The Future of African-Americans in Baseball

by Harrison Chastang on April 6, 2007

Opening Day at AT&T Park. There’s nothing like it in sports, even though Barry Bonds didn’t hit any home runs and the other Barry — Barry Zito — got pulled early in a 7-0 loss to the San Diego Padres. To baseball fans, Opening Day is sacred, with not only die hard fans skipping work and school to be at the ballpark, but also politicians, corporate officials and non-fans who don’t know Barry Bonds from Barry Zito coming out for the festivities and pageantry of Opening Day, something that the NFL has tried to copy without much success. The contrived hype of the NFL opening weekend, with the pre-game and halftime shows and the corporate/network generated hoopla contrasts with Opening Day where there are no rock bands or rap stars and the focus is on the game.

One of the big stories on Opening Day 2007 is the lack of African Americans playing Major League Baseball. To the casual observer the lack of African Americans may not be obvious. A third to half of Major League rosters consists of Black players, but most of those players hail from Venezuela, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic or somewhere else in Latin America. Major League officials announced this week that only eight percent of Major League teams have African American players, and many teams this year have no African American players. It’s ironic that there are so few African American players in Major League Baseball, given that baseball was the first sport to break the color barrier 60 years ago this year when Jackie Robinson signed on with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Baseball officials acknowledge that the league needs to do a much better job exposing young African Americans to baseball. Until the late 1970s African Americans were connected to baseball both as players and as fans. Back in the day baseball could be seen regularly on free TV and many African American boys played baseball. Black kids went to the ballpark to see heroes like Mays, McCovey, Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue. Many standout African American high school athletes of the 1970s who went on to excel in other sports like Dionne Sanders, Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan played baseball during their high school years. These African American baseball players had just as much of a chance of getting their names in the paper playing baseball as their counterpoints who exclusively played football or basketball.

Today top high school football and basketball teams like De La Salle attract large crowds and have their games broadcast live on ESPN. Both the state football and basketball championship games were broadcast live on prime time cable networks. High school baseball players receive little if any attention from the cable networks or sports pages and few people besides friends and relatives attend high school baseball games. The top 25 NCAA football and basketball teams play to sold out stadiums and are seen by millions on TV, with the BCS championship game and the March Madness basketball tournament ranking just behind the Super Bowl as the highest rated events on television. World Series ratings have dropped over the years and the College Baseball World Series had been relegated to ESPN 2.

Baseball has tried to remedy the lack of African Americans in the game by sponsoring youth leagues targeted to African Americans but baseball has so fallen out of favor with young African Americans that many predominately African American high schools that produced All Stars like Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis and Vida Blue now have a hard time recruiting enough players for a baseball team. Many Historically Black Colleges and Universities have dropped baseball or have teams made up mostly of Latin and White players.

What can baseball do to get more African Americans on the field and in the stands? The league could follow the example of the San Francisco Giants. The Giants followed the Dodgers as one of the first teams to sign African American players and hired African Americans Frank Robinson and Dusty Baker to manage as managers. The Giants played their home games at Candlestick Park, in the heart of the mostly African American Bayview-Hunters Point district that maintained a love-hate relationship with the Giants. While many Bayview-Hunters Point residents enjoyed the attention of having the Giants playing in their neighborhood, Bayview-Hunters Point residents received little economic benefits from Giants games and felt burdened by the traffic congestion and parking restrictions imposed on the community for the 90 Giants games a year.

When the Giants moved to their new ballpark, the team dedicated key segments of the stadium to the Giants African American legends. The address of the stadium is 24 Willie Mays Plaza and McCovey Cove is named after Giants slugger Willie McCovey, and the team has erected statues of both Hall of Famers. The Giants hired Renel Brooks-Moon as the only woman and one of the few African American stadium announcers in professional sports. Renel also hosts the morning show on 98.1 KISS FM, (KISQ) which has a large African American audience that regularly hears about Renel’s adventures at the ballpark during baseball season. The Giants have Barry Bonds, one of the most well known African American sports figures. In addition to Bonds, three other African Americans are part of this year’s Giants starting lineup.

Another issue concerning the lack of African American interest in baseball is the scarcity of African Americans in the press box writing about baseball and talking about baseball on radio and TV. On Opening Day the press box is packed to the rafters, but there were only two or three African Americans in the press box, and on any given day there are no African American in the press box representing either the local media or out of town media outlets.

While Joe Morgan may be the African American broadcast face and voice of Major League Baseball, few other African Africans are behind the mic calling Major League Baseball games. Most teams have no African Americans on either their TV or radio broadcast crews and persuading someone like Dion Sanders or Reggie Jackson to work as a Major League Baseball color commentator could inspire African Americans who are now only interested in football and basketball to take in a game. Baseball also could use more African Americans in management and ownership. Several African Americans, including Jackson, have been rebuffed in efforts to buy Major League Baseball teams, and there are only a handful of Black Baseball General Managers. The eyes are now on Major League Baseball to see if Jackson or another African American will make a successful bid for the Chicago Cubs, a team that will be up for sale after this season.

Finally baseball needs to follow the example of football and basketball to insure that everyone who wants to watch a game on TV can see a game. In most cities baseball may be the least expensive ticket of any major sports league but in many cities it’s hard to find the home team on local TV. While the NFL, NBA and NCAA have moved certain games to cable and pay per view TV, football and basketball fans have no problem finding college and pro games during the weekend on free TV, particularly home games of locally based teams. Baseball fans in many markets have to search far and wide for games on free TV, since one third of the Major League Baseball teams only broadcast games on cable. Fox Sports has exclusive rights to nationally broadcast games but Fox only airs three of the 15 games played on Saturdays, and Fox broadcasts no games on Sundays during the regular season because of Fox’s commitment to NASCAR and NFL broadcasts.

Baseball will be in the spotlight in the Bay Area this year because Barry Bonds should break Henry Aaron’s all time home run record this season and the 2007 All Star Game will be held here in San Francisco. Let’s hope that Major League Baseball is successful in its efforts to encourage more African Americans to become involved in baseball on all levels.

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