Where Are the African American Baseball Players?

Tom DubberkeCorrespondent IJune 25, 2010

OMAHA, NE - JUNE 24:  The Texas Longhorns watch as the Louisiana State University Tigers celebrate the win after Game 3 of the 2009 NCAA College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium on June 24, 2009 in Omaha, Nebraska. The Tigers defeated the Longhorns 11-4 to win the national title.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Here’s an AP article today which points out that of the 269 players on the eight teams playing in the College World Series this year, only eight are African American.  While I am not surprised that fewer African Americans are playing the sport than 30 years ago, the specific numbers above are shocking.

It’s no secret that young black athletes have lost interest in baseball in favor of basketball and football. 

In the spring of 1996, I had a roommate who was teaching and coaching baseball at Galileo High School in San Francisco.  That’s the high school that Joe DiMaggio once attended (when he wasn’t cutting school to play baseball—he dropped out long before he graduated) and that a lot of African American teenagers living in the Western Addition or Fillmore attend today. 

I remember my old roommate telling me that no black kids at all tried out for the baseball team he was coaching.

Playing little league (police athletic league) in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I remember playing with and against black players.  However, the teams were usually assembled on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, which meant that teams from the western half of San Francisco had few, if any, black players, while teams from the south east corner were almost entirely black. 

If that was typical of other American cities, and it probably was, then I can see why the lack of integration may well have made baseball seem less and less appealing to black kids over time.

I also agree with the idea that baseball requires greater resources to play in an organized way than basketball or football.  Kids can organize one-on-one to five-on-five basketball games in any school yard that’s played with the same equipment and by basically the same rules as professional basketball. 

In football, a lot of the kids who eventually make the NFL probably don’t start playing in an organized way until they start playing for their middle or high school team.

With baseball, on the other hand, it’s much harder to make a middle or high school team if you have never played in an organized little league program beforehand, and it’s extremely difficult for kids on their own to organize true nine-on-nine baseball games.

While churches and other local community organizations organized teams and leagues for young black players 50 or 60 years ago, such leagues have probably been declining steeply, particularly in the poorest black neighborhoods, for at least the last 40 years.

At the same time, a disproportionate amount of black youth culture, from fashion to music, comes out of the ghettos.  As opportunities to play baseball have decreased in America’s inner cities, interest in baseball has declined throughout Black America.

That’s one theory, anyway.  Another is the perception that as black players have declined in professional baseball, black players are being held to a different standard than white players in terms of conduct.  I can’t help but think of the way that Barry Bonds became the public face of baseball’s steroid scandal, when an awful lot of players, black, white, and latino were using PEDs.

As a sport dominated by whites, in a way that pro football and basketball no longer are, black baseball players have to adjust themselves to a “white” way of doing things that pro football and basketball players do not. 

In fact, I’ve read that the success of black and latin players playing in Japan may have something to do with their ability to adjust themselves more readily to a different culture and style of play, since they have already had to do that playing professional baseball in the U.S.  Whether it’s true or not, I don’t really know, but it’s an interesting theory.

MLB has been pumping money into poor black neighborhoods for the last 10 or 20 years, trying to revive interest in baseball in the black community, under the basic and obvious premise that it can’t be good for professional baseball in the long run to be seen as a sport that appeals solely to white or latino Americans.  It may be too late, however.

Even the inner cities had baseball fields 60 years ago, when baseball was truly the National Pastime.  A lot of those fields have been lost to development or hopelessly neglected for decades.

In an era when inner city property in most cities is increasingly valuable and the interest from local communities simply isn’t there any longer, it’s hard to see the will to build enough new fields and get enough black kids playing on them to renew an interest in baseball in the black community.

It’s a real shame, when you think that baseball was once so popular in the black community that negro league teams survived for decades and also the role that baseball’s integration starting with Jackie Robinson in 1947 played in the larger Civil Rights Movement culminating in the 1950s and 1960s.

The only thing that is constant is change, and I suspect that if baseball is ever to become popular again in the black community, it will be for reasons that originate in and emanate from the black community itself.