Baseball losing its appeal among inner-city kids


June 22, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

Dick Brown is a 71-year-old baseball man. He knows a final score when he sees one.

"Baseball is not just losing its grip in the black community," he says. "Baseball has already lost its grip. The deal is done."

Brown is the baseball coach at Dunbar High School. His team had to forfeit its last few games this season. Ran out of players. Not enough kids were interested.

"It's not just us, either," Brown says. "Southwestern had to postpone a game with us last year. Their coach was running around scrounging up players. The coach at Douglass had to do the same thing."

This is not a local phenomenon. This is happening at inner-city schools across the country. Baseball is slowly dying.

"For black kids today, it's all about basketball," Brown says. "Some are into football, too. But basketball is the thing. It's got an unbelievable hold. Baseball just can't keep up. It's just too slow, not glamorous enough, something.

"It's a dead sport in black neighborhoods. There are no diamonds. No places to play. No sponsors for sandlot teams. When I was growing up, there were sandlot leagues. Now the sponsors support basketball teams."

Brown was born in South Baltimore and grew up watching blacks play baseball. He watched the legendary Elite Giants. He even watched the Black Sox, who predated the Elite Giants, playing at a little ballpark in Westport.

He went on to play basketball at Coppin, got his teacher's degree and went to work. He became the baseball coach at Dunbar in 1956.

"My first-year kids were practically knocking each other down to come out for the team," he says. "Guys were practically breaking their necks just to be student managers. I had more managers than I needed."

He estimates that 50 kids tried out for his team in 1956. This year, there were 20.

He concedes that part of his problem is that Dunbar's enrollment is smaller than that of other city schools. But don't miss the larger point, he says.

"The number of players started to fall off seven or eight years ago," he says, "when basketball really started to get popular. They do a terrific job of selling that game. There are all these heroes, these role models. Everyone wants to be Magic or Michael.

"If you tell a 4-foot-4 kid he's too short for basketball, he says, 'That's OK, I want to try out anyway.' If you tell him the tryouts are at 4 in the morning, he says, 'That's OK, I want to try out anyway.' They'd rather try out for basketball and not make it than try out for baseball."

Understand, Brown isn't bemoaning basketball's popularity. "It's a great game, I played it," he says. Baseball's decline is his concern. There are still Little Leagues in black neighborhoods, but not as many. There are still talented players. But not as many.

"The baseball teams at the city high schools aren't nearly as good as they used to be," Brown says. "I had a kid try out for my team this year, I had to close my eyes every time they hit a ball to him, just hoping he wouldn't get hit on the head.

"I'm just not sure these kids have the patience to learn baseball skills, which are very, very tough. The hardest thing to do in sports is hit that little white ball. I'm not saying basketball players aren't skilled. My goodness. But these kids want instant success. They're easily discouraged in baseball."

There are numbers and stories that back up what he is saying. The number of black major-leaguers has declined 5 percent in the last decade. Every recent study of major-league ticket-buying habits has revealed a small black clientele. In many cities, there are inner-city schools that had to cancel their baseball seasons this spring.

The unavoidable conclusion is that baseball is becoming more and more a white sport.

"I'll tell you this much: The private schools we play sure don't have a problem getting enough kids together for a team," Brown says.

The problems of drugs and academic attrition are hurting all sports in the inner city, but baseball's decline goes well beyond that. The sport's leadership is aware of the problem. Commissioner Fay Vincent recently remarked that the lack of diamonds in Harlem was a terrible shortcoming that needed to be corrected.

"We're losing some terrific athletes," said baseball spokesman Jim Small, talking to USA Today.

But how much good can a couple of new diamonds do in the face of the powerful images being raised by basketball in the black community?

"I feel powerless, personally," Brown says. "It's too bad. Baseball is the national pastime. It's part of the fabric of this country. But I feel powerless in the face of what is happening. I hope something can be done to get this turned around. But it's tough."

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