On diamonds, the nearly invisible man

Sixty years after Jackie Robinson's debut, the pool of African American players has evaporated to a puddle.

Posted: April 12, 2007

When Dontrelle Willis pitches for the Florida Marlins, he's balancing a heavy load.

"Every time I go up on the mound, I take my race and my family out there," the all-star hurler said last week.

"I go out there and I play as hard as I can," he said, "because in the end, you can say whatever you want about my numbers, but you can never say my effort level wasn't there, as far as going out there and taking pride on my shoulders and saying, 'Work hard and try to open the door like they opened the door for me.' "

But if recent trends continue, Willis won't have many people to whom he can pass the torch.

When baseball began its season last week, there were just four African American starting pitchers on major-league rosters: Willis, the Indians' C.C. Sabathia, the Pirates' Ian Snell, and the Nationals' Jerome Williams.

While there is still a Ryan Howard here and a Ken Griffey Jr. there, the overall pool of African Americans playing in the pros has evaporated to a puddle. The self-segregation away from baseball toward other sports and other careers has left only a handful of African Americans in major-league clubhouses.

Last month, the University of Central Florida's racial and gender report card for baseball in 2006 painted a stark picture. The study put the percentage of African Americans playing in the majors at 8.4 percent, the lowest in two decades.

By contrast, white players constituted 59.5 percent of the baseball-playing population last season, while almost 30 percent of major-leaguers - and many of the game's superstars - were of Latino descent.

As late as 1995, 19 percent of major-leaguers were African American, according to the study. But by 2005, the Houston Astros played in the World Series without a single African American on their roster.

Baseball has noticed the decline.

"I don't think we're saying every African American athlete has to be a baseball player," Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, said by telephone.

"But we have the longest historical link to the black community," Solomon said. "It would be a shame to let it go. We would be remiss if we didn't do everything in our power to make sure that every black kid as well as every white and every red kid and every Hispanic kid who wants to play the game gets an opportunity to play the game."

Sabathia called the lack of African Americans in baseball a "crisis" during spring training, adding: "I don't think people see the problem. They see players like Reyes and Delgado and assume they're black."

He was referring to New York Mets infielders Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado.

Reyes is from the Dominican Republic. Delgado is Puerto Rican.

At the Civil Rights Game in Memphis last month, Sabathia explained further.

"I wasn't trying to criticize Major League Baseball or nothing like that," he said. "I was trying to say, 'Hey, I'm here, but I don't have all the answers, either. I just want to help.' And hopefully we can get something done, because, when you talk [four] starters in the entire two leagues, that's a tragedy."

Several factors have contributed to the decline, Solomon said.

Baseball, which used to have first crack at most black athletes, now competes with football and basketball for attention and for prospective players. Transcendent players such as Michael Jordan in basketball and Tiger Woods in golf have given those sports more cachet in the black community. When public schools began allowing students to wear sneakers to school, shoe companies - which almost exclusively market basketball players - gained entrée into poorer communities.

Basketball courts are cheaper to build and maintain than baseball fields. Colleges offer many more scholarships for football players (up to 85 at Division I schools) than baseball players (111/2). Baseball went to Latin America for cheaper talent that was not subject to its draft.

And baseball's best player over the last 15 years, Barry Bonds, has been enmeshed in controversy instead of being marketed to young blacks who could have emulated his skill set the way African Americans two generations ago gravitated to the talent, flair and work ethic of Bonds' godfather, Willie Mays.

"You take all of these things and mix them up together, and you get this perfect storm," Solomon said.

Baseball has initiated a series of programs to try to reverse the trend. It opened a Baseball Youth Academy on 10 acres in the middle of Compton, Calif., last year. The facility, run by former major-leaguer Darrell Miller, offers free instruction in baseball and softball to local youngsters on two regulation fields, five batting cages, a softball field and a youth field.

MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program (RBI) is beginning its 16th year in 200 cities worldwide, serving up to 120,000 children in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. The program has developed 150 players that have played on major-league rosters.

The Baseball Tomorrow Fund, a joint venture between teams and the players' union, has committed $10 million toward buying equipment and uniforms and refurbishing and repairing baseball fields across the country.

MLB also tries to develop interest among African Americans through internships in the front offices of teams, in the league offices, in its affiliate offices around the country, and at the Compton facility and the league's advance media company in New York. If the teams agree to take interns for a second cycle, MLB pays half the interns' salaries.

But a charismatic African American superstar could accelerate the process.

"Derek Jeter is probably our most marketable African American player, but he's not as out there," Solomon said. "We've got to figure out what we're going to do in light of that to try and make baseball cool to young people."

The Phillies could be central to baseball's efforts. With Howard, last year's National League MVP, and Jimmy Rollins and Tom Gordon, the Phillies may have as many marquee African American players on their roster as any team in the league.

To that end, Solomon said, baseball is also in discussions with Black Entertainment Television to try to develop a reality show featuring Rollins.

"We're thinking about it," he said. "We're pushing for it. The tremendous wit and humor that Jimmy Rollins has, that Ryan Howard has, that would be great, especially if we could get it into a marketplace that's viewed by African Americans like BET."

Despite the declining numbers, Willis, for one, is optimistic. He is convinced that a new generation of African American players - his generation - can start a renaissance of blacks playing the game.

"I think if I continue to play the game how I know I can play, it'll turn around," he said. "You have C.C. Sabathia, [Minnesota's] Torii Hunter - not only Barry Bonds. There's great players and there's great young players - [Tampa Bay's] Delmon Young, Elijah Dukes, the guys like that that are coming. Hopefully, we promote ourselves well enough to be successful."

Read other stories in this series, view historical photos and audio slide shows at

Staff writer Claire Smith contributed to this article.

Contact staff writer David Aldridge at 215-854-5516 or daldridge@phillynews.com.

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