Looking for Jackie Robinson: Deciphering baseball’s shocking lack of black players

Looking for Jackie Robinson: Deciphering baseball’s shocking lack of black players

Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, becoming the first black player in the majors. (AP/file)

There’s a striking – and very visible – omission on Chicago’s baseball fields: the city’s two major league teams have only one African-American player between them. There have been no black players on the Cubs’ major league roster since the team dealt Marlon Byrd to Boston, and Orlando Hudson is the White Sox only black player (and he just lost his starting job to newcomer Kevin Youkilis).

This issue always surfaces during the annual celebration of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier, but this year USA Today noted that the overall number of African-Americans in professional baseball is down to eight percent, the lowest percentage since the integration era.

There is no concrete theme or reason that easily explains why, but baseball and its players are very aware of this situation. Hudson, for example, found the new numbers a bit shocking. “Wow, what happened?” the Sox infielder asked in a recent conversation. “Numbers have been down for a while and it is bad when there is a number of talented African Americans that can play baseball.”

Why has baseball become so unattractive to black youth? Does it not speak to the challenges they face? Is the path to the major leagues too long – or too challenging? Is there too much focus on Latin American players? These and several other questions seem to reverberate around this issue.

Does the popularity of the NBA and the NFL overshadow baseball?

There is a plethora of American-Americans in basketball and football; in most cases they dominate those sports. When the NFL and the NBA have their annual drafts, it is a huge national television event, which makes it a draw for young athletes. There is no toiling in a minor league system. The players are inserted into the league and their exposure is vast. Of the difference between baseball and these other sports Cubs President Theo Epstein has said, “As far as perception goes, when kids watch football players and basketball players drafted, they are in the major leagues right away and watch them on television, while baseball is a slower process.” Baseball relies on its minor league system to prepare and groom its players before they rise to the big league club. In some cases, and especially for high school players, it can take as long as three or more years to develop the skills they need to play on a major league roster.

This year MLB made a big effort in displaying its draft: It was carried live on the internet, but still wasn’t on a major cable network like ESPN. If you sat through the first round you would have noticed there were several African American players taken. That intrigued Sox infielder Orlando Hudson. MLB is “making strides towards [attracting more black player], like after this year’s draft,” he said. “Thirteen [black players] were taken in the first rounds – eight in the first.” (That included the White Sox first two picks, Courtney Hawkins and Keon Barnum, both high school players.) But, Hudson asked, of those drafted, “How many of those guys will make it?”

Can we blame the lack/reduction of NCAA baseball scholarships?

Many college baseball players play without a full NCAA scholarship as football and baseball players do for their respective sports. That’s not lost on White Sox General Manager Ken Williams. “[Colleges] need to be held more accountable with regards to providing the urban kids with more opportunities for scholarships,” Williams said. “It’s not just the number [of scholarships] but how [they are] distributed; they need to be more accountable for some of their practices.”

Williams is often the go-to guy when it comes to this topic, as one of only two African-American General Managers in baseball (Michael Hill of Miami is the other). Williams strongly believes that college is the route of choice for the African American community, and not just to get to the major leagues. “Yes, I would love to see more [black players in baseball] – but going through college,” he said. “There are more statistics that are more important than the percentage of African Americans in baseball – the incarcerations rate, crime rate of the inner city, the dropout rate. These are more important to me, unless it is to get a foot into the college door.”

The main reason Williams selected Hawkins and Barnum straight out of high school was that both indicated they wanted to forgo college and there was no doubt both would be selected by another team if Williams passed them up.

Are the costs associated with travel baseball too much for poor families?

Former White Sox slugger Frank Thomas thinks the team should open a baseball academy on Chicago’s West Side. (AP/John Swart)
If you want to make players – and management – cringe a bit, bring up the subject of travel baseball. You’ll get some strong responses. The cost and time commitment for travel baseball is a big negative in the black community. Orlando Hudson played baseball because it was the sport his father loved – and because travel baseball didn’t exist. “If there was travel baseball when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have played,” Hudson said. “I would not have been able to afford it.”

From Theo Epstein’s perspective, youth baseball has gone “from the sandlot where anyone can play to almost a cottage industry” of travel teams. “Being comfortable playing a lot of games on the road… is not for everybody,” Epstein said. The Cubs president believes the key to keeping kids interested in baseball is starting them young. “It all starts in Little League,” he said. “Every major league team helps build ballparks and sponsors Little League, trying to make sure the game is played as much as possible in their home cities.”

During the past few years, several major league teams have built baseball academies in other countries. Williams noted that there are academies in L.A., Houston and New Orleans, which provide an educational component along with the baseball skills. But former White Sox slugger Frank Thomas would like to see Major League Baseball put a baseball academy in Chicago. “You go to the West Side, put an academy over there, get [kids] away from the gang bangers, get them out of the street, give them something to do – the talent is there,” Thomas said. “Major League Baseball should do it, since it is a multi-billion dollar industry.”

Signs of progress

In the past five years the White Sox have indeed developed a youth baseball program with education in mind. They sponsor the Amateur City Elite (ACE) program, which selects players ages 13 to 17 (they must try out) and assists Chicago Park District programs sponsored by Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in the Inner City (RBI) program for ages 13-18 and Inner City Youth Baseball (ICYB) for ages 8 to 12. The ACE program is free for players; they only need bring their personal equipment, gloves, bats and cleats. The White Sox provide the transportation, tournament fees and coaching.

These youth players learn the game while preparing for collegiate baseball. The objective is to earn a baseball scholarship, which opens the door to earning a degree; so far they’ve sent 50 players to college. Seven players, including two this year, have been drafted by the majors. Those two players are forgoing minor league baseball and will go to college. One will attendthe University Iowa on a full baseball scholarship and the other is headed to junior college.

These are small steps to be sure, but Frank Thomas sees them as positive signs of improvement. ”The bottom line, scouts are getting back in [the inner city] because so much [progress] has been made over the last five years,” he said. “Enough initiated programs have been started – like the RBI program – that has grown over the years.”

“There is always talent,” Thomas added. “Yes there are football and basketball players. But there are guys that can throw and run and hit a baseball.”

If America’s pastime wants to find the next Frank Thomas, Orlando Hudson, Billy Williams or Ernie Banks they’ll have to find a way to reach America’s black youth and encourage them to play a game that – at least for now – stands in the shadows of other sports.