African American baseball players are all but vanishing from major league rosters. Last year’s opening day rosters recorded only 8.5 percent of MLB players were black, the lowest the sport has seen since 2007. This is not a new trend for Major League Baseball as the sport has been witnessing the decline of black baseball players for the last decade. In 1995, 19 percent of all MLB players were black, and the numbers have been declining ever since, leaving the sports world to speculate why.
If the majors were making a concerted effort to exclude black players, we would have already heard about it. The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports surveys racial diversity in athletics and assigns a letter grade based on their statistical findings. Baseball has an overall grade of B-plus for racial diversity. 28 percent of all MLB players are foreign born, spanning from 15 countries and territories. This statistic doesn’t include the minor leagues where 48 percent of all players are foreign born. While other nations have adopted the sport, it has all but disappeared from black communities here at home. The question is why? ”
If you poll a lot of African-American guys that are between 20 and 40 years old [about] what NBA player did you watch and want to be, they’re all going to say Jordan,” New York Yankee’s outfielder Curtis Granderson said. “He was the best player and he looked like us. Baseball, you have a group of players that are playing right now who could say Ken Griffey Jr., but he’s no longer in the game, and there hasn’t been anybody to replace him.”
Ken Griffey Jr. was a household name in the 90’s. In his prime, he was considered the best player in baseball and was predicted to be number one all-time for career home runs. He signed endorsement deals from Nike and Nintendo and had a swing that every black kid picking up a bat tried to imitate. Marketing baseball to the black community has been a struggle in recent years.
For years Major League Baseball has tried to build a grass roots campaign among young African-Americans with its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. It has been around for 22 years, and has 300 leagues nationwide, with roughly 200,000 participants ranging in ages 5 to 18. The program has also produced 185 players selected in the MLB draft including CC Sabathia and Jimmy Rollins. When CC Sabathia threw out the opening pitch to Jimmy Rollins in the 2009 World Series, it was a thrilling historical moment for baseball. It was the second time in MLB history that a series began with an African-American on the mound and another at bat.
Baseball honors Jackie Robinson for his role in ushering in social change, however, experts in the sports world believe that baseball has lost its marketing appeal to today’s black youth. Why? Is it attributed to baseball being out of touch with how to market to the black community? To African American players such as Curtis Granderson, CC Sabathia, and Cory Patterson, MLB’s lack of marketing for their African American stars is a significant reason there is a significant disconnect between baseball and the black community.
Other black players unknown to the community are Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder and Carl Crawford, all All-Star-caliber African-American players who are not household names. Their names are not automatically associated with the sport upon first mention. Just like boxing hasn’t experienced a true black heavyweight superstar since the days of Mike Tyson, baseball has lost many of its black heavyweight superstars whose talents and personal stories served to be an inspiration to black youth.
With that being said, could it be that baseball needs another dynamic player whose name is automically associated with his sport? In retrospect, the cost to participate in baseball, especially in recent years has been a major factor highlighted by TCU baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle. “A good baseball bat costs between $300 to $400 and that’s just for the bat, the good one that you want to swing,” Schlossnagle said. “Then there is the other equipment, too. And now that youth baseball has become all about traveling teams, select teams, and those are expensive for whites or African-Americans. Obviously not every African-American is without financial resources, but in my opinion at the amateur level our sport has become a white-collar sport. Doesn’t mean it’s a white sport, but it does mean that it’s expensive to play.”
For a majority of black households there is only a single mother and a single income. With no father figure to play catch with and with no extra bucks to participate in amateur teams to cultivate their skills, blacks kids lose interest and wind up just picking up a basketball or football and head to the nearest park for a pick up game. Plus, full ride scholarships are more abundant in basketball and football as opposed to many partial scholarships for baseball. “I know it’s expensive, but I’ve gone to places and there are fields,” Granderson said. “You can easily get equipment donated. I don’t know how you fight this one. “
Black baseball players broke the racial barrier that once prohibited them from participating and inspired many to follow behind. But for now baseball’s future seems to lie in the Latino and Caribbean communities. As baseball continues to evolve on the international scene the question still to be asked is: Will the sport suffer because of the lack of visible black baseball players? “All cultures bring something different to the game,” former New York Mets outfielder Gary Matthews Jr said. “The African American player, there is a charisma that he brings from his culture … a little spice. That little spice is missing when we’re not participating.”