” Reynolds said in an interview last Tuesday during the Baseball Winter Meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center.

“If you don’t have good instruction, you’re not going to advance. Baseball’s such a technical game, you have to have good instruction.”

A two-time All Star second baseman with the Seattle Mariners, Reynolds thinks baseball has shown a lack of urgency in cultivating African-American talent from the inner cities of the U.S.

“A lot of kids are playing and they’ve been playing,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting people to go into those areas, getting scouts to sign them – not using the lame excuse of ‘we’re scared to go into areas.’ ”

After decades of excluding blacks through segregation, African-Americans were embraced by the game and its fans by the late 1950s. Many black players, from Willie Mays to Bob Gibson and Hank Aaron, became iconic figures of the sport.

The report by the University of Central Florida’s Institute of Diversity and Ethics and Sport, found that Major League Baseball has made huge gains in the numbers of racial minorities at virtually all levels of baseball.

But the diminishing number of African-Americans is a troubling trend for baseball officials, who worry that fewer African-American players on the field could — in the long run — translate into fewer African-American fans in the stands.

Last month, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig convened a meeting of current African-American players to discuss the problem and brainstorm possible solutions. The group included among others, Ryan Howard, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., and former Nashville Sounds and current Miwaukee Brewers’ slugger Prince Fielder.

“It was a positive first step, getting the voice of African-American players on their feelings about how our industry is addressing their existence and their future,” said Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball.

A common theme was the need for baseball to step up the marketing of its black players, much in the same way that professional basketball and football have made mainstream stars of African-American players like LeBron James.

“We’ve got to raise the profile of our African-American players who are currently out there with tremendous personalities, tremendous ambassadors for the game and nobody knows about,” Solomon said.

“That’s the problem we’ve got right now. (Philadelphia Phillies shortstop) Jimmy Rollins is our (National League MVP) and I’d dare say if Rollins walks through this lobby out here, but for the reporters and fans like myself, he might go unnoticed. That’s a travesty.”

Once baseball does redouble its efforts to find African-American talent, it remains to be seen whether it can regain the interest of generations of black kids who have grown mesmerized by the glitter and slick marketing of other major sports.

“Kids identify with (basketball players) Michael Jordan, Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) and Dwayne Wade, and (football player) Randy Moss,” said Reggie Whittemore, a former minor league baseball player who now works as director of the Reviving Baseball in the Inner City program in Nashville.

“Baseball has no glamour. You can be on the field the whole game and not have a ball hit to you, and maybe only come to bat three times. It doesn’t have instant gratification.”

Navery Moore, a dominating African-American pitcher at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, signed a letter of intent last month to play baseball at Vanderbilt University.

“I started playing at T-ball age,” he said. “My dad played growing up and it was primarily the only sport he played. Me and my brother ended up playing and it ended up something we were good at and stuck with it.”

Now a senior, Moore is also a three-sport athlete who played football and basketball in high school.

“But baseball sort of took over,” Moore said. “I really didn’t have time to do anything else. People don’t realize it, but if you want to do the best you can do, it almost becomes a year-round sport.”