When duty calls, Chisox have answered

By Carol Slezak
Updated: July 10, 2008

CHICAGO — The number of African-American players in Major League Baseball is dwindling, and some consider this a disturbing trend. /p>

Why have African-American kids abandoned baseball? The reasons are varied: Today’s kids like video games, soccer, basketball and football more than baseball. Parents don’t play catch with their kids anymore. Our urban areas lack coaches and facilities. And so on.

There has been a huge drop in African-American participation at the major-league level. Over the course of a decade, from 1997 to 2007, the percentage of African-American players in MLB fell from 17 percent to 8.2 percent.

At this rate, it won’t be too long before American blacks once again will be outside, looking in. From a participation standpoint, the sacrifices Jackie Robinson and so many others made to integrate the game will have been for naught. Already, Robinson’s legacy may be fading.

Yet it’s not that baseball has become whiter. According to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 29.1 percent of MLB players in 2007 were Latino and 2.8 percent were of Asian descent.

Thirty-one percent were foreign. Whether or not African Americans participate, baseball seems in no danger of revisiting its segregated past. So do African-American participation rates really matter?

Jackie Robinson’s legacy

They matter to the White Sox. They matter to chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, general manager Ken Williams, first-base coach Harold Baines and All-Star hopeful Jermaine Dye.

Those four spent a precious day off Monday participating in a tribute to Negro League baseball. Williams, Baines and Dye, along with Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, and several historians took part in a forum moderated by ESPN’s Michael Smith about the sport’s past and future.

”The drop in participation is a great concern, and it has to be addressed in multiple ways,” Robinson said. ”[MLB] has established programs to address it, but there are so many other things we can to do attract kids’ attention who have less interest in playing baseball.”

“It comes down to the cost of traveling teams, [places to play], a lack of parental participation, a lack of coaches. It requires community response and involved parents who give their time.”

MLB sponsors several initiatives, including RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities), aimed at encouraging African-American kids to play. And while many have criticized baseball, saying the initiatives came too late and are accomplishing too little, you would not have had that impression Monday.

Certainly the Sox are doing their part to encourage kids to play baseball. In addition to sponsoring the forum, they opened the gates to U.S. Cellular Field for the first ”Double Duty Classic,” a game featuring inner-city high school players from across the Midwest.

The entire day was a tribute to the 75th anniversary of the first Negro League East-West All-Star Game, held at Old Comiskey Park beginning in 1933. Back then, the game was the biggest sports event in the African-American community, and its attendance rivaled that of MLB’s All-Star Game.

As special guests such as Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, MLB vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon and Jesse Jackson listened, the panel spoke to the high school players, giving them an idea of what Robinson went through when he broke the color barrier in 1947.

”Jackie Robinson was just an ink spot on a white canvas,” historian Larry Lester said. ”Kids should realize some of the things he had to overcome.”

Do today’s kids take Robinson’s sacrifices for granted? Can they even imagine what baseball was like back then? Can any of us, really, unless we lived through those times?

Williams reminded the high school players that they should respect the work and effort of those who came before them. And he encouraged them to choose college over professional baseball if given the option, promising, ”If you’re good, we’ll find you.”

It starts in the home

Baines said he started playing baseball as a result of his dad’s influence. Dye talked about growing up in a household filled with athletes, where playing sports was the natural thing to do. Baseball happened to be the sport he liked best.

”There are a lot of options out there for kids that we didn’t have,” Dye said. ”Things like video games and soccer games, for instance. But baseball is the best game there is.”

Williams was asked about baseball’s efforts to get more African-American kids involved in the sport.

”A lot is being done that you don’t hear about,” he said. ”It’s not necessarily publicized, but there are good people behind the scenes.”

Sometimes, publicity can be a good thing. And on this day, for this effort, the Sox organization deserved to be front and center.