Below is a story I did for a journalism class at Northwestern on the declining number of African-Americans in Major League Baseball.
At first glance, there is nothing unusual about Northwestern University’s varsity baseball practice. Players are joking around and rotating through drills while coaches are yelling. It takes time to realize something is amiss. There is only one African-American player among the 25 on the team.
“I try not to think about it,” said Geoff Rowan, a junior catcher. “When I was younger, I noticed that I was the only black player on the field. Now, I just feel like one of the guys.”
This phenomenon is not unique to Northwestern. In the 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card released by the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, African-Americans made up 9.1 percent of players in Major League Baseball. The all-time low was 8.2 percent in 2007.
In 1975, African-Americans accounted for more than 27 percent of major league players. There were 16 black All-Stars that year, which made up more than 40 percent of non-pitching selections. People in and around baseball cannot point to any one reason as to why this is no longer the case.
“There are a number of factors,” said Joe Posnanski, senior writer for Sports Illustrated. “In the inner cities, kids are playing basketball and football. Baseball is a difficult sport to get going. You need organization, players, and equipment.”
Those are not necessary to play basketball and football, both sports where African-Americans make up a majority of the college and professional ranks. That along with declined interest in America’s pastime is not a coincidence according to Bill Savage, an English professor at Northwestern who teaches a class called Baseball in the American Narrative.
“I don’t think it’s a decline of African-American participation in baseball on its own,” Savage said. “It’s an increase of African-American participation in other sports, mainly basketball and football.”
This combination of factors has dried up the talent pool in urban areas. Arguably, this has affected collegiate programs, a major pipeline into the pro game, even more. According to the 2009-2010 NCAA Student-Athlete Ethnicity Report, just 5.6 percent of Division I baseball players were African-American.
“Baseball is cost-prohibitive for the black student-athlete,” said Ed McCann, head baseball coach at Alabama A&M University. “It’s $400 for a baseball bat, $250 for a good glove, and $150 for a pair of cleats. That’s even before you start traveling.”
Ed McCann is white, but is coaching at a historically black university. The team has one white player and has another one committed to play for the Bulldogs next year. He says he took the job because he wanted a challenge, but he understands why less African-Americans are playing baseball at the collegiate level.
“When you go to college to play basketball or football, you get more money,” McCann said. “There’s no such thing as a full ride in baseball.”
Getting African-Americans into the collegiate and professional ranks is difficult with the expenses required. The Chicago White Sox have created the Amateur City Elite program to provide these types of opportunities for younger kids in the Chicago area.
“When you’re talking about playing at higher levels, baseball is financially inaccessible for a lot of inner city youth,” said Dan Puente, manager of Youth Baseball Initiatives for the White Sox. “What we try to do with our Amateur City Elite program is provide high level instruction and place our teams in elite tournaments that collegiate and professional scouts are attending.”
Major League Baseball has established a number of nationwide initiatives to increase interest and participation in inner cities. It has committed itself to building ten Urban Youth Academies in franchise cities. These academies are designed to help kids ages 7 to 17 in the inner cities play baseball according to Daryl Wade, manager of the Houston Astros’ Urban Youth Academy.
“You don’t find parks in urban areas anymore,” Wade said. “The Urban Youth Academy gives kids in cities green space to train. This is an opportunity to develop the kids’ skills.”
Little League baseball has its own Urban Youth Initiative to bring the benefits of baseball and softball to areas that do not have the resources for their own Little League program. Aside from spatial considerations, program director Demiko Ervin says that inner city kids need more role models playing baseball.
“There are fewer African-American stars in baseball than there were in the 70s and 80s,” said Ervin. “You have to get college and professional players into the community and get more involved. I know they all have, but it’s a matter of marketing the game. Baseball needs to be made cool.”
Though it is referred to as our national pastime, baseball no longer holds the same spot in American culture as it once did, says Posnanski. There was a time in the recent past where baseball was the only viable option for athletes to play professionally. With the increased popularity of the NBA and NFL, that is no longer the case.
African-Americans also have fewer opportunities to play baseball than they once did. This is an unintended consequence of the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson, says Savage.
“The irony is that the integration of Major League Baseball was bad for African-Americans because it killed the Negro Leagues,” said Savage. “Far fewer African-Americans could play professional baseball and get paid for it after the color barrier was broken.”
This sentiment was echoed by Rob Ruck, history professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Ruck is also author of the book Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game.
“For black males, good instruction came in a segregated baseball world,” Ruck said. “When that died after integration, sandlot baseball became a thing of the past. The greater commercialization of MLB caused community based forms of baseball to disappear. Black kids had fewer ways to learn baseball.”
How to correct this issue is just as complicated as accounting for it. Some, including Savage, do not even feel that a solution is necessary.
“I don’t see it as a problem,” Savage said. “Seeing it as a problem only makes sense if we have some kind of quota system. Also, it denies the importance of other sports.”
Many in the baseball community do not echo Savage’s opinion, but there is no consensus on what specifically is needed to get more African-Americans into baseball. Affordable programs and exposing more people to the game will help, but those alone are not going to totally reverse what has happened since the 1970s.
“The declining number of blacks in baseball is a long standing trend at this point,” said Posnanski. “It’s over 30 or 40 years, so it’s going to take time and effort to change.”