One of my children plays baseball. He loves it. However, I’m not always confident the game loves him back.
It would seem the structuring around the game, starting from where he is now as a 10-year-old, despises him. He’s an American-born Afro-Latino child, whose usually the only Black face on the field—with his Puerto Rican father and us, as the only Black faces in the stands.
There were precisely three Black American (Black in short) participants at the top of the mountain during the recently completed World Series: My beloved Atlanta Br*ves (Terrance Gore) prevailed over the Houston Astros (outfielder Michael Brantley and manager/former player Dusty Baker). The two stories are related, in a straight line—and predictable—as baseball slowly evaporates from the consciousness of Black America. And this isn’t some new phenomenon, but actually, one directly tied to America’s institutional racism and class exclusion.
MLB players themselves have noticed. “There aren’t as many African American kids playing the game that I would like to see,” Curtis Granderson, a three-time Major League Baseball All-Star, told Today in 2020. But go back to 2013, to an ESPN story, and writer Tim Keown called “the decline in African-American participation in baseball… an annual parlor game.” Per Sports Illustrated: “According to the Society for American Baseball Research, MLB peaked at 18.7% African American in 1981. Last season, according to USA Today, that figure was 7.7%.”
How is this reality possible in the sport famously integrated by Jackie Robinson in 1947 and is celebrated to the hilt every season by Major League Baseball? The answers, and solutions, remain equally cloudy from some angles. However, it gets pronounced in others as you get up the ladder.
A kid’s game, evaporating
Via Today, relayed from a study from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association: “From ages 6-12, the total rate of Black kids playing baseball jumped from 10.1% in 2008 (the first year for which data is available) to 11.1% in 2018 (the most recent year that information is available), although the core dropped from 8.9% to 8.4%. (“Core,” per the study, referred to children who played baseball 13 times or more in a calendar year.) The numbers are more troubling as Black children age. For the 13-17 age group, the total rate dipped from 9.4% to 9.2%, while the core figure tumbled from 7.6% to 6.1%.
There are small pockets in which baseball is still an institution for Black communities. Karl Spencer, a University of Texas administrative employee and President of 100 Black Men of Austin, sees it on the southside of his hometown of Chicago.
“Jackie Robinson West is the one place where a Black kid can go play baseball no matter what. Even in 2021, they still have the league,” said Spencer. “Baseball is a thing in Chicago.”
Jackie Robinson West’s Little League program is one of the best in the country. (However, many believe competing officials unjustly targeted the all-Black team after being stripped of the 2014 national championship for using players found to be outside residential parameters.)
Outside of a relative handful of locations, a few realities undermine Black inclusion in the sport at the grassroots level. For one, for Spencer and other Black parents, “grassroots” has become a loose term. Unnecessary pressure has been added to a kid’s game by parents demanding results for their pride and financial input.
“You’ve got to spend top dollar for your kids to play,” said Spencer. “[The young players are in a position that] if you don’t have the funds and the ability to put them in a travel or ‘select’ team, they may not even get a tryout in high school.”
“It shouldn’t be that competitive as a 13-year-old, and even as an 8 and 9-year-old. For example, one of my friends had a son playing Little League ball. These kids were getting championship rings, man—for winning a tournament. That’s crazy!”
What Spencer also speaks on is youth baseball’s systemic barrier of entry problem. It’s not a sport for kings, but it is a sport of affluence, at least in the United States. First, adequate facilities must be present in the communities in need. Spencer, along with many Black current and former MLB players, such as Ian Desmond, wonder about youth baseball’s demise as a haven for the inner city.
Additionally, quality bats, gloves, cleats, and other personal gear are expensive. Signing up for teams is a cost. Traveling, if necessary, is another cost. Then there’s batting cage time and individual coaching, and so on.
At an individual level, as Sports Illustrated writer Stephanie Apstein wrote, “Baseball is a sport that, more than any other, rewards repetitions. Those can be hard to get: You can work on your jump shot alone. You can’t practice hitting a curveball unless someone is throwing it.”
This produces a baseball culture inherently exclusionary of Black talent, who will be presented with another issue if they somehow make it to their high school teams and excel—the lack of collegiate scholarships for baseball. There are 11.7 scholarships to be divided amongst the 35 players on an average team.
This reality becomes difficult for many Black parents of a talented athlete early in high school, choosing whether to continue baseball full-time, when 85 full scholarships are allotted for basketball and football at Division I, with full rides also available for smaller NAIA and Division II colleges. If the player isn’t drafted or cannot pay for the remainder of the partial scholarship, that player’s baseball career is essentially over.
Add in the riches and attractiveness of football and basketball, whose high-level college games are televised, and young Black athletes’ pull toward these sports has been clear, especially in the talent-rich South.
Major League Baseball does have Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or RBI, in play, along with Breakthrough Series for players who’ve aged out of the former. However, the RBI website states that since 1991, “Major League Baseball and its Clubs have designated more than $30 million worth of resources to the RBI program.” Even if that number were a yearly allocation, it would fall woefully short of what’s necessary.
Major League engagement
But what happens when you don’t see yourself, or any major star, on television? According to USA Today: “There are three teams—the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, and Tampa Bay Rays—that didn’t have a single Black player on their opening-day roster. And 14 of the 30 teams have two or fewer.”
Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, associate professor of media studies at Wake Forest, believes there’s also a cultural divide the MLB remains hesitant to close.
“In many ways, baseball has become a sport that is bequeathed to you from an elder parent,” said Cunningham. “[It creates] a closed gateway between the game and a newly interested person.”
Cunningham also notes the promotion, or lack thereof, of baseball’s greatest current player, the white Mike Trout, who has been almost invisible for a large portion of his career. Trout notoriously lays low, and it feels as if MLB is simultaneously hiding a massive marketing and promotional talent deficiency behind Trout’s marketing reticence.
For example, in 2018, commissioner Rob Manfred said after the Home Run Derby that the New Jersey native was “a great great player and a really nice person, but he’s made decisions on what he wants to do, doesn’t want to do, and how he wants to spend his free time or not spend his free time. I think we could help him make his brand very big. But he has to make a decision to engage. It takes time and effort.”
And so, because MLB cannot push Trout, it has decided not to push anyone with much enthusiasm in national campaigns for the game. This is with Tim Anderson, Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., and Shohei Ohtani (the likely American League MVP) headlining the greatest collection of highly marketable star talent in decades. And yet their international exposure is nonexistent, surprising given a large pool of its talent comes from Latin and Asian countries. Not helping matters is the league’s outmoded copyright policy relating to social media.
Predictably and vastly unlike the NFL and NBA, MLB has made few efforts to push the game toward younger Black audiences via any medium, including social media. It doesn’t appear to understand how to engage at any level, which feeds directly into youth participation.
The specter and solutions
Looming behind the preceding is an oncoming labor conflict, a cold war that will turn white-hot as the current Collective Bargaining Agreement ends on Dec. 1. Perhaps positioning for warfare, the lack of marketing for player talent seems purposeful and may work to the owners’ favor. Maybe they aren’t ready to promote the players they are seeking to defeat at the negotiation table.
However, the MLB has a more fundamental issue related to the progress and future: The lack of diverse leaders and owners recognizing the value in marketing a diverse player force. Chicago White Sox Executive Vice President Ken Williams is the only Black person in charge of baseball operations. The only active minority GMs are Al Avila of the Detroit Tigers, Farhan Zaidi of the San Francisco Giants, and Kim Ng of the Florida Marlins—the first woman and person of East Asian descent to become a GM.
Analyst and former player Doug Glanville said in ESPN: “It is no longer modern to have homogenous leadership. Despite the Selig Rule (which requires considerations of minority candidates) and other genuine policy shifts that have chipped away in some areas of the game, there are enough private corporate workarounds to leave diversity lacking where there is true power.”
Until the MLB and its partners elect to employ a younger, less white workforce, it will never connect with the younger, less white fanbase beyond those handed down the game as a pastime inheritance.
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