For Jamal Strong, the story has been the same virtually every step up the baseball ladder. "When I was growing up, Little League baseball...
For Jamal Strong, the story has been the same virtually every step up the baseball ladder.
“When I was growing up, Little League baseball was the No. 1 priority to me and all my friends,” he said. “Then once we started getting in high school, they all branched out to football and basketball — and it was always just me out there.”
Strong was the only African-American player on his team at Citrus Community College in Glendora, Calif., as he was for his final year at the University of Nebraska, and most of his stops in the minor leagues after the Mariners drafted him in 2000.
And now that Strong has made it to the majors, he is the only African-American player on the Mariners. In fact, for 10 days in August, the Mariners had no African-American players on their 25-man roster for the first time in the franchise’s 28-year history.
“It’s kind of tough sometimes, but it’s not,” Strong said. “That’s your family out there with you. You feel like you’re not the only one out there. Everyone is a part of you.”
This phenomenon is hardly unique to Strong, or the Mariners. Five teams — the Boston Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies — had no African-American players on their active rosters as of Monday, while several other teams had just one or two.
When Florida’s Dontrelle Willis faced the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Edwin Jackson last week, it was a notable occurrence, an extremely rare matchup of African-American starting pitchers — rare because only five are in major-league rotations. And there is not one African-American catcher since Charles Johnson was waived by the Devil Rays in June.
The stark fact is that 58 years after Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, considered by many to be the single most significant event in the history of professional sports, the American-born black baseball player is slowly disappearing from the game.
“Jackie would be sick,” said Grover “Deacon” Jones, an Orioles scout who played for the Chicago White Sox in the 1960s and is black. “This is my 49th year in professional baseball, and man, this is incredible. It’s insulting to me, personally.”
The numbers tell the story. Since 1975, when 27 percent of major-league players were African-American, the number has steadily declined. A Seattle Times analysis of active rosters, including players on disabled lists, showed that 8.9 percent (79 of 888 players) were African-American.
The demographic has been largely replaced by the ever-increasing number of Latin players, up to 26 percent in a 2004 survey by the Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sport.
Perhaps even more alarming to baseball officials is the decline in the number of black players in youth ball, high school, colleges and minors, the traditional feeder systems that produce major-league players. As former Mariners outfielder Dave Henderson said while noting Strong’s status as the lone African-American Mariner.
“It used to be, when you talk about Jackie Robinson, they didn’t want a black player on the team. Now, it has nothing to do with that. It’s just that there aren’t any African-American players available.”
“I’ve asked colleagues, some of them general managers, why there aren’t any black guys,” Jones added. “They say, believe it or not, they’re not out there to be drafted.”
The decline is felt locally in the inner cities, as well. Cleveland High School didn’t field a team this past spring, and Rainier Beach went 0-15 with nine forfeits. Tim Moody, the baseball coach at Franklin for the past 19 years, has seen his team evolve from predominantly black to last year having just three African-Americans on varsity and two on JV.
“Right now, if you’re a black guy, it’s not hip to play baseball,” said Garfield coach Tom Riley, who said his Bulldogs team was about 25 percent African-American last year.
Agreed Henderson: “The cool sport for black 10-, 12-year olds is basketball. It’s the whole getup with the big shorts, the tennis shoes, all that goes into play on how you get accepted in neighborhoods. A baseball jersey just doesn’t cut it.”
Former Garfield star infielder Jeron “Bookie” Gates, 24, is one of the rare African-American youngsters who stuck with baseball. He played for Washington State and professionally in the Arizona Diamondbacks and Rockies organizations before being released in 2003.
At Garfield, Gates said, he watched talented friends veer away from baseball.
“These were outstanding baseball players, a majority of them African-American, whose careers could definitely have been prolonged if they had continued down the path of baseball,” Gates said. “But when they got to high school, they all went the football and basketball route.”
Anthony Harrington of Federal Way, a sophomore outfielder at Grambling State in Louisiana, believes baseball is not properly promoted to young black kids. Few of his friends embrace the sport the way he has.
“I’ve been playing baseball since I was 6,” he said. “It’s something that just stuck with me. To me, baseball is very humbling. Someone told me that baseball is an individual sport based around a team concept, and that really hit me.”
Though some African-Americans in the major leagues have talked of being put down by friends for sticking with baseball, Gates said he received “the utmost support” from his peers.
“They’d show up for games,” he said. “But the game became too boring for them. It was too long, no excitement.”
Contrast that with the 1950s and ’60s, when baseball thrived in central Seattle.
“When I was growing up around here, if you didn’t play baseball, people didn’t know who you were,” said Joe Staton, who graduated from Garfield in 1966 and went on to a professional career that included a stint with the Detroit Tigers. “People played basketball and football and stuff, but it wasn’t that popular. Baseball was the thing.”
One of Staton’s Garfield teammates was Billy North, who played 11 seasons in the major leagues and won two World Series championships with the Oakland Athletics. He recalls being “obsessed” with baseball. When North wasn’t swinging at lava rocks in his back yard, he was constantly involved in pickup games at Broadway Park — or the best available alternative.
“We used to play ‘Strikeout’ in the Safeway parking lot, so much that we started knocking down the plaster inside the store,” North recalled fondly. “I was a PCL addict. I’d pick beans to make money to see the Rainiers.”
Now North and Staton both invest a considerable amount of time trying to reinvigorate the love of baseball among African-American youngsters in Seattle.
They are involved in Major League Baseball’s “RBI” program — Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities — which is run through the Boys & Girls Club and largely funded locally by the Mariners. The program fields teams that service more than 150 kids ages 10 to 15, said Quincy Robertson, program services director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County.
“It’s all about opportunity,” Robertson said. “If folks have the opportunity for things that are interesting, they move toward them.”
But the process can get discouraging.
“It’s a new generation,” North said. “They like to get a basketball and go in the gym. I think a lot of it has to do with the facilities. Garfield is playing against teams with AstroTurf infields, batting cages indoor and outdoor, kids that have been playing together since they were 9.”
That often leads to non-competitive games when the largest inner-city schools play the suburban schools in KingCo 4A play, a dynamic replicated in the 3A Metro League between the inner-city and private schools.
“These kids, when they’re playing, are just getting beat up,” North said. “The attrition rate when I was a kid was tremendous in baseball, but it’s happening even earlier now. No one comes out to watch the kids play because they’re never in the middle of a championship. It’s perpetuating. No one wants to get their brains beat out.”
The trickle-down effect is devastating for baseball. Major-league teams are increasingly looking to the colleges in their draft, and the college game has become predominantly white. Even traditionally black colleges are turning to white players. Last spring, for instance, Bethune-Cookman and Mississippi Valley State’s teams were more than 50 percent white.
“The reality is that today in most urban African-American communities, not only do young people not play baseball, they don’t even watch it,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, retired sociology professor from the University of California-Berkeley, and a noted commentator on race issues.
University of Washington baseball coach Ken Knutson, whose program has one incoming African-American player, cites economic factors. Baseball can be an expensive game, particularly with the emphasis on year-round play.
“We just go after good players, wherever they are,” Knutson said. “We find most of the kids in the upper middle class. That’s where they’re playing baseball.”
Knutson once held a baseball camp at Rainier playfield — his home field as a youngster — and watched a dozen athletic-looking kids, about age 11-12, get out of a van — and head for the fieldhouse to play basketball.
“I said, ‘Those are the kids I want right there,’ ” Knutson recalled.
Frank Mattox, the Mariners’ director of player development, and their former scouting director, had the same feeling a few years ago while scouting at Crenshaw High School, the Los Angeles powerhouse that produced Darryl Strawberry, Chris Brown and others.
“They had maybe four or five African-American kids,” recalled Mattox, who is African-American. “I remember looking over the fence, and all the kids were playing spring football. I said, ‘There they are.’ Baseball’s a sport where you really have to have a love of the game, and that’s being lost.”
Knutson and others note that high-school kids are increasingly pushed toward year-round participation on “select teams” that can cost thousands of dollars annually for instruction and travel. Though Gates said he received a full scholarship to play for the well-regarded Chaffey program, few urban kids have that opportunity. The result, Gates said, “knowledge around baseball is what [African-American] kids lack — basic fundamentals.”
“With the escalation of select teams — boom, a huge slice of the population is out of the mix,” said Garfield’s Riley.
Franklin’s Moody said he has observed numerous kids that were talented in baseball when younger but gave up the sport to focus on basketball once they reached high school. Many observers cited the influence of Michael Jordan in the 1990s and LeBron James in recent years.
“They feel they can get right to the NBA, compared to four years in the minors — and maybe I’ll make it, maybe I won’t,” said Mariners coach Don Baylor. “I don’t know if there’s a lot of parents directing their kids to play baseball these days.”
Said Moody: “Coach Kerr [Franklin basketball coach Jason Kerr] is a good friend, and I know he’s not pressuring kids to select basketball. They make up their own mind that’s what they want to do. I tell them to give themselves another option. By their senior year, a lot want to try baseball, but by then their skills have eroded.”
Sociologist Richard Lapchick of the Sports Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida, who does an annual “Racial and Gender Report Card” for all pro sports, listed the number of African-American players in major-league baseball at 9 percent in 2004. (That compares to 78 percent in the NBA and 69 percent in the NFL.)
That’s the lowest percentage since the 1950s. The number of blacks playing college ball is believed to be between 4.5 percent and 6 percent, depending on which survey is used. In the 2004 major-league draft, only one African-American college player was selected among the first 100 picks.
But more striking even than the numbers is the anecdotal evidence: the empty fields in the inner city, the difficulty fielding high-school teams in urban areas, the lack of black faces in the College World Series and Little League World Series (other than the teams from Latin America) — or in the stands at major-league stadiums around the country.
“It used to be, if you were good at all three sports, you would choose baseball,” Hall of Famer Willie McCovey said. “Now, you have a guy equally good at both [basketball and baseball], and nine times out of 10, he’ll choose basketball.”
Terrence Long, Kansas City Royals outfielder, agreed. “Every little African-American kid wants to play basketball. My kid, he’s 5 years old, and he doesn’t pick up a baseball. He has a basketball in his hand all the time.”
And Henderson believes it’s not just an inner-city phenomenon.
“This country isn’t just built on inner cities,” he said. “There’s towns like the one I came from [Dos Palos, Calif.] where there’s plenty of room, plenty of black kids, and there’s still no baseball being played.”
Jones remembers being at a “Little League Day” during spring training in Arizona a few years ago and realizing to his horror that among the hundreds of kids parading the field, none were African-American. When Baylor returns home to Austin, Texas, he drives by once-thriving Little League diamonds that are now largely vacant.
Major-league officials readily acknowledge the problem and say they are proactively working to bring back the African-American player and fan. They cite a number of urban initiatives to which they contribute, including the RBI program that fields teams in more than 200 cities worldwide, involving 120,000 boys and girls.
“When you have more people playing the game from different walks of life, you have a better game,” said Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations for MLB. “I think by bringing baseball to urban areas with significant numbers of African-Americans, not only will more athletes be generated, but more fans.”
Solomon, baseball’s highest-ranking African-American executive, also points with pride to the 25-acre baseball “academy” in Compton, Calif., that will open in November or December and is meant to replicate the academies in Latin America. MLB officials say they have spent millions of dollars in an attempt to reinvigorate baseball among African-Americans. Ground has also been broken for an academy in Atlanta and funding has begun for a baseball “city” in Houston.
“We deeded something away,” commissioner Bud Selig said during the All-Star break, addressing a meeting of the Baseball Writers Association of America. “I’m very concerned, but I think we’re making progress. We are really going to get into the inner cities.”
According to Edwards, however, programs like RBI have become “irrelevant. It’s like pumping air into the lungs of a dead man. He needs life; he doesn’t need air.”
The lack of blacks in baseball became a hot-button issue this week when the Dodgers’ Milton Bradley — one of two African-American players on the team that brought Robinson to the majors in 1947 — blasted teammate Jeff Kent for insensitivity to African-American teammates and cited the declining number of black players.
“There’s always race in everything,” Bradley said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “You see, that’s another thing, white people never want to see race with anything. There’s race involved in baseball. That’s why there is less than 9 percent African-American representation in the game.”
Baseball has had its share of incendiary racial events, including the inflammatory comments of former Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, who questioned whether black players had the “necessities” for management roles, and alleged racist comments by former Reds owner Marge Schott.
However, Edwards believes the declining numbers of African-American ballplayers is the result mostly of cultural and economic factors, especially the globalization of the sport. In fact, he predicts that the same trend of black attrition is beginning in the NBA and NFL.
Edwards points out that players from Latin countries are not subject to the draft and can be signed for smaller bonuses.
“I’m convinced that the increase in Latin players is not because all of a sudden the leadership and hierarchy of baseball developed a love for Latins,” Edwards said. “It’s about money … I’m convinced, as Michael Corleone used to say, it’s not personal. It’s just business.”
For now, African-American players like Strong will remain in relative isolation in a sport that once had a Pittsburgh Pirates team that in 1971 fielded an all-black team — seven African-Americans and two Latins.
“It’s my career and my life, and it’s the thing I’ve chosen to do,” Strong said. “I’m going to stick with it, even if there’s not a whole lot of African-Americans out there playing.”
Said Gates: “Hopefully, we can get more educators and teachers to feed these kids the lesson that baseball is a great sport, the national pastime.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org
|On the decline|
|Percentage of African-American players in major-league baseball during a 13-year study by the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport:|
|Note: A survey was not conducted for the 2003 season.|
|Positions of diversity|
|A position-by-position look, by percentage, at the racial diversity of major-league baseball (stats from the 2004 season):|
|Source: Institute of Diversity and Ethics for Sport|
|African-Americans by position|
|A look at the number of African-Americans playing each position (as of Monday):|