The sweet smell of freshly cut grass. The crack of the bat. The roar of the crowd. The seventh inning stretch. Baseball season is finally upon us! For some, this is the time of the year they yearn for, and understandably so. Our national pastime has entertained and thrilled generation after generation for decades.
But some aren’t as excited as others. I’ve noticed, as have others, that there is a diminishing number of African-American players in the Major Leagues. Research conducted just last year revealed that a meager 8% of the league’s players are of African-American descent. That’s a stark contrast compared to the mark of 20% during the 1980‘s and 1990‘s, not to mention the 27% mark during the 1970‘s. Major League Baseball has also noticed this trend as is trying to counteract it with the RBI program. Not to be confused with “Runs Batted In”, the acronym in this case stands for “Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities”.
We can point to more than a few reasons for the declining interest in baseball among African-American youth.
Many inner city communities do not possess the requisite resources to fund baseball related activities. The game of baseball needs open land, and lots of it. Something not easily found in many cities. Even if there is land, you need a smooth dirt infield with no rocks and a lot of grass for the outfield with minimal gopher holes. Fences to keep balls out of streets and within running distance are also nice to have. With poverty and government funding being cut for parks and recreation, it can be almost impossible for communities in certain urban areas to keep their baseball fields up to snuff.
Another reason may quite simply be that the kids find the game too slow, thus labeling it “boring”. It is no secret that in this era of immediate gratification, anything that takes time to develop isn’t considered interesting. Kids don’t have to go to record stores for new music anymore. Instead of playing video games over and over to beat them, they can look up cheats and walkthroughs on YouTube. More than any other sport, baseball requires skills that don’t come easy. Hitting a round ball with round bat, squarely is hard. Hitting a curve ball without years of practice—forget about it.
There are also the logistics of getting a game together. As simple and evident as it may seem, unless you have 18 kids in one place at one time, there can’t be any pick up baseball games. Strikeout is probably the only viable alternative in that regard. For may inner city youth, where money is a concern for a family purchasing cleats, a glove and a bat may be deemed “frivolous” when juxtaposed to putting food on the table. I also don’t see many American kids putting the effort into making their own gloves, balls and bats like many Latin American players do when they’re young.
Many kids choose to play basketball and/or football. You get a few kids and basketball together on playground and they can play one-on-one, 21, around the world, or H.O.R.S.E. An open area and football is all kids need to play catch, run routes, etc. Not only that, for most African-American youth, the aforementioned are considered to be the “cool” sports with a number of easily identifiable African-American stars to look up to.
Baseball has lost its cool factor. No one’s looking for the new Griffey shoes like I did as a youth. Companies like Nike aren’t running awesome ads with baseball stars anymore. “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” or “Hit it here Junior” are now things of the past. I’m not sure why this is. Maybe kids don’t buy cross trainers anymore. Maybe Bo Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr. were never as cool as Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway. Maybe steroids have left brands unwilling to put money and their brand’s image behind a single baseball player?
The biggest threat though, is the lack of fathers in African-American homes. Baseball is a tradition passed down from father to son. I can recall my father, who grew up playing baseball and was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies, taking me to Mosswood park and teaching me how to throw, catch and field. This was quality bonding time. I loved every minute of it and cherish those memories to this very day.
To honor that memory, I am doing the same thing with my son. Bringing him up to appreciate the game of baseball and use it as a teaching tool for life and as a form of enjoyment. As we all know, sports and life are analogous. Many of the colloquialisms we use in our everyday vernacular. I’m sure you’ve found yourself speaking of “swinging for the fences” when attempting a great undertaking, or “striking out” when you blew your chance at something or the average being “par for the course”. Sports is a microcosm of how life works and vice versa. It’s saddening that some young people lack the resources to revel in just how great sports are, especially baseball. They deserve to have experiences that will serve them in life. Teamwork, camaraderie, diligence, attention to detail and most importantly, accountability.
What a lot of the youth fail to realize is that African Americans have had an illustrious career many years prior to integration of Major League Baseball in the Negro League. The players of the Negro League would go on tours throughout the country in what they would call “barn storming”, and play against some of the best competition available. Many times they would play against all white Major League teams and win. Jackie Robinson is heralded as the crown jewel of Major League Baseball because he was the first African American to play on a major league team. What people don’t know is that he played for many years in the Negro League. I’m sure what most would find interesting is that Jackie was nowhere near the best player the Negro League had to offer! Players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool PaPa Bell and Rube Foster were amongst the best of the best. Jackie’s demeanor was the reason he was selected. Branch Rickey chose well, that much was very evident. That prompted Jackie Robinson to be bestowed with the highest honor in the history of professional sports by Major League Baseball.
I fear for the future of the African-American major leaguer. Growing up as a kid, I had plenty of players to identify with: Barry Bonds, Kirby Puckett, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson, Dave Henderson, Andre Dawson, David Justice, etc. These were the players whose batting stances I emulated at the playground with my friends. There might come a day where a generation of African-American kids might not have the same opportunity as I had. Luckily, there are players who are attempting to carry the torch: CC Sabathia, BJ and Justin Upton, Adam Jones, Jason Heyward and Matt Kemp to name a few. I can only hope that they keep the light at the end of the tunnel burning bright and the fathers and communities make sure the tunnel is wide enough for every inner city child to walk through.