My late father and late uncle hooked me to baseball as a child. The former would listen to Detroit Tigers games on his car radio. My uncle conspicuously planted an egg-colored earphone in his ear connected to his pocket-sized AM transistor radio, also listening to baseball broadcasts.
We kids played the sport in the streets, on vacant lots, and sometimes on gravel-lined playgrounds if the gangs weren’t around. We played until it was either dinnertime or the street lights came on, whichever came first.
“My father took me to games,” recalls Cindy Brunson, an Arizona Diamondbacks baseball sideline reporter. “Baseball is my heart and soul, and to hear that it’s diminished on a national scope is frustrating.”
My father too took me to games at the late Tiger Stadium. Then I’d go by myself, especially on special days like bat day. I still have my Willie Horton bat — he was the only Black position player starting for Detroit who grew up and lived in our neighborhood. Horton threw out Lou Brock in game five of the 1968 World Series, the pivotal point that eventually turned the Tigers from a 3-1 deficit to a world championship.
Brunson and this reporter sat in the audience at a NABJ panel discussion on baseball in August in Minneapolis. The panelists featured longtime baseball writers — all Blacks, and a retired major leaguer, also Black — all offering reasons why too many Blacks in this country aren’t attracted to baseball.
“We don’t play baseball in the streets, so we don’t appreciate the sport,” says Gary Sheffield, a nine-time all-star outfielder and third baseman (1988-2001), who finished with 509 career home runs and a .292 lifetime batting average.
“There is a history of this game that Black people have no clue about,” said Justice Hill, who now teaches journalism at Ohio University. “There’s a nuance about baseball that, if you don’t understand the game, it’s boring.”
Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe noted that he learned the game early on by listening to famed broadcaster Vin Scully. “He made the game so basic,” he recalled.
“I love basketball and I love football, but baseball is my passion,” admitted Detroit radio host Rod Parker. “I will always love that game. It is part of our history, our fabric [as Black people].”
Nostalgia aside, many propose that baseball must reinvent itself in order to attract more Blacks to the grand old game. “Baseball is behind the eight ball when it comes to marketing,” Sheffield pointed out.
“I blame a lot of the AAU culture and coaches,” said Parker. “They tell these kids…just play basketball 365 days of the year.”
Thomas Harding of MLB.com pooh-poohed the idea that if only Major League Baseball had more Black stars and promoted them, Blacks would flock to the sport like a Dave Chappelle sketch on reparations. “If having great Black stars gets people to participate, then where are the Black golfers and Black women tennis players?” he argued. “What we need is to find a way for more youth baseball. It’s become a country-club sport.”
“We have to be patient,” stated LaVelle Neal III, the first Black president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and longtime Twins beat writer, who watched as the number of American-born Black major league players dropped to under 10 percent today. “I wish it would go back to 20 percent,” he said.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.