Base­ball lacks black Amer­i­cans; MLB num­bers dwin­dle

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Bob Cohn

First of three parts.

It sounds like a punch line to one of those short­est-books-in-the­world jokes, but Florida Mar­lins pitcher Don­trelle Wil­lis fails to see the hu­mor. The book would be about the shrink­ing num­ber of black Amer­i­can play­ers in Ma­jor League Base­ball.

“It’s def­i­nitely a prob­lem,” said Wil­lis, an All-Star left-han­der. “It’s un­for­tu­nate.”

Wil­lis be­longs to an even more se­lect group: black pitch­ers in the ma­jors. One of his few mound con­tem­po­raries and an­other All-Star, C.C. Sa­bathia of the Cleve­land In­di­ans, went even fur­ther, telling re­porters in April: “It’s not just a prob­lem; it’s a cri­sis.”

In this, the 60th an­niver­sary sea­son of Jackie Robin­son in­te­grat­ing Ma­jor League Base­ball, the dwin­dling par­tic­i­pa­tion of Amer­i­can blacks re­mains a hot­but­ton is­sue, along with Barry Bonds’ run to the ca­reer home­run record and the on­go­ing steroid in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

It is a sub­ject “that ev­ery­body in base­ball thinks about and talks about,” Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als Pres­i­dent Stan Kas­ten said.

As Robin­son’s his­toric achieve­ment was be­ing cel­e­brated in ma­jor league sta­di­ums in April, a study by the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Florida’s In­sti­tute for Ethics and Di­ver­sity in Sports re­vealed that Amer­i­can black play­ers last sea­son made up just 8.4 per­cent of the big league pop­u­la­tion, the low­est fig­ure since such num­bers have been tab­u­lated. Only 3 per­cent of pitch­ers were black.

Par­tic­i­pa­tion has plum­meted since the mid-1970s, when 27 per­cent of the play­ers were Amer­i­can blacks. In 1995, it was 19 per­cent, still a ro­bust fig­ure com­pared with to­day.

The Hous­ton Astros and the At­lanta Braves, which rep­re­sent pre­dom­i­nantly black cities, had no black play­ers on their Open­ing Day ros­ters this sea­son. The high-profile New York Yan­kees and Bos­ton Red Sox had one each, as did Sa­bathia’s Cleve­land In­di­ans. The Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als had three.

Whether it’s a prob­lem, a cri­sis or merely a trend, it is ev­i­dent through­out all lev­els of base­ball. Ac­cord­ing to the NCAA, 6.1 per­cent of its Di­vi­sion I play­ers in 2005 were black. Only one of the seven teams in the his­tor­i­cally black Mid-East­ern Ath­letic Con­fer­ence had more black play­ers than white play­ers this sea­son, ac­cord­ing to a pub­lished re­port. Three of the 16 play­ers on the Wil­son High School base­ball team, which just won its 15th straight D.C. Pub­lic League ti­tle, are black, even though coach Ed­die Saah es­ti­mated the school’s en­roll­ment at 55 per­cent black.

Jared Wil­liams, a for­mer base­ball star at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hy­attsville, Md., earned a schol­ar­ship to Wag­ner Col­lege in New York and now plays for the Char­lotte County (Fla.) Red­fish of the in­de­pen­dent South Coast League. There, he has three black team­mates, “and that’s the most I’ve ever played with since Lit­tle League,” he said.

A spot­light il­lu­mi­nates the sub­ject this sea­son be­cause of its nat­u­ral and some­what ironic link with Robin­son. But many in­volved in the game have been con­cerned about it for years.

Vida Blue, an All-Star pitcher in the 1960s and early 1970s, said of black pitch­ers in 2004: “They’re like di­nosaurs.”

And also that year, Bob Wat­son, MLB vice pres­i­dent of field op­er­a­tions, said, “The stud player isn’t play­ing base­ball any­more. He’s play­ing bas­ket­ball and foot­ball.”

Black ath­letes have in­creas­ingly grav­i­tated to those sports dur­ing the past 25 years. The NBA, fu­eled by a lin­eage of such stars as Magic John­son, Michael Jor­dan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, is where the glam­our is. Or at least that’s the per­cep­tion, and the league and its play­ers are mar­keted ac­cord­ingly.

The NFL does not pro­mote in­di­vid­ual stars to the same ex­tent, but as an en­tity it is even more pop­u­lar. Its black stars of­ten are shown liv­ing the kind of life that young peo­ple would love to em­u­late.

Base­ball play­ers are paid more than pro foot­ball play­ers and have longer av­er­age ca­reers. There are more big league jobs for base­ball play­ers than pro bas­ket­ball play­ers. Yet base­ball is seen by many young peo­ple as slow and bor­ing. ESPN broad­cast a story in which base­ball play­ers at a Florida high school said they were mocked by class­mates for wear­ing their jer­seys to class.

“Base­ball lost the mar­ket­ing war,” MLB’s Mr. Wat­son said in 2004. And the gap has widened even more.

Jim­mie Lee Solomon, whose ti­tle of ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent for base­ball op­er­a­tions makes him MLB’s high­est-rank­ing black ex­ec­u­tive, said the rise of foot­ball and bas­ket­ball start­ing in the 1960s meant that “all of a sud­den, we’ve got com­pe­ti­tion from ma­jor sports pre­dom­i­nantly pop­u­lated by African-Amer­i­cans, pulling them away from [base­ball].”

Bas­ket­ball, es­pe­cially, “is per­fectly suited to ur­ban Amer­ica,” he said. “If you go to an area that’s im­pov­er­ished and you’re a city plan­ner, you have a choice. Do you build a base­ball di­a­mond that takes up a lot of green space, that has a lot of main­te­nance costs, and you’ve got to buy gloves, balls and bats and hire some­body to mow and trim it? Or can you put black­top down and put up a bas­ket­ball goal?”

Mr. Solomon also noted that be­cause rel­a­tively few schol­ar­ships are of­fered, base­ball can’t pro­vide the same fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance for col­lege as foot­ball and bas­ket­ball. And, he said, the “im­me­di­ate grat­i­fi­ca­tion” of play­ing col­lege bas­ket­ball and foot­ball and then go­ing di­rectly to the pro level over­whelms the no­tion of spend­ing sev­eral years rid­ing buses in the mi­nor leagues.

Base­ball faces a tough chal­lenge, but it is not stand­ing by help­lessly. Teams have what the Na­tion­als’ Mr. Kas­ten calls “mar­ket­ing ini­tia­tives” to raise base­ball aware­ness in in­ner cities and among mi­nor­ity youth. The Re­viv­ing Base­ball in In­ner Cities pro­gram, started in 1989 and taken over by Ma­jor League Base­ball in 1991, has pro­vided thou­sands of black chil­dren the op­por­tu­nity to play.

Per­haps the most vis­i­ble ex­am­ple of the ef­forts is the Youth Base­ball Academy, built and op­er­ated by MLB in Comp­ton, Calif., an eco­nom­i­cally de­pressed area with a large black pop­u­la­tion. Mr. Solomon said more than 2,000 in­ner-city chil­dren have par­tic­i­pated in the academy, which pro­vides base­ball and ed­u­ca­tional in­struc­tion, since it opened 16 months ago. Two grad­u­ates were drafted in 2006, Mr. Solomon said. They, along with two oth­ers, signed pro­fes­sional con­tracts. This year, Mr. Solomon said, five grad­u­ates were drafted.

The At­lanta Braves re­cently opened an academy, and plans are in the works for club-op­er­ated acad­e­mies in the Dis­trict, Philadel­phia, Bos­ton, Mi­ami and per­haps Hous­ton.

“The pur­pose is to rein­tro­duce base­ball in many re­spects to the in­ner city, to the ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment,” Mr. Kas­ten said. “We think that will help.”

But the num­ber of Amer­i­can blacks play­ing Ma­jor League Base­ball con­tin­ues to de­cline. Mean­while, the par­tic­i­pa­tion of play­ers from Cen­tral and South Amer­ica, among them blacks, in­creased to a level of 29.4 per­cent last year, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tral Florida study.

Player Gary Sh­effield of the Detroit Tigers cre­ated a stir in June by say­ing in GQ mag­a­zine that one rea­son base­ball prefers His­pan­ics to Amer­i­can blacks is be­cause they can “con­trol” them bet­ter.

As po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect as Sh­effield’s com­ments sounded, they were sup­ported by his Venezue­lan team­mate, Car­los Guillen. Then Min­nesota Twins cen­ter fielder Torii Hunter told a ra­dio net­work that His­pan­ics are cheaper to sign and that “10 years from now, you’ll see no blacks at all.”

Ear­lier this sea­son, while get­ting dressed for a game in the vis­i­tors’ club­house at Cam­den Yards, Sh­effield did not men­tion the His­panic is­sue, but he did say, “You just don’t see black faces pro­mot­ing [the game]. No­body looks like them, no­body talks like them. I

think Ma­jor League Base­ball needs to get cer­tain black play­ers to tap into that mar­ket, show the pos­i­tive side, get them out in the com­mu­nity. It’s a beau­ti­ful game.”

Philadel­phia Phillies first base­man Ryan Howard, who was named the Na­tional League MVP last sea­son when he led the ma­jors in home runs and RBI, is a young black player who still re­mains fairly anony­mous.

“You look at the mar­ket­ing, you don’t see base­ball play­ers who are mar­keted that way [like bas­ket­ball and foot­ball play­ers],” Howard said be­fore a game at Philadel­phia’s Cit­i­zens Bank Park re­cently. “The game isn’t brought to kids’ at­ten­tion that much. When they turn on the TV and they see ath­letes, the ath­letes they see are ei­ther bas­ket­ball play­ers or foot­ball play­ers for the most part. You don’t re­ally see a lot of base­ball play­ers.”

Howard said there are ex­cep­tions, such as New York Yan­kees short­stop Derek Jeter, who re­ceive their share of mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. But not many. As for him­self the 27-year-old Howard, who is play­ing in just his third sea­son, re­cently got his first na­tional en­dorse­ment — for Sub­way.

“I’m still kind of up and com­ing,” he said. “I don’t have the years that other guys have. When Derek Jeter goes some­where, they know who he is. If I go some­where, ev­ery­body doesn’t know who I am. Those guys have time in the league.”

The Mar­lins’ Wil­lis, like other black Amer­i­can ma­jor lea­guers, has gone into cities to talk to chil­dren and even buy equip­ment for them. He sees him­self as an am­bas­sador of base­ball, spread­ing the joy of the game.

“I’m will­ing to sit down and talk with any­body with some sense, any­where. But I can only tell you my ex­pe­ri­ences. I don’t want to come off as a know-it-all. You can take what­ever mes­sage to want to take from that.”

By the same to­ken, how­ever, base­ball “needs to do a bet­ter job pro­mot­ing us in the game,” Wil­lis said. “You see other ath­letes all over the place, like LeBron and Carmelo [An­thony]. Not only in the NBA, but in the NFL as well. You see other African-Amer­i­cans, and they’re pro­moted all the time.”

Many think one rea­son fewer blacks are play­ing base­ball is the lack of role mod­els, a con­di­tion that has cre­ated a vi­cious cy­cle. De­clin­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion cre­ates less in­ter­est among the black pop­u­la­tion, which in turn cre­ates fewer mar­ket­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and less vis­i­bil­ity, and on and on.

Some of it is bad luck. What if Ken Grif­fey Jr., who once stood a chance of break­ing Hank Aaron’s ca­reer home-run record, had not suf­fered a string of de­bil­i­tat­ing in­juries? Grif­fey’s out­wardly sunny dis­po­si­tion would have made him a strong mar­ket­ing en­tity. And what if Bonds didn’t have a sour dis­po­si­tion, not to men­tion the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing his re­ported steroid use?

Mr. Solomon, for one, is not giv­ing up.

“We’ve got to make our guys at­trac­tive to Madi­son Av­enue — to both black and white kids,” he said.

Florida Mar­lins player Don­trelle Wil­lis be­longs to a very se­lect group: black pitch­ers in the ma­jors.

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