Where Have African-American Baseball Players Gone?

Rob Ruck, Salon, March 5, 2011

It’s come to this: More African-Americans were elected to Congress as Republicans last November than appeared in the World Series. Texas Rangers reliever Darren Oliver was the sole African-American on the field. And while the number of black Republicans in Congress–two–is unlikely to grow any time soon, neither are the ranks of African-American major leaguers.

The meteoric rise and decline in African-American baseball has been staggering. Dark-skinned players, of course, were everywhere in the Series. They made up 40 percent of the players, but most came from the Caribbean or were Hispanic Americans. Few were U.S.-born blacks.

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Before integration, African-American boys learned baseball on the other side of the racial boundary demarcating American sport. They played for sandlot and Negro League teams organized and managed by African-Americans. When that sporting infrastructure crumbled after integration, no alternative black-controlled institutions emerged. Black youth were left with fewer ways to learn the muscle memory, intricacies and lore of the game.

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MLB was thrilled when C.C. Sabathia threw the first pitch of the 2009 World Series to Jimmy Rollins–only the second time a Series began with an African-American on the mound and another at bat. Both had played for RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), a program rebuilding baseball’s infrastructure in hard-pressed areas. MLB, which backs RBI and promoted it relentlessly during the postseason, has committed to building an urban academy modeled after its Compton, Calif., facility in each of its franchise cities. One measure of this effort’s success will be how many boys eventually sign professionally; another would be whether it helps repair the fabric of neighborhoods that MLB has long shunned. To do that, groups like the Josh Gibson Foundation in Pittsburgh need to lead the way. Sean Gibson, the Foundation’s executive director and Josh’s great-grandson, wants an academy built on the Hill, the historic heart of Pittsburgh’s black community. “We are part of this community,” Gibson explained. “We want its needs served first and foremost. Baseball can help bring it back, but the community needs to lead the way.” Even with community buy-in and ongoing MLB support, the African-American contingent is not likely to return to its historic highs of the 1970s.

And baseball will be poorer for it. “All cultures bring something different to the game,” Mets outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. told the Times’ David Waldstein last spring as baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. “The African American player, there is a charisma that he brings from his culture . . . a little spice . . . That little spice is missing when we’re not participating.” Matthews, the lone African-American on the Mets that day, was released later that summer.

Baseball’s tortured past was inextricably linked to its exclusion of African-Americans. Their subsequent entry into baseball was the game’s finest moment. But its future most likely lies elsewhere, in the Caribbean and the nation’s growing Latino communities.

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