Baseball Has Shaky Hold on African American Fans

Mike Jensen, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 21, 2009

Election Day lines were historically long at the Barrett Playground at Eighth Street and Duncannon Avenue in the city’s Logan section. Working the polls inside Barrett’s recreation center, Kenneth Shropshire walked out to gaze at the line of voters.

What he saw stunned him, conceded Shropshire, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. The sight had nothing to do with the election.

“There were a bunch of kids playing baseball–for lack of a better phrase, disorganized baseball,” Shropshire said. “No uniforms. No adults around. Just a bunch of kids, more kids than you needed on each team.”

It had been years since Shropshire [Kenneth Shropshire, Barrett Playground at Eighth Street and Duncannon Avenue in Philadelphia’s Logan section] had seen this kind of field of dreams–kids, specifically African American kids, playing pickup baseball. Of course, Election Day was just six days after the Phillies had won the World Series, four days after the city celebrated with a parade.

Shropshire immediately called his friend Bill White, the former National League president and a great big-league first baseman of his day. White questioned whether adults had put the game together. Shropshire saw no evidence of it.

“We’ve talked about it so much. It’s been such an issue,” Shropshire said. “We talked about the election and what it meant. Maybe there’s a new day for everything. The Phillies win, Obama wins, and maybe black kids will start playing baseball.”

Shropshire had been at Citizens Bank Park for the World Series games.

“Every night, I looked around and thought, ‘Boy, there aren’t that many people of color here,'” Shropshire said.

{snip}

Kelly DuPree is a baseball evangelist. If he’s not watching a Phillies game, he’s probably got the College World Series or some major-league game on his television. If there’s no baseball, he said, he’ll watch softball.

{snip}

Three decades back, DuPree captained Overbrook High’s team–he was an all-Public League power-hitting third baseman–and he later played in the Fairmount Park A League and in an over-30 league that played at the University of Pennsylvania fields.

{snip}

DuPree teaches the game to young neighborhood kids, starting with T-ball. The game remains his passion.

If you’re expecting DuPree to say baseball has come back in the city–“I don’t see it,” he said.

DuPree also runs a camp at Shepard, the West Philadelphia Youth Initiative Day Camp. The day after the Major League All-Star Game, he asked a dozen campers if any had watched that game, which featured five Phillies.

One camper raised his hand.

Kids in the city and suburbs have similar priorities, DuPree said. If he doesn’t get it organized, DuPree said, it doesn’t happen.

“They want to sit on PlayStation,” DuPree said.

{snip}

Black, who later made his name as a basketball player on a city-championship Overbrook High team, said that as a young boy, he played stickball, wall ball, and hard ball. Do kids today do any of that? Have the World Series Champion Phillies reenergized this as a baseball inner city?

“Nooooo,” one of the men said.

“A lot of the kids think baseball is corny–that’s the word I’ve heard,” said Dan Hunter, who helps coach several RBI League youth teams run out of the recreation center{snip}

The game may not rate high right now as a cool sport, but that doesn’t mean the Phillies are un-cool. Jersey and caps fly off the shelves all over the city. DuPree said that’s a fashion statement, not a baseball statement. The look is in, he said, but the wearers aren’t usually watching the games.

{snip}

“Baseball is usually something you do with your dad,” Hunter said. “The inner-city kids, the dads are not around. They don’t have enough volunteers. We need to get like 100 men to volunteer.”

But the biggest factor, Hunter said, may simply be generational.

“This is like a fast-food society, and baseball is a slow sport,” Hunter said.

He knows his local baseball history, Hunter said, how the Phillies were the last National League team to integrate. But he’s not focusing on that as a factor five decades later, he said. There is no question that Jimmy Rollins’ and Ryan Howard’s emergence as top-level stars, National League MVPs in back-to-back years, helps make a connection in the community, Hunter said. But the idea that great African American players will turn a historic tide, it isn’t that simple, he said. Every kid wanted to be Dr. J when Julius Erving first came to town, he said. But if you don’t own a glove, if you don’t have a bat in your hand, even a historic home-run hitter such as Howard isn’t turning the tide.

As great as it is to see the Phillies winning, there is a Catch-22 element to it, the men at Shepard Rec Center said. Unless tickets are given to a community group, they are harder to come by and more expensive than ever in a tough economy.

“A working mother of four can’t afford to take her kids down there,” Black said.

DuPree is always scanning the Phillies crowds on television. What does he see?

“A lot of Caucasian folks,” DuPree said with a laugh, adding that sometimes he’ll say to himself, “Oh, there goes a black person.”

{snip}

Earlier in the season, with the Dodgers in town, Douglas Jones of Germantown and his son, Kyheem, sat in Section 205. They were the only African American fans in Section 205. There also were no African American fans in Section 206 closer to the foul pole. Jones wasn’t surprised at all, he said. He’s used to it. On the concourse, it seemed like there were more African American employees at the ballpark than African American fans.

Jones said African American friends of his are not necessarily anti-baseball, Jones said, just more casual fans.

“If they get tickets from somebody, they’ll come,” said Jones, 46. “If they have to buy them, they won’t come. {snip} ”

The World Series didn’t change that, Jones said.

Michael Harris, director of marketing and special projects for the Phillies, said there had been a “somewhat modest” increase in African American fans at Citizens Bank Park this season.

{snip}

“As long as there are single-family homes, it’s going to be tough to bring blacks back to baseball,” the Phillies’ star shortstop [Jimmy Rollins] said. “You can dribble a basketball by yourself. You only need one other person to throw a football around. Baseball, you need a group of people. This is a game that’s usually passed down from our fathers. If our fathers aren’t around, it’s going to be tough to keep that legacy going.”

Rollins said he believes there is increased interest in the Phillies from the city’s African American community in the time he has been with the club.

{snip}

The counselors at the camp, the high school kids, said they watched last year’s playoffs and World Series, and most attended the parade. One was outside the stadium the last night of the Series because he had gone to a 76ers game next door and stayed around and had a great time.

But do they watch games this season?

“I hardly watch,” said Jaleel Williford, 17, the guy who went up to Rollins to compare heights at the clinic.

“Rarely,” said Justin Harris, 16.

“Never,” said Kimyona Evans, 15.

When Nicholas Wilson walked into the playground, the 13-year-old was asked for a word to describe baseball.

“Boring,” Wilson said. “I like contact. It’s slower than other games. I only watched the World Series.”

{snip}

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