Where are the African-American Baseball Players?

On this year's opening day only 8.3% of players were African-American, which is down from 19% in 1986. Image Courtesy: Oliver Dominguez
On this year’s opening day only 8.3% of players were African-American, which is down from 19% in 1986. Image Courtesy: Oliver Dominguez

By Keysha Hogan

Baseball is nothing more than another classroom in the educational process. Really, baseball is a metaphor for life.” –Augie Garrido, University of Texas baseball head coach.

Every year players across Major League Baseball wear No. 42 jerseys as a gesture of respect and remembrance of Jackie Robinson. And every year there is hand-wringing and worried looks as everyone questions how few African-American players, coaches, managers and owners are in the league. Skeptics will point toward the dwindling numbers of white players in the National Basketball Association as a clear reason why these questions should never be raised. But instead of relying on empty gestures and defensive posturing, we owe it to the legacy of a legend to look at how we made it to this place, and where we need to go.

A Look Back
Robinson was baseball’s first African-American player, breaking the color line when the Brooklyn Dodgers brought him into an all-white league to play first base. It was 1947, and players of colors had been relegated to competing in the Negro leagues for nearly 60 years.

Starting in the 1860s, these Negro leagues served as a pastime of pride for ex-soldiers and officers who served in the Civil War. They had won their freedom, but were far from welcomed into the established society. So, in the midst of a nation rebuilding, they sought to create something for themselves.

Sports in general serve that need by creating a resilient sense of self and community. Baseball became a safe haven and way to foster and support young black talent. And that community, built on the backs of men who fought for their freedom in the Civil War, would eventually welcome Jack Roosevelt Robinson into their ranks.

Robinson grew up in Georgia in relative poverty and made the best of things by playing football, basketball, track and baseball in school. His older brother Matthew was a constant source of inspiration. Matthew was a track star who won a silver medal after placing right behind Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Germany.

The younger Robinson followed his dreams all the way out to the University of California-Los Angeles. Eventually the money ran out and he left school right before graduation. Still dreaming of earning a living playing sports, Robinson tried his hand playing football in Honolulu and Los Angeles. His time with the pigskin was cut short when the country entered into World War II and Robinson was drafted.

Soon after being commissioned, he was assigned to the Army base in Fort Hood, Texas. All accounts point to Robinson having a promising military career, but on July 6, 1944 he first dared to take a stand on race relations. Robinson was court marshaled on trumped up charges for refusing to give up his seat on a military bus.

Word spread through the ranks of what happened, and those who tried to personally attack Robinson were swiftly shot down. His reputation was pristine, and along the way he became friends with prominent clergy and the NAACP. Together they exposed the injustice, and Robinson was acquitted of all charges and released from the service with an honorable discharge.

After his military stint, Robinson began his time in the Negro leagues. After his very painful and public transition onto the Brooklyn Dodgers roster, he was praised for his strength of character and talent. While the story of Jackie Robinson usually ends at this point, many fail to realize he continued fighting for equality by using his new-found fame to petition presidents and Congress for civil rights legislation.

The world of baseball owes a debt of gratitude to Robinson for crossing the color-line of baseball with grace and dignity. But the entire country was ultimately the true benefactor. He used the game of baseball to slowly expand the minds of millions. Over time he showed white America that he was not only capable but gifted, and he showed black America that a new day was just ahead.

The Issues
It’s 2014 and this long summer fueled by high profile demonstrations and protests left no doubt that race still matters in America even 67 years since Robinson entered the league and 40 years since Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record. But as the number of African-Americans in MLB continue to dwindle, many wonder how this happened.

Last year Commissioner Bud Selig formed a prestigious 17-member committee to examine why young African-American players ventured into other sports. He would have received better results by skipping the committee and just asking some black people.

This slow-moving train-wreck has been spanning the last 20 years, and like most things the root cause is money. Baseball is played on diamonds with manicured lawns, and that requires not only the space but the ongoing maintenance.

Next up there is the matter of equipment. Cleats, bats, and gloves can deter some from joining the sport when a good pair of basketball shoes can serve as school, work and play shoes. It costs hundreds of dollars just to outfit a Little-Leaguer these days. Youth bats can run up $300, and gloves can run into the hundreds. And why would a parent pay that much on equipment? Probably because they paid close to $1,500 for entry into tournaments and fees.

And as the farm systems have turned into pay-for-play leagues, many from low-income areas are kept out of the sport. As baseball player LaTroy Hawkins once said, “Baseball in the United States has become a sport for the rich.”

For a young player who shows promise as a pitcher, his folks may decide to send him to a pitching school. On average, three days of instruction can run $1,500 and the costs can balloon once you add in travel, lodging and meals. These large investments are being made as down payment on a future MLB career, but also mean if your parents can’t fork up the cash, you probably won’t play.

And like most things race related, there often is an institutional bias that leads to these type of situations. When it comes to player development, MLB has constructed a system that provides teams with incentives to focus on Latin locales. In the past, players from Latin countries could be signed at younger ages, were not subject to the draft, and were free from limits on signing bonuses. That way of doing business fosters a system that has a focus on spotting talent at an early age and supporting its development.

And unlike some other sports, baseball is built on the principals of mentorship. A naturally athletic kid can hone his talents in high school and expect to be recruited by colleges to play basketball and football. The particular set of skills that are needed in baseball are usually taught at a young age in backyards after school. And unfortunately African-American children are more likely than any other race to be raised in a low-income, single-parent household, and may not ever get the chance to play a little catch to build those skills.

The most glaring reason why most African-American kids aren’t excited about the game is… well… it doesn’t seem cool. There are few things that are inherently cool, but just about everything else is strategically marketed to their audience. We live in a fast-paced world that is looking for the next celebrity and football and basketball have consistently sold them to us. Whether it’s the newest gladiator in football, or the flashiest basketball player with the killer sneaker game, we know their names and feel their presence in pop culture. These sports have capitalized on their unique attributes to build a diverse fan base. So, when marketing efforts don’t reach out to the African-American community, there will inevitably be less fans, and with less fans you’ll inspire fewer future players.

The recent departure of Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington gives us plenty to reflect upon. The nature of the game for most players and coaches is suffering it out in the minors, being passed around from team to team, until  after a few years, if you’re not hurt, you’ll finally have a breakthrough.

If those kids can manage to stick with baseball through college they still can’t catch a break. National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I colleges can only offer 11.7 baseball scholarships per year. Instead of recruiting with the lure of a full-ride, schools are forced to slice and dice up those 11.7 packages into small percentage packages to sustain a team of 25 players. If you’re coming from a tough financial situation, why would one want to risk their body and time struggling?

The best legends of the inner city are the ones about young talented kids who were able to make the instantaneous jump from amateur to pro at a young age.

The Future
Currently Lloyd McClendon of the Seattle Mariners is the last African-American manager in MLB. Recently McClendon said, “It’s concerning, not just from a managerial standpoint but from a player standpoint, in what’s happening with baseball in the inner cities.” As minority players dwindle, so will the number of minority managers and coaches.

The only other minority managers are Rick Renteria of the Cubs and Fredi Gonzalez of the Braves. On this year’s opening day only 8.3% of players were African-American, which is down from 19% in 1986. Unfortunately, this downturn comes as Commissioner Selig completes a victory lap on his way to retirement in 2015.

Throughout his rein Selig promoted the legacy of Jackie Robinson, and encouraged the league to champion minority hiring. He has tried to implement new ideas from the league commission on diversity, but a majority of those ideas will need to be implemented immediately to see the first results in 10-15 years.

Moving forward, owners have come together to tackle the issues of signing bonuses and have pushed for Latin players to be included in the draft. Hopefully those type of early growth promotional programs that have been used to foster talent in Latin America will be brought back to our shores and used in low-income areas. And that type of strategy is not only a benefit to African-American kids, but will increase the overall talent pool and usher in a new era of diversity in the game.

Former African-American coaches and players have started youth baseball academies in underserved communities in New Orleans, Compton, Calif., and Houston. They have taken the lessons of mentorship to heart and provided equipment, facilities and instruction to these communities.

When the all-black Jackie Robinson West team won the U.S. championship in the Little League World Series, Orioles All-Star Adam Jones explained why in this game mentorship matters.

“Sometimes it’s not necessarily about giving money. It’s time,” he said. “A lot of my friends who are African-Americans in baseball, they’ve given money to their respective leagues where they came through. But they’ve also shown face, going down there and interacted with the kids, hit B.P. with them, ran around with them. Smiled and laughed with them. Showed them that we’re humans. We’re not just going to write a check. You need to put in the time physically.”

The fact of the matter is African-Americans are not obligated to play baseball. Yes, Jackie Robinson crossed the  color-line in baseball, but he also turned the dial forward on race relations that allowed African-Americans to enter formerly segregated spaces. There are teachers, police officers, journalists, basketball and football players who benefited from his accomplishments.

If the MLB wants to properly celebrate the legacy of Jackie Robinson then it must make sweeping changes to the culture of baseball to ensure access continues to be available to any young player, regardless of color and especially income. Baseball truly is a metaphor for life. Two-thirds of the time you’re striking out, and the luxury of money can open any door.