No longer ‘national pastime’ in inner-city
It was Sept. 1, 1971. The Pittsburgh Pirates had by far the best team in the major leagues. They’d need only want a few weeks to hoist the franchises’ fourth World Series trophy.
What was different about this game against Philadelphia at Three Rivers Stadium was the Pirates’ lineup: It was all Black. Here were Rennie Stennent at second base, Gene Clines in center field, Roberto Clemente in right field, Willie Stargell in left field, Manny Sanguillen behind the plate, Dave Cash at third base, Al Oliver at first base, Jackie Hernandez at shortstop and righthander Doc Ellis on the mound.
“It really wasn’t a major thing,” Oliver said years later, “until around the third or fourth inning. Dave Cash was sitting next to me and one of us said: ‘You know, we got all brothers out there, man.’ We kind of chuckled, because it was no big deal to us. We really had no idea that history was being made.”
‘We got all brothers out there man’
That watershed moment took place 24 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It drew little attention at the time, possibly because most Major League Baseball (MLB) organizations had sizable amounts of African-American players–if not in the “show”--certainly in the minor leagues.
It’s a lot different today. At the beginning of this season–and for the second straight year–a record low number of Black players (those born in the United States) were on the opening day rosters in both leagues. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida (UCF) has been looking at this dilemma for some time. They collected data from March shortly before opening day and used a grading system to point to improvements. Last year they issued the MLB a “B-” in overall diversity, a “B” for race and a “C-” for gender.
The study found that, in 2023, Black players represented just 6.2% of players on opening-day rosters. That’s down from the previous year’s lowest level recorded in the study since it began in 1991 when 18% of MLB players were Black. The decline comes despite MLB’s implementation of numerous programs to increase Black youth participation in baseball.
1981 saw the highest percentage of Black players at 18.7%. The All Star game that year had a total of 63 players, 14 of which were Black All Stars (or 22% of those players in uniform). During the past 43 years, the percentage of Black All Stars has decreased from 22% to just 4.6%.
Encouraging equity and inclusion
Billy Bean, MLB’s senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, said addressing the issue is a priority–and not just a fleeting one.
“We have extensive programs through all stages of player development to increase Black participation in baseball,” Bean said. “These current numbers are disappointing for sure, but we are encouraged by the progress being made at various levels of the pipeline. Diversity remains our top priority for our entire industry and we are committed to this as a long-term effort.”
Besides Houston Manager Dusty Baker, last year’s World Series marked the first time there were no U.S.-born Black players since 1950. Richard Lapchick, lead author of the UCF study, echoes Bean in believing that the major leagues will again witness a renaissance of Black players at all levels. He doubts, however, if the amount will ever return to the levels displayed by the ‘71 champion Pirates as an example.
“It’s hard to say,” Lapchick said. “I think eventually it’s going to turn around in the direction that baseball wants. Will it ever get back to where it was? I’d be surprised if it does.”
Fewer Black role models in baseball
Lapchick pointed to other factors at play. For instance, if you’re a 13-year-old Black kid growing up and you look at Black role models in other sports and in baseball, you’ll likely believe your best chance is not in baseball. For starters, baseball is an expensive sport. Even during the period of Little League, church leagues, neighborhood merchant sponsors etc., it still takes people “behind” these youngsters to sponsor (pay) for baseball clinics, competition against crosstown teams, equipment, uniforms and, of course, field maintenance at neighborhood baseball diamonds.
There are facts to back up Lapchick’s assertion. From 1979 to 2017, the United States lost 7.2 million factory jobs. Those jobs paid livable wages with benefits that provided Black families the money and time to involve their sons in baseball, particularly Little League. South Los Angeles lost a significant amount of these good-paying, union jobs; these were replaced with lower wage service jobs which meant less income coming into the household. Add increasing fees for Little League and inflation in general and the result was far less Black boys participating in early baseball.
Some of the greatest name in the sport have arisen locally, among them Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith (Locke High), Reggie Smith (Centennial High), Willie Crawford (Fremont High), Kenny Landreaux (Dominguez High), Charles “Chili” Davis (Dorsey High), the late Lymon Bostok (Fremont High), and Darryl Strawberry (Crenshaw High) all of whom had some form of financial backing if not from family but from neighborhood benefactors.
Black kids ‘priced out’ of baseball?
While basketball and football require early qualified instruction to teach the fundamentals of the individual sport, it’s far less expensive today for the average inner-city kid to practice a jump shot or layup. In the inner-city, there are more Pop Warner or privately run (i.e. Snoop Dogg’s Youth Football League) opportunities than there are Pee Wee, Babe Ruth or Connie Mack baseball leagues for young kids.
Chelsea James, a national baseball reporter, believes the reason for the decline in Black participation is the timeline of becoming an MLB player. Professional basketball and football players come directly out of college–a scant few in basketball emerge from high school. Not so in professional baseball.
“A lot of Black kids look up and see stars in the NBA and NFL who came right out of high school or right out of college and suddenly are on national television,” James said. “The money and fame doesn’t come right away for baseball players. If you don’t have the money, you don’t get the exposure and you don’t get the scholarships. It’s also a sport that’s harder for poorer families to be part of. Black kids in those circumstances have trouble early on trying to break into the sport.”
Most Black Division 1 athletes are second-generation college attendees–as it is in Major League Baseball. For example, former New York Yankees star Derek Jeter’s father is a doctor. Former Los Angeles Angels outfielder Dexter Fowler had baseball scholarship offers from Harvard and the University of Miami but rejected both opportunities in order to play professionally. His parents are both college graduates. The Jeter and Fowler families are certainly not “outliers” within the nation’s African-American community as a whole, but a sizable majority of Black kids from the inner-city don’t have the financial backing early on to foster a promising career in professional baseball.
Reviving Baseball in the Inner-City
There is promising news, however, on the baseball front. Four of the first five players in the 2022 MLB amateur draft were Black for the first time ever. Those four, and more than 300 MLB players had participated in professional baseball’s diversity initiatives such as RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner-City) launched in 1991 to encourage more baseball among Black kids. MLB has since pledged $150 million in a 10-year partnership with the Players Alliance, a nonprofit organization of current and former players to work to increase Black involvement at all levels. Today, MLB and USA Baseball host something called the Dream Series in January during the King holiday weekend. They help to develop pitching and catching skills of elite, mostly Black youth while affording them a platform to perform for scouts.
Dusty Baker, who grew up in Riverside, has told the story of how his father scraped up $125 for him to attend a high school basketball camp hosted by NBA stars Rick Barry and Al Attles. Because the entry fee was so high, Baker was one of the few Black boys there. The camp helped him: “I was shooting across my face, and they straightened my arm out,” he said. “They did just one adjustment and I went from 12 points a game in my junior year to like 23 points. The same thing could happen to another kid in baseball–if they could afford to go to a camp.”
To the MLB’s credit, the Hank Aaron Invitational has worked to attract the nation’s best Black baseball players to work with the finest major league players and coaches. The Players Alliance has found additional purpose in serving as a social justice program focused on improving the participation of Black athletes in baseball. Baseball legend Willie Mays participates in this project.
“It’s harder for these kids now,” Baker said. “You don’t see the heroes on the baseball field, because they are very few. Most of the heroes are either in basketball, football, entertainment…rapping. You never give up hope. As long as baseball is still introduced to these youth, they’ll find a way to shine through.”