Declining diversity: Fewer black athletes choosing to play baseball
More than six decades after Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier, the percentage of black players wearing a big league uniform is at its lowest point since the 1960s.
This is not exactly what baseball envisioned.
When Robinson became the first African-American to play in the major leagues, joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he led a surge of African-American players that peaked at 19 percent on MLB rosters during the mid-1970s and into the next decade, according to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).
As that generation of black players faded into history, the numbers faded with them.
This year, blacks made up only 8.5 percent of all players on Opening Day rosters. Among major-league teams, the World Series champion San Francisco Giants entered spring training with no African-Americans in their big league camp.
In response to the shrinking numbers, baseball commissioner Bud Selig has formed a diversity task force to address the state of black players in the majors.
And if the most recent MLB amateur draft in June is any indication, the downward trend will continue unless changes are made. In that draft, five black players were selected in the first round, representing 6.6 percent of all first-round picks.
“Frankly, the loss is to Major League Baseball,” said Pitt professor and baseball historian Rob Ruck, who authored “Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game.” “The loss is for an industry that tries to peddle nostalgia. They're having a hard time legitimately trying to market baseball in the black community or to market the black part of the game to the public.”
There are three black players on the Pirates' 40-man roster — All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen, infielder Josh Harrison and pitcher James McDonald. Other players of color, such as Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Starling Marte, are Hispanic.
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Times have changed.
In 1971, the Pirates were the first MLB team to field a starting lineup featuring all black and Hispanic players. That year, the Pirates won the World Series.
But as potential black athletes gravitated to sports such as football and basketball, other minorities replaced them.
MLB rosters in 2012 were 63.9 percent white, 26.9 percent Latino and 1.9 percent Asian, according to SABR.
“A scout can go see a kid in the Dominican Republic at 15 playing the game and say: ‘I want him on my team,' ” said McCutchen, the No. 11 overall pick in the 2005 MLB Draft. “They get him to sign at an early age and come to the states. The difference is, you could have an African-American player somewhere in Pittsburgh at the age of 15 playing this game, and they don't have the same rights.
“Here, you have to go through high school, you have to go through college, you have to be drafted,” said McCutchen, a three-time All-Star. “You can't be signed at age 15. I feel like if it was the way it is in Latin American countries, there might be more African-American players. You never know.”
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MLB's challenge? Making baseball a destination sport among black athletes again.
More than 200 black players have been drafted after participating in MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program founded in 1989. The program is designed to promote youth participation nationally in baseball, particularly among minorities, and includes the Pirates' McDonald among its graduates. But the number of black players on major league rosters continues to decrease.
In Pittsburgh, the RBI program — in conjunction with the Pirates Community Baseball Center at Shadyside Boys & Girls Club with support from several charities — has produced mixed results. Twelve communities are represented with more than 1,000 participants. Still, local officials insist participants must be introduced to baseball earlier than the 13-18 age range established nationally by RBI.
“We still don't have the exposure of the more affluent kids who can pay $1,500 or $2,000 and get on a travel team,” said Charles Saunders, an African-American program coordinator for Pittsburgh's RBI program. “We're not at that point yet. But it does give our kids an opportunity to develop fundamentals and, when they do have that opportunity, get looks to put more people in the majors.
“I received an email (recently) from Major League Baseball asking for a list of players who are going to college and thinking about playing baseball,” Saunders said. “We send that information to Major League Baseball, and they send that to different clubs to help the kids get exposure.”
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Realistically, baseball faces an uphill struggle. Black athletes who start out playing baseball often switch to football and basketball because the opportunity to earn a full athletic scholarship in college is greater in those two sports.
In the 2009-10 college season, African-Americans comprised 60.9 percent of Division I men's basketball players and 45.8 percent of Division I FBS football players compared with only 5.6 percent of baseball players, according to the NCAA Student-Athlete Race and Ethnicity Report.
“When we're recruiting, it's obvious when you go out to an event and there's only one African-American player,” Pitt baseball coach Joe Jordano said.
The Panthers had no African-American players on their 2013 roster.
“There are not a lot of African-American players out there, especially in our region,” Jordano said. “It's unfortunate because you know there's some athletes who probably play football and basketball who could be very good at baseball.”
Woodland Hills senior-to-be Dontae Broadus is an example of a talented African-American athlete who decided to play football in high school. Broadus plays for Pittsburgh's RBI program in the summer but doesn't play for Woodland Hills' baseball team.
“My son has been playing baseball since he was 5. He loves baseball. But you have to make a financial choice,” Broadus' father, Ken Hodges, said. “No matter how good you are, you're not going to get more than a partial scholarship in baseball. If you don't have the money, you have to push them to football.”
One potential solution advanced by MLB is increasing the value of a college baseball scholarship. Division I baseball teams are allowed to provide aid in the form of 11.7 scholarships each year. Conversely, FBS football schools can offer the equivalent of 85 scholarships each year. Division I basketball schools, with a smaller roster than baseball's 35 players, can offer 13 scholarships each year.
“I didn't find that out until a year or two before Josh was a junior or senior in high school,” said Myrtle Bell, a management professor at the University of Texas at Arlington and mother of the Pirates' 2011 second-round draft pick Josh Bell. “My husband played football in college (Southern), and I grew up on the campus of LSU; I went to Notre Dame. I thought a sports scholarship was a sports scholarship. I had no idea baseball had 11.7 scholarships. I don't think children know that when they're deciding ‘should I pursue football, or should I pursue baseball?' ”
Southern baseball coach Roger Cador, a member of MLB's task force, said baseball can't be afraid to push the envelope if it's serious about increasing black participation.
“If you're talking about increasing the number of African-Americans, baseball must compete at the collegiate level,” Cador said. “You're not going to go to school to play baseball when you've got football and basketball. Baseball has to address the inadequacy that exists there.”
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Cador, who played baseball at Southern and was an outfielder in the Atlanta Braves' system from 1973-77, became the first coach to lead a historically black college to a win in the NCAA Tournament (1987). He recruited and developed Milwaukee Brewers infielder Rickie Weeks, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2003 MLB Draft.
“Baseball is going international. You've got to have the best kids playing in order to create the kind of business we want,” Cador said. “You can't put fans in the seats if we can't put the best kids out there. When you look at Major League Baseball, over half the teams don't have a superstar. Where are you going to get your superstars from? Major League Baseball wants to increase the numbers but more than anything else, increase the number of quality players. And you've got to take them from football and basketball.”
Or, perhaps, as McCutchen suggests, MLB should revisit developing more baseball academies in the U.S. similar to those springing up in Latin America.
MLB recently broke ground in Cincinnati on its seventh Urban Youth Academy, the first of its kind in the Midwest. Reds players Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Brandon Phillips contributed financially to the $5 million project, which will feature four newly renovated outdoor baseball and softball fields and a 33,000-square foot indoor facility containing batting cages, pitching tunnels and an additional field.
The Urban Youth Academies resulted, in part, from the persistence of Reds executive and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who approached Selig 15 years ago about duplicating academies in the U.S. that were being built in other countries.
Today, 28 of 30 MLB teams have a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic. The Pirates opened a $5 million academy in El Toro in 2009 on 46 acres. It has facilities to house 90 players and coaches.
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For more African-Americans to return to baseball, Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter said he believes change must come from within the black community.
In 2009, Hunter was named winner of the Branch Rickey Award for his work with kids in the community. Hunter's community work includes the Torii Hunter Project Education Initiative, which provided college scholarships to students in California, Arkansas, Nevada and Minnesota. He also has partnered with MLB to help maintain and improve baseball diamonds in inner cities.
“I don't think it's so much Major League Baseball,” Hunter said during a recent visit to Pittsburgh. “You have to change the mind-set of inner-city, African-American families.
“You can't put a finger on one thing. But at the end of the day, follow the money. Upkeep of fields, equipment, travel teams — it's expensive to play baseball. It's not the main reason, but it's a reason. And all those reasons together make a bomb. We're being left behind in baseball.”
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There aren't many situations like the one in Atlanta, where Redan High School this year became the first all-black baseball team from the Atlanta area to win a Georgia state title.
Redan began the season as one of only seven high schools in the country represented by three alumni playing in the majors — Brandon Phillips, Chris Nelson and Domonic Brown. Redan coach Greg Goodwin, who is black, credits strong parental involvement.
“We have to take ownership in the minority community,” Saunders said. “We have to give the same emphasis and push with baseball as we do in football. In midget football, you have more coaches than you have kids on the field.
“The biggest challenge we have in baseball is player-to-coach ratio. We have one coach coaching as many as four different teams. If you go out to the suburbs, there's five or six coaches for every team. The farther we get away from the city, the better the coach-to-player ratio is.”
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The decline in black players in the majors isn't lost on Ted Toles Jr., who played for the Pittsburgh Crawfords of the Negro League in 1946. Toles, 87, toured the country with the Jackie Robinson All-Stars, playing with future major leaguers Larry Doby, Monte Irvin and Bill White.
Toles batted .287 while playing minor league ball for Cleveland, Philadelphia and both New York teams (Yankees and Giants).
Still, the racial indignities suffered by Toles and other Negro League players didn't compare with the pain of being denied an opportunity to play in the majors.
“I was in the minors, but that's the way the breaks go,” said Toles during a recent interview in Warren, Ohio. “I played in Idaho (for Cleveland's minor league team), and they told me I was on my way to San Francisco (to play for the Indians). All of a sudden, the Yankees grabbed my contract, and Cleveland let me go.
“I never got my chance.”
After everything Negro League players endured to integrate baseball, what does Toles, one of fewer than 100 living Negro League players, think about African-Americans making conscious decisions not to play?
“People overlook what is a golden opportunity,” said Toles, who is suffering from prostate cancer. “When I played in Jacksonville, Fla., in the Mid-Atlantic League, I was the only black player on the team. One player smacked the bat out of my hand. He told me: ‘Get to the end of the line. That's where you belong.' Another player stepped on my foot. When we were eating, someone slapped the white milk away: ‘Get him some chocolate milk.' I'd look them straight in the eye and ask, ‘Why do you feel that way? I have nothing against you, so why do you have something against me?' ”
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Sean Gibson runs the Josh Gibson Baseball Academy for inner-city children in Pittsburgh's Hill District. He knows what his great-grandfather, Josh Gibson, considered one of the greatest Negro League players of all-time, would think.
Gibson died at 35 without playing in the majors. He starred for the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Homestead Grays and also played in the Dominican and Mexican leagues. Known as the “Black Babe Ruth,” Gibson was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.
“Here it is, me, a descendent of Josh Gibson, who didn't have a chance to play baseball because of the color of his skin, and now you have kids with a chance to play baseball who don't end up playing,” Sean Gibson said.