For the first time in four-plus decades, the Orioles' Opening Day roster had no black players from the United States, reflecting the dwindling number of black Americans in the major leagues, according to a study released yesterday.
Last year, 9 percent of major-leaguers were African-American, according to the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. It's the lowest percentage of black ballplayers in the majors in 25 years, the study states.
Last season, the Orioles' Opening Day active roster contained no African-Americans, though second baseman Jerry Hairston was part of the club while on the disabled list. Last year was the first time the Orioles didn't have an African-American in their starting lineup since 1961.
This offseason, Hairston was traded to the Chicago Cubs for Sammy Sosa, and the other two African-American members of the team's 40-man roster, outfielder Tim Raines and first baseman Walter Young, failed to make the big-league team.
"It'll be a sad day, really, for the Orioles, the organization and baseball," said Washington Nationals manager and former Oriole Frank Robinson when told about the situation earlier this month. "But it's not something that will shock me, because it started to happen over the years, that the overall numbers of African-Americans in baseball were shrinking at an alarming rate, but it doesn't seem to get anybody's attention."
Despite the lack of U.S. blacks, the Orioles' clubhouse is among the most ethnically diverse in baseball. Thirteen of the players on the 25-man roster are Latinos or foreign-born, which includes at least one from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Cuba, Aruba and Canada.
"Obviously, the influx of the Latin American player has played heavily in our present and future," said Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. "I don't think it was a shift consciously away from one and to the other."
Yesterday's opponent at Camden Yards, the Oakland Athletics, have only one African-American on its roster, reserve outfielder Charles Thomas.
When putting together this year's Orioles, Flanagan said he never considered whether his team had any African-Americans.
"When you scout, it's all about talent. Talent is talent. It throws me a little bit because I don't even think in those terms," Flanagan said. "My problem is I don't see color, I try to see talent."
Bob Kendrick, the marketing director for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., said he understands.
"It does sadden us, but [the Orioles'] job is to find the best players they can within their system and framework," Kendrick said. "If there are not any African-Americans that fit in that level of play, you can't blame the ballclub.
"But it is a shame to see clubs with such a rich history of African-Americans not to have any."
When Flanagan made his final Opening Day start for the Orioles in 1986, five of the nine members of the starting lineup were African-Americans, including Hall of Famer Eddie Murray. Only one starter was Latino. Monday, six members of the starting lineup were Latino, and the starting pitcher was Mexico native Rodrigo Lopez.
Throughout baseball, 26 percent of major-leaguers were Latino last year, according to the institute study, which gave baseball a D for its diversity hiring of general managers and an A for opportunities provided for minorities in coaching, managing and playing.
"Latinos, opposed to African-Americans, are just the opposite now [in terms of numbers] than it was, say, 10 years ago," Robinson said. "I don't think that's good, but what are you going to do?"
Robinson, a Hall-of-Famer who starred for the Orioles from 1966 to 1971, said there's not one reason for the drop-off.
For instance, he said, most foreign players don't have to enter the amateur draft and therefore can be signed more cheaply. Perhaps more important, Robinson said, is that baseball doesn't carry as much influence in black communities as it once did.
"When you had a male kid born, you put a bat, a glove and a ball in his crib," Robinson said. "He's going to be a baseball player. He wasn't going to be a basketball player or a football player or anything else. He was going to be a baseball player. That was the No. 1 way really to improve your lifestyle. Baseball."
That has changed, he said, with more opportunities afforded to African-Americans, from other sports such as basketball, to increasing academic pursuits.
"From my experience, I see a lot of empty baseball fields, and that's all over," Flanagan said. "I look back when I was a young player and we had a difficult time getting on to an empty field. Now, I see a lot of them empty."
And it might be worse in inner cities, said Joe Durham, the first black player to hit a home run for the Orioles.