Shaun Powell, Sports on Earth, April 15, 2014
On a campus steeped in African-American history and tradition, at one of the few colleges in the country claiming Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as a home address, a certain group of athletes is initially judged not by the content of their character, but by the color of their skin.
Whenever they head to class or to the cafeteria or hustle off to the athletic complex in clusters, other students will nod and reach an easy conclusion about the identity of these white players:
Oh, you must be the baseball team.
“Every now and then, we’ll hear that,” said pitcher Scott Wells. “People know who we are. It’s no secret. It’s never done negatively or anything like that. It’s all in fun. But yeah, we get that sometimes.”
Winston-Salem State University is a member of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a distinction made necessary in the Jim Crow South when ambitious black teenagers had no other educational options. The school is roughly 75 percent black and has had a black majority for its entire 122-year existence. A singular culture dominates campus life. The student-body, the faculty, the football games, the music pumped in the student union, the parties, the Homecoming Queen and her court, “Big House” Gaines and the basketball legacy he built, the fraternities and sororities. All mostly black.
Except for the baseball team. That would be very, very white.
It’s a contrast found curious only to outsiders. Truthfully, the makeup of baseball teams at more than half of the HBCUs has been mostly white for years now, a racial transition that underlines the speed in which blacks have abandoned the national pastime since the 1980s. Imagine that: Blacks aren’t even playing baseball en masse at schools originally created to educate blacks.
On a baseball team that honorably represents a black institution, black players are . . . the minority? Yes, conflicting as it sounds, such is the case at Winston-Salem.
As Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day and how he inspired black boys to grab a bat and take their cuts and someday dream of being him, there’s only scattered evidence of Robinson’s reach, almost 70 years later. The reasons that help explain what’s happening today are complex. Vast numbers of blacks aren’t aspiring to play in the majors, and perhaps never will, at least not to the degree of basketball and football, even with MLB’s best efforts.
And at Winston-Salem State and Delaware State and Florida A&M and Hampton and Bethune-Cookman, the baseball teams don’t accurately reflect the makeup of the student body. In some cases, it’s not even close. On those campuses and others like them, a phenomenon rings true: Whites are rescuing and saving baseball at black colleges and universities.
Why isn’t baseball in the blood of black teens? Sit down; this will take a minute.
Baseball gets posterized by Kobe and LeBron and Durant, and baseball most definitely couldn’t beat Michael Jordan, the man most responsible for murdering the game among young black kids. In high school, baseball can’t compete with Friday nights and pep rallies and swooning teenage girls who bat their eyes at the starting quarterback.
Baseball isn’t found on bedroom walls. While Jordan was Pied-Pipering his way through the imaginations of millions in the ’80s and ’90s, the best baseball player of that era was Barry Bonds, a disaster as a role model for black kids. Ken Griffey Jr. wore his cap backward but was too shy and uninterested in actively promoting the game among those who looked like him. There are few transcendent black stars in majors to begin with, and baseball saw a rare opening wasted on two of them.
Baseball doesn’t sell sneakers. Think about that. Basketball and Nike push the most gotta-have-it accessory in athletics and street fashion. Therefore, what sport do you think grips young black boys?
Since Jackie Robinson retired, baseball lost at least two generations of blacks, which means the ball of choice that a father throws to his son isn’t white and round. Especially in the South, where peer pressure to play football is potent and intoxicating and consumes entire communities and towns.
Speaking of which, baseball needs fathers and sons to grow. The seed is planted with a backyard game of catch. With black single-parent households now at 72 percent, how much does the lack of involved fathers prevent black attachment the game?
College baseball programs are limited to 11.7 scholarships per team. Do the math there; few players get a full ride. Meanwhile, football and basketball scholarships cover 100 percent. The incentive to play college baseball is lost among high school kids from poor black families.
You can’t play three-on-three baseball. You also can’t play by yourself. And you can’t fit a baseball field in your driveway. The game requires 15-20 kids, a nearby field and committed parents who can form healthy leagues and provide structure and coaching. During the great American urban renewal of the 1950 and ’60s, when housing projects began to swell, city planners built asphalt basketball courts that involved little maintenance, not baseball fields. Basketball, then, was chosen for black kids in the city.
Only 8.3 percent of players on major league rosters on Opening Day in 2014 were black, according to the league. (It should be noted that while MLB has fewer black players, the game is more diverse than ever thanks to the influx of Asian and Latino players, with a 2013 report indicating that 28.2 percent of players were foreign-born.) Changing that is challenge embraced by Bud Selig. The commissioner has placed his energy into two areas of concern: first and foremost the steroid issue, then growing the game in urban areas. MLB-funded youth academies in Compton, Houston and New Orleans are up and running, with openings slated this year in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program (RBI) holds annual talent showcases and more than half of the 220,000 participants are black, according to MLB.