Why is baseball striking out in the black community?
At a pee-wee football team practice in my neighborhood — before Hurricane Sandy turned the field into a lake — I stood on the sidelines with coaches talking about ... baseball. We'd noticed that the field didn't have a baseball backstop, only football goal posts, which set off an impromptu memorial for the death of baseball in the black community.
“Remember when every sport had its own season, and we played them all?” said Antonio Maffett, coach of the Fort Washington Stallions football team in Prince George's County, Md. “We'd play baseball anywhere — vacant lots, streets, alleys — and we'd use broomstick handles and socks wrapped in twine.”
So what happened? If the answer is that black people simply prefer basketball and football to baseball, as a Washington Post poll found last year, so be it. But if a sport that is so quintessentially American lacks black participation because of poor facilities and a lack of support, then something ought to be done to change that.
Black players in Major League Baseball dropped to 8 percent this past season, down from 27 percent in 1975, according to a study by USA Today earlier this year. But the problems obviously started long before the first pitch.
“One of the problems is that we don't devote enough resources to the sport,” said Tony Davenport, coach of the Fort Washington Canons, Md., youth baseball team. “We have camps for football and basketball year-round to develop those skills, but rarely do we get any information about baseball camps.”
The second problem, one not as easily fixed, was cited by Gerald Hall Jr., director of baseball operations for the Woodridge Warriors in the District of Columbia.
“If you did a survey, I believe you'd find that the one thing average and above average players have in common is a father,” he said. “Baseball is, at heart, a father-and-son sport.”
Davenport agreed. “You have to catch the kids early, start with the basics — how to hold a bat, the proper throwing motion, catch with the glove, not your hand,” he said.
Some have speculated the game just became too slow for today's impatient youth, that 162 games a season were too many for our attention-deficit generation to follow, that baseball teams didn't have individual stars like basketball and football do.
Maybe there's something to all of that. But it's unfortunate just the same. Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and the Negro leagues — gone and soon to be forgotten.
J.C. Bradbury, on his website about economics and baseball — sabernomics.com — notes that the financial and educational payoffs provided by baseball are better than any other sport. MLB even offers college scholarships to any player who signs a minor league contract.
“Why aren't we seeing a movement of African-American talent towards the sport with the highest financial returns?” Bradbury asks. “I think this question is key to understanding the racial disparity in baseball.”
Someone needs to explain that to the kids.
In my day, it wasn't about the money. It was about having a Louisville Slugger in your hands, a Willie Mays genuine cowhide baseball glove on one hand and a hardball leaving the other, with spin.
And running the bases like Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks or Lou Brock after knocking one over the backyard fence.
Courtland Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post.