Baseball in Black America: What does the future hold?
As widely noted, the percentage of black ballplayers in Major League Baseball has been on a general decline for years. Is this going to change?
You need not look very hard to find someone noting/bemoaning/dimissing the declining numbers of African-American ballplayers at the professional level. Regardless of your opinion on the topic, the trend is undeniable: from a high of 27% in 1975, black players now make up around 8% of major-league rosters.
First, it should be noted that the decline in numbers of black players has roughly coincided with a sharp rise in the percentage of Hispanic players. These days, in fact, MLB rosters boast a Latino population of 27.3%, and fully 38.2% of baseball players at the highest level can be classified as "of color."
Inasmuch as anything can be a true meritocracy, the playing of professional sports comes pretty close (this, of course, isn't to imply that the same is true of coaching/managing or running a team, and certainly not owning one). So there's no reason to think major-league-worthy black players are being overlooked, especially not in any orchestrated fashion. There is, however, reason to think young African-Americans simply aren't playing baseball all that much. This, of course, is a foundational problem, and organized baseball, in order to grow its cultural prominence, should do a better job of appealing to the black population. Fortunately, that's starting to happen.
On this front, WBEZ's Cheryl Raye Stout has a new and interesting piece. Stout briefly explores the usual litany of reasons for the gradual weakening of baseball in the black community. Most of the causes will be familiar, and in truth it's probably a little of everything that's yielded the consequences we observe today.
But here's an interesting comment from White Sox GM Kenny Williams, who is one of two African-American "operators" (to invoke the old Bill Veeck term) in the game today:
“Yes, I would love to see more [black players in baseball] – but going through college,” Williams told Stout. “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.”
This is a sound observation by Williams, and, thankfully, MLB seems to agree that this is a worthwhile goal to pursue.
Back in early May, CBSSports.com first reported on a developing partnership between MLB and the NCAA could lead to significantly greater funding of baseball scholarships. Presently, NCAA schools provide for just 11.7 scholarships per team, and that's a figure that needs to be drastically increased if amateur baseball is going to make the inroads Williams recommends. Also pertinent is that MLB and the NCAA will collaborate on growing the game in the black community. In doing so, MLB is addressing the underlying causes most directly under its control, and that's a good thing.
Take these steps in tandem with the burgeoning RBI program and the declining popularity of football at the lower levels (mostly owing to safety concerns), and perhaps baseball is in for a steady and methodical renaissance within the African-American community. The chance for a college education without the physical toll of playing football? That's what Williams wants, and that seems to be what MLB and the NCAA are working toward.
Anything that makes baseball more competitive at the lower levels eventually trickles up to the highest level. That's a good thing for fans. And if, at the same time, baseball also restores its once-considerable presence within Black America, then all the better.
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