Thursday, October 13, 2005

Blacks in Baseball: Why Don't We Play This Game Anymore?

Now that baseball season is near its end, this brings about a time of reflection and unanswered questions for most fans. Right now, I have a specific question on my mind. Not the typical question you would expect, like, who should win the MVP? Why did the Braves lose in the playoffs again? Is this finally the end of the Yankees as we know them? Those are good reflective questions but not the one that I’m specifically thinking about.

For me, my reflection starts with a question that hangs in the back of my mind throughout every baseball season. Why don’t we play this game anymore? The we, being African-Americans. The number of black players in Major League Baseball has dropped drastically from when I was kid. In 1975, 27 percent of the players were black. Today, it’s around a low of 10 percent.

I remember staying up late at night, in 1979, to catch the World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. Between the two teams, in game one of the series, seven black players were in the starting line-ups. Pittsburgh eventually won the series in seven games. And the “We are Family” squad became a household name within the black community.

As a kid, going out on the field and trying to duplicate what I saw from my heroes of the day was the greatest joy and contributed to my development as a young player. From Reggie Jackson to Davey Lopes to Willie Stargell to Ozzie Smith to Rickey Henderson to Dave Winfield; the list of brothas back then could go on for what seemed like an eternity.

I’m not the only one who has noticed the changes. Over the years, there have been numerous articles, shows, and theories on the topic but none in my opinion have a concise conclusion. We have heard the theories that baseball has done a terrible job of “marketing” the game within the inner cities. But when did they ever market in the hood? We have also heard that African-American kids don’t have as much access to equipment, fields, and training as kids in the suburbs. That might be true but that didn’t stop kids in my day from playing.

One point I’ve heard made, that I don’t think is true, is that the decrease of black players is about race. Let me make this clear, the decrease of black players in the league is NOT about race. Baseball is clearly an “equal opportunity employer” (on the field at least). Just take a look at the melting pot in the clubhouse of most teams, and you will find cultures from all parts of the world.

Like the late, great, sportswriter Ralph Wiley once said when discussing the topic of blacks in baseball, “Baseball is strictly an inherited game”. Ah, ha!! Simple but true, this could be the possible answer to my lingering question.

As a youngster, I learned the sport from my father who learned it from his. The history and tradition of the game was passed down to me from him every summer of my youth. My father felt, because of the many nuances of the game, it was important that I learn the fundamentals from him, and not the streets. It began with simply playing catch in the yard and from then on, I was hooked. From there, I learned how to swing a bat, field ground balls, throw with proper form, and so on and so on.

Somewhere along the line in the last 30 years or so, that baton has been dropped by black fathers. I think it’s in large part due to the fact, that since 1975, single parent households in the African-American community have increased significantly. How significant? A staggering 70% of African-American kids are being raised by single parents today and more often than not, it’s the mother.

If I were a young kid growing up today, no matter what my home was like, most likely, I would put my energies into playing basketball or football. Let’s face it, it’s a helluva lot easier to go out on the basketball court by yourself and shoot the rock or work on that crossover in the driveway. Or, you could grab a football and throw it around with your boys or just simply run around in the backyard acting like Barry Sanders if you wanted. Try playing baseball alone, it can’t really be done.

Then, there is another aspect to consider. About three years ago, after taking my son to baseball practice, he made a comment that has stuck with me since. He said, “Dad, some of my (black) friends tease me for playing on the baseball team.” I thought to myself, why should that matter to him? I thought about it for awhile and realized that social acceptability is crucial for a pre-teen. I also know that right now among kids within the African-American community, baseball is not high on the list of career choices. Most black kids know Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Shaquille O’Neal, and LeBron James. It’s understandable because you see them plastered on every billboard, television commercial or magazine advertisement from New York to LA. Not to mention the gear they wear is considered “high fashion” for some. In contrast, most of those same kids don’t know Gary Sheffield or Derrek Lee. And last I checked, Yankee jersey number 11 or Cub jersey number 25 weren’t flying off the racks at your local Champs store.

Here is an opportunity for Major League Baseball to introduce the next generation of black ball players to the African-American community. Dontrelle Willis, Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, Delmon Young to name a few. This is the future generation of players for young black kids to idolize. If MLB won’t take the role and responsibility (and why should they?) then we have to. Black men. Fathers, brothers, uncles, friends, godfathers, brother-in-laws, all of us. We have to or the low 10 percent of black players today will be five percent, and then one percent and then the days of seeing father and son, black father and son, playing catch in the front yard, the way my father did with me, will be no longer. We owe this to our children, our grandchildren and their children to come. It’s something I know my father would personally have wanted. He may not be on this earth anymore to watch his favorite team, the Yankees, with me but I can certainly pass on the love he had for the game and continue to share my love of baseball with just a few more kids who happen to be black, my sons.

Peace and blessings!