A great pic of five legendary guys who paved the way for African-Americans in Major League Baseball, including the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson (far left), Don Newcombe (center), and Roy Campanella (far right), plus the Cleveland Indians’ Larry Doby (second from left), who integrated the American League three months after Robinson’s debut. Photo courtesy of nydailynews.com
ONE AFRICAN-AMERICAN’S OPINION OF WHY THERE’S SUCH A DEARTH OF BLACKS IN BASEBALL, FROM THE MAJOR LEAGUES ON DOWN
It seems like I’m something of an anomaly in the sports universe…
An African-American male who considers baseball – not football or basketball – to be his favorite sport; not only to play but also to watch (though college football and women’s college gymnastics are both a solid and, I must admit, kind of close second).
Granted, I’m in my fifties and from a generation where baseball was seen as more popular by blacks in particular and people in general than today.
But considering the issue of the lack of African-Americans playing a sport that has been seen as the national pastime of this country for 150 years – the percentage of blacks playing Major League Baseball was 7.73% last year compared to 19% in 1986,
I definitely feel like a pink poodle in the African-American sports world.
TONS of stuff has been said regarding the reason why baseball has gotten a lot less black in the past thirty years and what has been done – and can be done – about it, ranging from lack of necessary funds among the bulk of African-American families for their kids for gloves, bats and cleats and to register in the various Little Leagues and travel ball programs, to what some say is consequently the lack of space and (subsequently) lack of interest in the inner city communities.
Those factors, and others, have been written and talked about to death, but after reading about and noticing this trend I feel its high time for me to officially offer my two-and-a-half cents as to why black kids are poo-poohing baseball for football and (especially) basketball…
I agree with those who say that African-American kids have largely lost interest in baseball these past few decades, much preferring to be like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant than Justin Upton and Matt Kemp – or even Barry Bonds.
In addition to the cost factor, it seems to me that baseball is seen as a “white” thing in the inner city communities in particular, something that’s considered “goofy” and not “cool”; I think such would be the case even if there were an abundance of affordable leagues and programs like RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) and the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, CA, programs that are geared toward increasing interest and participation among young African-Americans.
A RAY OF HOPE: Hunter Greene from Sherman Oaks’ Notre Dame High School, the #2 overall pick in Major League Baseball’s draft last season. Photo courtesy of si.com
For the young athlete who sees sports as a way out, a way to make his fortune and take care of his family, football and basketball are much more attractive.
Even though a successful career in “The Show” lasts twice as long as a career in the NBA or NFL, the fact that a football and/or a basketball player can make big money right away and doesn’t have to ride the buses in the minor leagues making next to nothing, with a small chance of even making the majors to boot, is a big incentive.
In the minds of many if not most young African-Americans from the “hood”, why should they wait three or four years making peanuts, playing in rinky-dink ballparks, when they can make multi-millions playing in huge arenas like Staples Center and places like Jerry Jones’ AT&T Palace – I mean, stadium – in Dallas or in that new state-of-the-art paradise being built for Los Angeles’ Rams and Chargers in Inglewood right now?
Until MLB changes how things go in their minor league systems (not likely), this mindset will continue to be the case.
- It’s a “Generation Gap” Thing
Related to baseball being seen as “uncool” to young black kids, I think it’s also a case of baseball being seen by today’s millennials as something that their parents and particularly their grandparents were into, a game that’s old, slow, and boring.
A big proof of this sentiment was the fact that the Negro Leagues were a significant part of African-American culture in the years before Jackie Robinson broke the major leagues’ color line in 1947.
Stars like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston and James “Cool Papa” Bell were just as big among blacks as Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio were among whites, and contests like the annual East-West All-Star Game in Chicago’s Comiskey Park (the White Sox’s home) often drew sellout crowds of 50,000.
The kids who saw those games – and later guys like Robinson, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Henry Aaron in the 1950s and 60s, not to mention players like Joe Morgan and Reggie Jackson in the 1970s, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Dave Winfield and Tony Gwynn in the 1980s, and Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey, Jr. in the 1990s – were undoubtedly influenced in a big way by those players, much like they were influenced by Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan on the hard court in the 80s and 90s.
It’s no coincidence that baseball’s popularity factor among young African-Americans started to decrease, while basketball’s popularity started to increase in a huge way, in the 80s as black baseball fans grew old and died off, leaving a vacuum that football – with guys like Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice, and basketball filled rather neatly.
Personally, as another illustration of this my affection for baseball largely came from my grandparents, who blasted Vin Scully calling Dodger games on the radio and TV often during the summer.
I don’t know if I would have gotten to like the game as much if not for that.
I sure hope I see at least some of these youngsters in the majors one day. Photo courtesy of usatodayhss.com
- My View of What’s Being Done About This Issue
I love the fact that baseball has been trying to do something about the dearth of blacks in that game with RBI and the MLB Urban Youth Academies.
And that Chicago area team that made the Little League World Series a few years back, despite them being caught using out of district players, was real cool and a step in the right direction.
And I have been seeing slow-but-sure growth of African-Americans at the youth, high school and college levels as well as the minor leagues.
However, I firmly believe it comes down to this, illustrated by this old saying…
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it.
In other words, you can’t force a kid – black or any race – to like or play baseball.
For the same reason a Canadian kid who’s fanatical about hockey can’t be persuaded to eschew that for the diamond, an African-American kid who’s crazy about hoops and the NBA – a kid who thinks Stephen Curry is the next best thing to God in his eyes – cannot be persuaded to give that up to play baseball, or even play it in addition to basketball.
Which is why, while quite unfortunate and saddening, I don’t expect the percentage of blacks in Major League Baseball to ever approach what it was in the 60s, 70s, and 80s again.
The best I can expect that percentage is around 10%; that would be my goal and should be the goal of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and the other powers that be.
I do remain hopeful, however, that the efforts to change this trend produces positive results.
After all, baseball remains the best sport in the world – at least to me.
A photo of the East All-Stars in the 1939 Negro League East-West Game, including the legendary Josh Gibson (top row, third from right). Photo courtesy of snipview.com