Running Away From Baseball

July 14, 2009|By Mark Anthony Neal

When the rosters for Major League Baseball's All-Star Game were announced, only 10 black players, including the Orioles' Adam Jones, were among the 64 picked for the American League and National League rosters. Among the 16 players chosen as starters by fan vote, only Derek Jeter of the Yankees is African-American.

The 1979 All-Star Game, by contrast, featured 16 African-American players, including seven starters and seven future Hall-of-Famers.

In 2009, a little more that 10 percent of all Major League Baseball players are black - the first increase in more than a decade but still a far cry from the close to 30 percent mark achieved in the mid-1970s. The diminishing presence of African-American players has reached such a point that many historically black colleges and universities explicitly recruit white and Latino players to field full-fledged teams.

There are many theories about the decline. Some cite the inability of Major League Baseball to successfully market the game to black youth like the National Basketball Association and National Football League do. And although it generally costs less to attend a baseball game than an NBA or NFL game, some do cite the expense as a deterrent, a charge that golfer Tiger Woods recently reiterated when talking about ticket prices at the new Yankee Stadium.

Then there's the increase of international players, particularly from Asia and Latin America. The latter dynamic led Gary Sheffield, a black 20-year veteran, to suggest to GQ magazine in 2007 that the increased presence of Latino players was due to the fact they were "easier to control."

One explanation is that many poor youth are simply challenged by the lack of available space and equipment to play baseball. Longtime music executive and baseball fan Bill Stephney suggests another reason for the diminishing presence of black baseball players. According to Mr. Stephney, baseball lost legitimacy in black communities when black fathers became marginalized in those same communities.

There is merit in Mr. Stephney's observation. Unlike basketball, which youngsters can learn by watching older youth play the game, the game of baseball requires a certain level of organization and instruction that, very often, only adults can provide. Indeed, my own father sparked my interest in baseball as a youth; I can't imagine I would have become interested in the sport without his involvement.

My father belonged to a post-World War II generation of American men who were youths themselves when Jackie Robinson broke the sport's color barrier, an act loudly cheered by those struggling against legal segregation.

It bears noting that among the current black ballplayers in the majors a significant number are sons of former majors leaguers, including John Mayberry Jr. of the Phillies, Gary Matthews Jr. of the Angels and Prince Fielder of the Brewers. All three fathers - John Mayberry Sr., Gary Matthews Sr. and Cecil Fielder - were All-Stars during their careers.

More telling are the examples of brothers Dmitri and Delmon Young and B.J. and Justin Upton. The Young brothers were the first siblings to be drafted among the first five picks of baseball's amateur draft in 1991 and 2003, respectively, and the Uptons were among the top two picks in the 2002 and 2005 drafts. Both sets of brothers talk about how their fathers were instrumental in their careers, with baseball serving as the common language that bridged the generation gap.

The late Buck O'Neil, a veteran of the Negro Leagues and later one of baseball's great ambassadors, once suggested that kids never recall going to their first basketball game with their fathers - but that is often the case with baseball.

Last month, President Barack Obama promoted the importance of being a good dad, saying he wanted to start a "national conversation" on the subject. Maybe part of that conversation could take place on a baseball diamond, with fathers and sons and a bag filled with balls, bats and gloves.

Mark Anthony Neal, a lifelong New York Mets fan, teaches African-American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of several books, including the recent "New Black Man." His e-mail is man9@duke.edu.

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