New York Times, April 16, 2012
On Sunday, Major League Baseball celebrated another Jackie Robinson Day. Sixty-five years ago, Robinson broke the majors' racial barrier.
Since 2004, Jackie Robinson Day has been a national day of introspection and respect. The celebration has also become an outlet for hand-wringing about the "problem" of the diminishing African-American presence in the major leagues.
We've all seen the numbers: African-Americans made up about 8.5 percent of the players in the majors last year, down from 18 percent 20 years earlier. There are fewer African-American starting pitchers now than there were 50 years ago.
The decline is often explained away by a combination of cultural shifts and economics.
- Baseball is a father-son sport. Many black fathers, for a variety of reasons, are not in their sons' lives.
- Baseball, with the cost of equipment and travel for competition, is an expensive sport.
- Baseball is a sport of skill more than athleticism, and the skills must be learned early on in youth systems that may be beyond the reach of those who live in economically depressed areas.
- Basketball and football have siphoned off top black athletes.
Baseball, under the leadership of officials like Jimmie Lee Solomon, is making efforts to bolster blacks' participation. Solomon oversees Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academies and the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, called R.B.I. But even Solomon says the African-American presence may never hit double digits again.
Given the dire predicament of many young black men in the United States, the larger question is whether the African-American community really needs another center fielder, another slugger.
About a third of African-American men are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and about 12 percent of African-American men in their 20s and 30s are incarcerated.
The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males details, among other things, that only 47 percent of black males graduate from high school. New York State's graduation rate for its Regents diploma is only 25 percent for black male students. And, according to a report by the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education, African-American unemployment remains in the 15 to 16 percent range, 6 or 7 percentage points higher than the rest of the United States work force.
Given these realities, one can make the argument that any avenue of employment and advancement should be pursued — sports included. Major League Baseball, our nominal national pastime, should certainly be a viable option. But there needs to be a focus beyond the playing field, on management, where decisions are made that can affect the numbers on the field.
Solomon, who played football at Dartmouth and earned a law degree from Harvard, cautioned against jettisoning playing positions that could lead to a career in the industry. Baseball needs a healthy pool of players who can be a prime source for front-office positions throughout the sport.
Bob Watson held a number of executive positions in baseball after his playing career and was the general manager of the Yankees when they won the World Series in 1996. "We need to cultivate managers, minor league directors and executives," he said. "To attract young African-Americans and inspire them, they need to see people who look like them."
A few years ago, Carl Crawford said he thought the weeding-out process for African-American baseball players began in high school. College may not be that welcoming, either.
Julian McWilliams, an African-American player at Temple who is injured this season, said that college baseball coaches could make the game a difficult path for some black players to follow.
"They sometimes take away from the essence of the sport," said McWilliams, a junior in eligibility and a senior academically, adding, "A lot of young blacks play on the premise of baseball being a rhythm game, based on rhythm, based on how you feel."
"That's the way black people were able to succeed in baseball for a long time. Because they felt good, they made it look good — they played the game with soul," he said. But he said that expression was stunted at the college level.
Historians have noted that Jackie Robinson and later Willie Mays and Latin players introduced a new spirit into the major league game.
This is accepted in basketball and football. Not so much in college baseball.
McWilliams said that in his generation, the rise of the N.B.A. had something to do with the decline in popularity of baseball in the inner city.
"The Jordan era had something to do with it, the Kobe era had something to do with it," McWilliams said. "Everyone wanted to be like Mike or Kobe or LeBron James. I wanted to be like Jeter."
He also said the father-son relationship was important in nurturing the initial spark of a connection to baseball. "A lot of times in the black community, there are not a lot of father figures in urban areas," he said.
McWilliams credits his father, Morris, for steering him to and keeping him in baseball. "The reason I started playing baseball is because he played it, and we would go outside and have a game of catch," McWilliams said. "So I feel it starts from an early age."
McWilliams has made an unusual journey through baseball.
In 2002, he was a member of the Harlem Little League team, coached by his father, that reached the Little League World Series in South Williamsport, Pa. The team's World Series run, and Julian's subsequent years attending camps and clinics, opened his eyes to the economic realities of youth baseball.
Those realities chased a number of promising African-American players out of the game from ages 13 to 18, McWilliams said. "I remember that some of the kids on the white teams brought their individual hitting coaches with them," he added.
At 13, McWilliams played with the New York Gothams, an elite travel team. Three years later, he played for the New York Nines, an even more selective team and part of an organization run by baseball scouts. McWilliams said he was the only African-American on his team. He ultimately earned a scholarship to Ohio University, although he transferred after a year.
There are a number of ways to encourage, if not boost, the participation of young athletes in baseball. The first is drop the residency requirements in Little League Baseball for ages 5 through 8, the crucial time when kids learn to love the game and pick up the fundamentals.
Major League Baseball should also escalate its timetable for adopting a global draft with one pool of players. Under the current system, teams find it cheaper to sponsor baseball academies outside the United States to mine talent. That allows each team to have its own stash of players that it has identified. These players are a relatively cheap substitute for players born in the United States and Canada.
If baseball is really serious about a stronger African-American presence, it would push hard for a global draft.
Such a draft would create one caldron of talent from which all teams would choose. This is the N.B.A. system that has proved so effective. The difference is that the N.B.A. uses colleges as "academies" where players' skills are honed — at no cost to the teams. Come draft day, they take turns selecting the best players.
After he retired from baseball, Jackie Robinson spent his life championing social causes and especially pushing to increase the number of African-Americans in leadership and executive positions. On Oct. 15, 1972, he spoke before Game 2 of the World Series in Cincinnati and concluded his remarks by saying that he wanted one day to see an African-American manager in the dugout.
Nine days later, he died.
In the wake of celebrating yet another Jackie Robinson Sunday and discussing the dwindling numbers of black players, it's prudent to embrace the vision of progress Robinson expressed in Cincinnati. He knew better than most that power and control are the requisites for any group to succeed — in baseball and in life.