Why isn’t baseball the American pastime for Blacks?
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.
I’m a white guy. I’ve coached amateur and junior college ball for 40 years.
Let’s be clear whose loss this is. It isn’t the Black community’s loss, it’s baseball’s loss.
The game suffers both talent and in its fan base when Black kids overwhelmingly choose football and basketball over baseball. Young white kids now primarily come out of travel programs. They’re spoiled and they aren’t tough. Which means, when we loose the Black athlete, more and more roster spots will be taken by Caribbean and Japanese/Korean players (they’re 45% of the minor leagues now). There are already more youth & high school soccer players than baseball players in the US. At some point, fans will lose interest in baseball when most of the players aren’t American.
The problem for MLB is that it sees everything, from losing the Black community to steriods, as a public relations problem. So, they’ve built these RBI programs which — if the truth is told — are hugely expensive centers of occasional recreation for the Black athletes. They may throw some money at Boys & Girls Clubs and call that involvement, but they are not involved in the Black community.
MLB ought to offer the Black community something they want. Pardon this white boy for assuming, but I think almost every Black mother (and father in 2-parent homes) craves a college education for their sons.
MLB should offer two things……..
1). They should recruit and pay Black men of skill and integrity to coach baseball in inner-city high schools. Quality coaches who are in the school building every day can greatly influence young mens’ commitment to a college education. Just consider the impact superb football and basketball coaches have in the face of those huge inner-city challenges. Yes, on occasion, facilities need to be found. But the main issue isn’t real estate, its changing lives. MLB will need to find people who can help them source quality teachers because MLB minor-league coaches are both inexperienced and inept. So, this isn’t something MLB can do on the cheap by loaning high schools from their vast pool of coaches who don’t know how to coach.
2). They should establish a scholarship fund which insures inner-city baseball players receive full college scholarships — and ACTUAL summer jobs in which they may earn money for their other scholastic expenses. Look here: Over 60% of players who stick 5 years on MLB rosters come out of college baseball. It is a far, far better-taught experience than the minor leagues. But the geniuses at the NCAA forbid college baseball programs to scholarship more than 11.7% of their players (9.5% in Division II). If MLB picked up the difference for inner-city kids who earn college scholarships — and provided the high school support noted above — they would solve their problems in the Black community and find themselves with better-prepared draftees from that pool.
But don’t hold your breath. This would require MLB to both set aside its natural greed and make serious investments in their local communities. Easier to hire former players as “community development” guys and pump out some more news releases.