Base­ball aims to re­cruit blacks through youth league, busi­ness

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Tim Lemke

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.

Teaming up

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.

‘Some per­son­al­i­ties’

“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.”

Getty Images

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.

As­so­ci­ated Press

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.

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