Baseball aims to recruit blacks through youth league, business
ISecond of three parts
n the eyes of baseball Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig, the sport he oversees is in a golden era. Attendance at major league games is at an all-time high, TV and Internet revenues are robust, and competitive balance never has been better.
Amid the good news, however, baseball is fighting a distressing trend: The number of black Americans in the game has dwindled to an all-time low.
Stars like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Joe Morgan once filled baseball’s diamonds, but black American players are becoming hard to find. U.S.-born blacks made up more than 27 percent of all players in the 1970s. That number had declined to 8.4 percent by last season.
Baseball officials are well aware of the problem. They know it’s bad for the league’s image and bad for business. Now, they face a difficult question: What’s to be done about it?
“We’re America’s pastime. To be America’s pastime, we must be the pastime for all Americans,” said Jimmie Lee Solomon, baseball’s executive vice president for business operations. “Businesses want to grow. The day you stop growing is the day you start dying. It makes no sense for us to ignore an entire segment of our society, especially since we once had that segment of society fully integrated into the sport.”
Restoring interest in the game, however, isn’t simple. After all, people can’t be forced to play baseball, let alone well enough to have a long professional career. And it is particularly hard when baseball’s fan base contains a smaller percentage of blacks than those of other sports. Just 11 percent of baseball fans are black, compared with 18 percent for the National Basketball Association and 13 percent for the National Football League. According to the Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey, blacks make up 12.1 percent of total population.
Baseball’s strategy to address the decline of the game among American blacks can be compared to that of a struggling team looking to rebuild: There is no promise of immediate results, but there is a multipronged and long-term effort to get to the roots of the problem.
The strategy begins with recognizing the contributions of black stars from baseball’s past. Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 for all of baseball in 1997, the 50th anniversary of Robinson breaking the game’s color barrier.
In 2006, Mr. Selig and Mr. Solomon announced the creation of the annual Civil Rights Game, an exhibition to be played each March in Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King was assassinated. Baseball has made a point of honoring black Hall of Famers, most recently by recognizing Mays and Willie McCovey during festivities at the All-Star Game this month in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, at the ground level, the league is combining with several groups to boost the number of children in the inner city who take up the sport, working with Little League Baseball, the National Urban League and Boys and Girls Clubs as a partner on charitable initiatives.
Major League Baseball has invested $20 million in the past 15 years in Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), a program designed to encourage academic achievement and participation in baseball in more than 200 urban areas in the United States.
Nearly half of the more than 120,000 young people participating in the program are black, and more than 150 graduates, including the Philadelphia Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ Carl Crawford, have been drafted by major league teams.
Although the RBI program is not new, support by baseball and its teams is growing. In April, the league and the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation announced a partnership to expand the RBI program by more than 30 percent and provide more than $1 million in cash and grants. Accounting giant KPMG in July agreed to be the official corporate sponsor in a deal that will bring in an additional $1 million a year.
“The number of kids playing in RBI are overwhelmingly of color,” said Thomas Brausuell, baseball’s vice president of community affairs. “It’s giving them that opportunity, so it is helping.”
The boost in funding for the RBI program comes after baseball last year opened the $10 million Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., which features 10 acres of ball fields and a 12,500-square-foot clubhouse. Similar facilities are planned in the District, Boston, Houston, Miami and Philadelphia, providing a brickand-mortar base for the program.
“A lot of kids need things they can touch and feel,” Mr. Solomon said. “It creates a sense of home.”
Baseball officials also have formed a series of diversity initiatives that, in theory, could over time affect the number of black Americans playing the game. The league offers a two-year executive-apprenticeship program designed to groom recent college graduates for front-office jobs. While the program is not advertised as a diversity initiative, all five of the chosen applicants this year are minorities, two of them black.
Under baseball’s Diverse Business Par tners Program, the league and its teams are asked to work with minority and womanowned businesses whenever possible. Since 1998, the league has spent more than $400 million on services supplied by businesses in the program.
Taking long view
That program is not designed to affect directly the number of blacks on the diamond, but officials say there is a trickle-down effect.
“We’ve seen some of these companies become season-ticket holders and apply for sponsorships and things like that,” said Wendy Lewis, baseball’s vice president for strategic planning, recruitment and diversity. “The black athlete has gone from the game, but probably so have the parents, friends, relatives and associations. If you start bringing people back from a business perspective and re-creating those relationships, it’s just a matter of time before those influencers also start to chart the course of their friends, their communities and their neighbors about the greatness of our game.”
The efforts by baseball to promote diversity have not gone unnoticed.
Mr. Selig was honored by the Diversity and Women Leadership Summit in 2005 for the league’s stance on workplace diversity, and the number of black managers and general managers generally has been higher than in other pro sports. But these measures thus far have failed to stop the decline in the number of black Americans who play the game.
Baseball officials said the next step in addressing the problem may be to steal a page from other sports leagues by boosting the pro-
file of its black stars.
The NFL and NBA have — with help from shoe and apparel manufacturers — promoted a host of black players who transcend their sports. Baseball has been slow in helping to create the superstar who might persuade black children to play.
“For a minute, we thought maybe Ken Griffey Jr. had it. Barry Bonds, [. . . ] if he were a little more friendly acting, he might have had it,” Mr. Solomon said. “But some guys don’t accept it. They don’t want to be the guy. And that may be something we have to address because we do have some personalities.”
Mr. Solomon checked off a list of black players who could become baseball’s next marketing star: Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies, Torii Hunter of the Minnesota Twins and Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins.
Those players increasingly appear in promotional spots for the league and on league-produced programs such as “This Week in Baseball.” A recent commercial involving the Boys and Girls Clubs, for instance, featured eight players, four of whom are black. Baseball also has explored working with the BET television network on producing a reality show featuring Rollins.
“We do make a conscious effort,” said Jacqueline Parkes, MLB’s senior vice president for advertising and marketing. “It’s tough to reach people with a message when there are so many outlets, but we’re trying to reach as many eyeballs as we can.”
But officials said it may take more than just plugging black players into a commercial here and there.
“For guys like Ryan Howard to be on a marketing par with a LeBron [James], a Kobe [Bryant] or a Michael Jordan, you’re going to have to prime the pump and make sure that he’s seen as cool,” Mr. Solomon said. “We have to find that crossover cool aspect of our athletes. We’ve been waiting for it to catch fire, but sometimes you have to fan the flames.”
Whether those flames will ever amount to an explosion of black American stars in the game again is not clear. But baseball’s working on it.
“We are the most diverse sport, and we celebrate that, but this is definitely a trend that’s troubling,” Mrs. Parkes said. “I believe we have taken steps that will begin to pay dividends in the years ahead.”
Team Diversity: Baseball fans flocked to AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tenn., on March 31 for the first Civil Rights Game, an exhibition match slated to be played each year.
Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank H. McCourt Jr. signed autographs after June 2004 groundbreaking ceremonies for Major League Baseball’s $10 million Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., which opened last year. The program is designed to draw more black American players into the sport.