Blacks shun America's pastime Orioles' PR, treatment of players blamed for low turnout at games

September 06, 1992|By Jerry Bembry and Mark Hyman | Jerry Bembry and Mark Hyman,Staff Writers

Hayward Farrar loves baseball, so much that he often makes the two-hour drive from his home in Salisbury to see the Orioles. But each trip to the stadium finds him searching the stands for black fans such as himself. And, more times than not, that search is futile.

"Every time I come out, I always look," said Farrar, scanning the crowd filing into Oriole Park. "But I hardly see any blacks, and it's a shame. Baseball is such a great game."

It's a game enjoyed by many blacks, who each summer spend time on recreational fields throughout the area to play and watch the sport. But when it comes to enjoying the game at major-league ballparks, blacks in Baltimore and throughout the country are shunning America's pastime.

In a city that's 60 percent black, the Orioles estimate black attendance at 5 percent, which is in line with the 5 to 6 percent reported for all of major league baseball.

Area blacks say there are many reasons they stay away from Orioles games. In interviews with about 40 local fans, factors cited ranged from the way the Orioles have treated black players to what some call the team's meager marketing efforts directed at African-Americans.

"Look at the stuff on TV and in the papers -- they're not marketing to get black customers. They're trying to distribute the services to folks in the outlying regions," said George Chainey, a black businessman who expressed surprise at the lack of African-American fans at a game earlier this year. "To me, they [the Orioles] don't really care."

Not so, according to Orioles President Larry Lucchino, who says attracting more black fans remains a priority, even as the team's string of consecutive sellouts has reached 44.

"We want to invite, affirmatively invite, minorities into the ballpark," said Lucchino, who appeared surprised at the displeasure among local black baseball fans. "We recognize full well that there is a problem [of black attendance]. We recognize it could be better, and should be better. And we want to make it better."

There have been recent efforts. On one night, a ceremony featured an exhibit from the Great Blacks In Wax Museum. On another, a black was honored as the fan of the game. And the between-innings music, which once featured the country chords of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," now includes songs by artists who appeal to blacks, such as Boyz II Men and En Vogue.

But those efforts aren't reaching people such as David Kaintuck, a die-hard Orioles fan since Frank Robinson's arrival in 1966. Kaintuck once made regular trips to Memorial Stadium. But now he's content to stay home and watch or listen to a broadcast. Even then, he can feel left out.

"[The announcer] said, 'Come on out, there are a lot of empty seats,' "Kaintuck said of a radio broadcast last season. "He said, 'It's a nice day, and you can get a really good tan.' "

"They just don't realize all the people they are offending," he added, glancing down at his dark-complexioned arms. "He wasn't inviting us to come out."

No lack of interest

The lack of black baseball fans cannot be attributed to a lack of interest. That interest is evident in Northeast Baltimore, where nearly 700 kids play in the Northwood Baseball League, often before large groups of enthusiastic fans. It's equally apparent in West Baltimore, where, in July, nearly 100 people watched the all-star game of the James Mosher and Associates League. Baseball's grip on blacks also shows up at Druid Hill Park, where grown men relive their youth either through intense organized softball contests or friendly pickup games.

Just when blacks began to step back from professional baseball is unclear. In the 1920s, blacks in Baltimore flocked to watch the Balti- more Black Sox and later the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues. Some Sundays found 8,000 fans squeezing into the 6,000-seat Bugle Field in East Baltimore. In some cities, the Negro Leagues outdrew the majors.

That support began to shift in 1947, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first black player in the major leagues. Instantly, the Dodgers became Black America's team, and black fans here often organized bus trips to New York to rally behind their new hero.

Robinson's success opened the door for more black stars. Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks stepped into the spotlight and developed into marquee players. By the mid-1970s, blacks accounted for 24 percent of major-league rosters.

But, somewhere, the momentum stopped. Blacks make up only 17 percent of major-league rosters this year, according to a study conducted by the Center for Study of Sports in Society (blacks made up 75 percent of the NBA and 62 percent of the NFL this year).

Exciting black players such as O.J. Simpson and Walter Payton helped increase the popularity of football. The NBA, on the verge of collapse in the mid-1970s, was saved, in part, by marketing black stars such as Julius Erving and Magic Johnson.

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