African Americans' baseball exodus

Posted: March 30, 2007

Sixty years ago, Jackie Robinson changed America: He integrated baseball. Robinson's historic moment, mind you, came before the armed forces were fully integrated, before the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the notion that separate could ever truly be equal, before legislation was enacted protecting the rights of African Americans to vote.

Robinson suffered for his courage: venomous racial epithets, public humiliations, beanballs, unforgiving stress. Bill "Ready" Cash of the Philadelphia Stars, who played with Robinson in the old Negro Leagues, told me: "What Jackie went through for us killed him." Robinson died at the age of 52.

If he were alive today, Robinson might be anguishing over this statistic: African Americans account for only 8.5 percent of the players on Major League Baseball rosters. Thirty years ago, that figure stood at 27 percent.

People with African ancestors are certainly not scarce in baseball, but, more and more, they come from South and Central America (29 percent of all MLB players are Latin American) or the Caribbean. The American of African ancestry is becoming harder and harder to find.

C.C. Sabathia anguishes. Sabathia, the ace pitcher of the Cleveland Indians and the only African American on his team, considers the dwindling number of African Americans in baseball to be a crisis. He is doing something about it. Sabathia sponsors a Little League in the San Francisco Bay Area, providing equipment and serving as a role model to 175 urban children. Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies and Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins are also involved.

So what happened over the last three decades? Where did all the African American players go?

If they were athletic, they increasingly chose basketball and football. Why? Packaging, money, marketing; the culture of urban America; and the character of the games themselves.

Packaging. Basketball and football package themselves as new-age games; baseball, in many minds, is still Old World, and, in many minds, "a white man's sport."

Money. In basketball, an athlete can become richer quicker; in baseball, he most likely will first spend four or five years in the minors cashing small paychecks.

Marketing. Basketball - and, to some extent, football - markets individualism; baseball markets its game more in a team concept. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant all have been marketed as individual stars by the NBA and commercial sponsors. Remember "Be Like Mike," the Gatorade ad campaign based on the world appeal of Michael Jordan?

And perhaps the urban culture that has funneled so many great basketball players into the NBA emphasizes the individual, his skills, his outlook. Certainly, in urban myth, the NFL or the NBA

is still the too-frequent answer to the question How can I get myself out of here? (Be Like Mike.)

Basketball and football demand more speed, action, artistry. Baseball players do more standing around, waiting for something to happen. Basketball and football recruit heavily in the inner cities; baseball doesn't.

The cost of playing the game also is a factor. Baseball costs more for equipment, uniforms, parks to maintain (which doesn't fit well when city budgets are cut, as they often are - in fact, 90 percent of youth baseball parks are in suburban areas). In basketball, equipment is relatively cheap, there are plenty of playgrounds, and the game can be played year-round (school leagues, AAU, Sonny Hill-like summer leagues). Football is cheap to play, too.

How to get youth baseball back in the inner city? Developmental programs, such as MLB's RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) and the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., offer opportunities for inner-city youth to play. I particularly like the concept of the latter; it includes an educational component, providing college courses, college-prep courses, and classes geared for youths to adapt socially.

Robinson's legacy was not only integration, it was a whole new style of playing the game, an exciting, bold, creative style that accented speed, grace and daring. Indeed, that's pretty much the way everyone plays now, no matter who he is.

But the essence of baseball hasn't really changed a lot: the spectacular catch, the excitement of a home run, moving the runners up with a bunt, runners sliding into a base with slashing spikes, the raw power or cunning of a great pitcher - all that is still there. I guess Sabathia just wants Jackie Robinson's legacy to mean more than it does today.

B.G. Kelley ( lives and writes in Philadelphia.

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