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Friday, October 28, 2005

 

An Alarming Trend

The subject of race in professional sports has again commanded headlines. It deserves a thoughtful, informed discussion, but, once again, it will receive no such thing in the papers and on TV. For Major League Baseball, the subject came up in relation to the Houston Astros being the first team in the World Series since the 1953 Yankees without an African American player. Like most, I doubt that Houston’s management intentionally constructed their team that way. Besides Houston, the Red Sox, Orioles, Braves and Rockies had rosters without a single African American player. The Cardinals carried only two African Americans on their post-season roster (Ray King and Reggie Sanders). Throughout all of Major League Baseball the number of African American players stands at an all time low. In 1975, more than 27 percent of MLB players were African American; today, that number is right below 9 percent. Never one to hold back with criticism of Bud Selig, I have scoffed at MLB’s half-hearted, “easy-out” attempts to promote racial equality in the past. However, there are larger cultural and economic forces at work here, well beyond the reach of MLB. People typically and correctly offer baseball’s decline in popularity as a sport among African Americans as a reason for the decline in the number of players. MLB has taken steps to address this by promoting the game in African American communities and the game’s African American stars. They are even constructing a couple of baseball academies similar to those in Caribbean and Central and South American countries. However, there are other cultural factors at work here, the very same ones we were reminded of in New Orleans about two months ago. Think separate but unequal. As economic opportunities have dried up in many African American communities, the opportunity for youth to play baseball and develop as players has disappeared as well. I know what you’re thinking, “all you need for baseball is a bat, or something like it, a glove and a ball.” This is indeed true, and some of the greatest players in the history of the game developed on crudely fashioned fields with makeshift equipment. But the game has changed. For those with the opportunity, you can play in highly competitive, well organized leagues year round. Year round play in most places requires the finest and most expensive of facilities. You can play in traveling leagues, if your parents can spring for your participation, the hotels rooms to stay in, and the time away from jobs to be there. You can even send youth to very expensive camps or year-round schools that tutor kids in the three R’s only as a legal afterthought. Merely playing on the varsity team hardly suffices. Obviously, these things do not apply across the board. Players will still arrive in the major leagues without ever having been to a camp or played in traveling leagues, but the disadvantage of not having these things is clear. Combine inaccessibility with a declining interest and it becomes an incredibly difficult task for the suits running MLB. Making the task especially difficult is the catch 22 created by having so few African American players: without African American players that African American youth can look up to, it becomes even more difficult to recruit future African American players that kids can look up to. Many youth in Caribbean nations or Central American countries also lack the kinds of opportunities that middle class suburban whites do, but there are other factors to consider here. For one, there is far less competing for athletic attention. Soccer is very popular, but there are not six other major sports competing for attention. Often baseball or soccer are the only accessible forms of entertainment in a limited media environment that is sometimes strictly controlled. In several places Venezuela, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, baseball is by far the most popular sport. National cultures have latched onto the sport, promoting it among their citizens through various means. Another factor that has helped to develop major league players from these countries (and territories in the case of Puerto Rico), has been a heavy investment by major league teams and MLB itself. For decades the facilities and leagues administered by these entities have helped to develop players and play a major role in influencing the small media markets there. Bringing more African Americans into the game will be no easy task. The approach Baseball is taking represents a good start, but will ultimately do little to effect the cultural and economic forces that conspire with other factors that keep African Americans out of the major leagues. When segregation was all that kept African American players out of the league, addressing the issue merely required dismantling the legal barrier. The issue is far more complicated now, and requires the attention and consideration of all Americans and baseball fans. Bloggers note: I’m not presenting this information as a personal soapbox or to pigeonhole this into a simple left or right politics issue. When I read this fact about the Astros the other day (the same day the Air Force Academy coach made his statement) it hit me on a personal level and got me thinking. As a blogger, I am partially chronicling personal experience, in this case as it relates to Cardinal Baseball. My intention here was simply to ask myself and you as baseball fans to think deeper about this issue, beyond the simple right or left politics that so often clouds mature, rational discussions of race and class. This weekend, I intend to approach the outfield, or, more specifically, what to do about it.
Comments:
I agree.

I think the MLB would be wise to invest in inner cities. Maybe build some ball parks, start some leagues for youth, etc.

It would be good for pr and it would be good for the game in general.
 
i think they're doing that now, and should expand those efforts. There's a lot they could do, but it's not easy.
 
For what it's worth (and I'm not sure it's worth much), the 'Stros did have an African-American on their roster for much of the late season -- Charles Gipson. He didn't make the post-season roster (and shouldn't have...).

I'm pretty sure this is Just One Of Those Things, but I agree that MLB needs to do more to restore/increase baseball's popularity among the African-American community.
 
This seems to connect pretty directly to the "generation gap" problem that the black movement is facing today. Just as current civil rights leaders are finding a generation not familiar with Malcolm X, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale, there is a generation of sports fans that identifies a lot more with Michael Jordan and LaDamian Tomlinson than it does with jackie robinson, bob gibson and willie mays. Somehow, the shared experience of one generation was not passed on to the next. This has perhaps manifested in the stalling of the civil rights movement as well as a lapse in the availibility of baseball players.

Alternately, could some of this effect be due to the latin explosion in MLB--that threre are so many latin players these days that it results in greatly reduced proportions of the MLB field being taken up by non-latino players?
 
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