Low Numbers, Low Interest

By Ivan McDowell
Updated: June 10, 2008

ALABAMA — Major League Baseball has seen its numbers decline amongst African American viewers, fans and especially its players. Most observers believe the declining number of American blacks in baseball correlates with the rising number of Hispanics in the game.

An overall lack of interest is also a definable basis for the paltry figures.

According to studies at Central Florida, the percentage of MLB rosters filled by American blacks and Hispanics was about even at 19 percent each as recently as 1995.

A gap has opened between the groups’ roster percentages in the last 10 years. Hispanics now make up nearly 30 percent, while American blacks make up less than 10 percent.

The percentage of whites has remained relatively constant at just over 60 percent. Major league teams operate training facilities throughout Latin America because they own exclusive rights to young players they sign there on the cheap.

The Diamondbacks, for example, operate a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and have three international scouts assigned to Venezuela, two to Mexico and one each to the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama/Columbia and Australia.

Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program helps up to 120,000 children per year bridge the gap between Little League and high school ball and is entering its 19th year in 200 cities worldwide.

Current major leaguers Coco Crisp of the Red Sox and Dontrelle Willis of the Tigers benefited from the program while growing up in Los Angeles and Oakland, respectively.

Willis’ Tigers teammate Curtis Granderson, the Diamondbacks Justin Upton, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks of the Brewers, as well as Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins and first baseman Ryan Howard are just some of the games best and brightest black stars.

Howard was the National League MVP in 2006; Rollins won the award in 2007.

The recent baseball amateur draft has furthered hope that what Major League Baseball has put in place to revive interest among black youth is starting to work.

But more needs to be done. MLB is looking into opening new programs in D.C., and other inner cities across the country. According to Scout.com, two of the top 40 players in this years draft are American-born blacks.

Griffin, Georgia’s Tim Beckham was the first overall pick and is projected to become a top middle infielder in the Tampa Bay Rays system. The Phillies drafted infielder Anthony Hewitt from Salisbury High School in Connecticut.

Hewitt is described as an electrifying, five-tool player.

It is good to see baseball reaching out to its promising future; a future that until recently didn’t seem to want to include the black ballplayer. Still, the task continues to be daunting, but not impossible.

Furthermore, if baseball wants to remain steeped in its own tradition it should look backward to move forward. Use the history of Negro League Baseball to endorse the black baseball legends of the past and you may inspire the youth of today.

Furthermore, competing against football and basketball on a broader scale starts with marketing itself better to young black boys and making the game more economically affordable and available to them.

If the NBA can promote LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant then why can’t MLB do the same using Rollins, Howard and Granderson?

They can, but will they?