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‘That was our sport’: How baseball needs to find a way to reconnect with Black players
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AP

‘That was our sport’: How baseball needs to find a way to reconnect with Black players

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Tony Kemp of the Oakland Athletics reacts after hitting an RBI double before advancing to third base on a fielding error in the bottom of the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels at RingCentral Coliseum on Monday, June 14, 2021 in Oakland, California.

Tony Kemp (5) of the Oakland Athletics reacts after hitting an RBI double before advancing to third base on a fielding error in the bottom of the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels at RingCentral Coliseum on Monday, June 14, 2021 in Oakland, California. (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images/TNS)

Professional baseball is changing. The now-regular defensive shifts driven by data, the focus on home runs, spin rates from pitchers and hitters’ exit velocity have altered the way the game is played, managed and consumed.

But baseball has changed in a different way. Watch any major league game and you will notice the absence of U.S. Black players. Lamonte Wade Jr. is the only Black American (Johnny Cueto is Domincan; Chadwick Trump is from Aruba) playing for the San Francisco Giants. Tony Kemp is the only Black player for the Oakland A’s.

The decline of African Americans in baseball is an ongoing issue. Just 7% of the players on opening day rosters in Major League Baseball this season were African American, down from a high of 18.7% in 1981, according to the Society of American Baseball Research. Black people currently make up 13.4% of the population, according to U.S. Census Bureau stats.

“Everybody has written about it, but they haven’t done a damn thing about it,” Astros manager and Sacramento native Dusty Baker said in a phone interview with The Bee.

The number of African Americans in baseball has decreased steadily since the mid-1990s, a cause of concern for America’s pastime. The ratio of Black players in the majors now mirrors the rate from the late 1950s, a decade after Jackie Robinson became the first Black player in the big leagues and just a few years after the Brown v. Board of Education case resulted in the 1954 Supreme Court ruling that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Baker had idols — Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Tommy Davis and Hank Aaron — who tower over today’s stars.

“It’s not even close,” Baker said.

CHANGES IN THE PLAYING FIELD

Baker said some of the reasons for the change lie in money and length of careers.

“A lot of the guys chose baseball back then because none of them are really paying unless you’re a super super star.” he continued, “But at least you had longevity to make a living for a long time. Basketball wasn’t paying like it is now. Football wasn’t paying. And how long was the life expectancy of a football player? Around four years? The life expectancy of a baseball player ... if you were a decent player, it was probably 10 years. So you take 10 years times X amount of dollars and you take four years of basketball, I mean, there’s a lot of competition in basketball, and they don’t have nearly as many players on the team.”

Now, youth baseball has become a sport of affluence. The best players play on traveling teams year-round, not just during high school seasons, and the costs can be exorbitant. From gloves, bats, cleats, coaches, time in batting cages, private coaches, tournament fees and travel costs, many kids in underserved communities simply don’t have the resources to play. Thus, it’s harder to get exposure to scouts and, ultimately, drafted by a major league team.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the economics and the costs of playing baseball,” said Baker, “and the fact that everyone’s going to the showcases and going to the big tryouts that the parents have to fly all over the country for to get their kids noticed. Also, baseball’s using fewer scouts, using a lot of video to scout. They’re not using as many eyes. So therefore they’re definitely not going in the inner cities where you’ll find a lot of kids.”

Kemp plays in one of baseball’s most culturally rich markets. He said he’s been one of the only Black players on the majority of teams he’s played on dating back to his youth in Franklin, Tenn.

“I just feel like it’s a lot to do with being able to play a random pickup game when you’re younger,” Kemp said in a phone interview. “Playing a random pickup game in baseball is not really the cool thing. You could pick up basketball shoes, you could pickup football cleats and go play a pickup game, but you can’t really do that with a baseball game.”

He said he has dealt with being called the N-word and an “Oreo,” a racist term for calling a Black person white on the inside. He said he has also had his car searched by police after rolling through a stop sign roughly a football field away from his house.

“I think it’s good that the stories of what I went through and what people said to me are getting out there,” Kemp said. “So now I can tell my younger cousins and nephews, ‘Hey, if people say this, it’s not necessarily a compliment. You need to stand up for yourself and pretty much just let them know that’s not cool or I’m not going to tolerate that.’ Because at the end of the day, those words can be hurtful and you don’t really take a step back and really realize what’s really going on at the time.”

And young Black players who do manage to thread their way through the youth baseball system and get drafted don’t always get fast-tracked toward a lucrative playing career.

“In basketball or football, you go right to the money,” Kemp said. “In baseball, you get a signing bonus but you have to work your way in the minor leagues until you can actually start making some money in the big leagues.”

Minor league players hardly make livable salaries until they get to Triple-A. They live nomadic lives on long bus trips while staying in motels. Some players spend their late teens and 20s making the rounds in the minors without getting a shot in the Major Leagues, leaving them with little life or work experience after joining the professional ranks straight out of high school.

But basketball players can go oversees and get six-figure salaries playing in Europe or Asia even if they aren’t good enough for the NBA. Football players who get drafted often get multiple years of six- or seven-figure wages after full scholarships in college. Many minor league baseball players spend the peak of their lives living in apartments in Nowhere, USA.

PAY MORE, GET MORE

Is there a way to improve the not-so-exciting lifestyle of being in minor league baseball? Baker has a unique perspective and a simple answer.

Baker played his high school ball in Fair Oaks and Citrus Heights near Sacramento before attending American River College. He played in the majors for 19 years, starting as a 19-year-old in 1968. He’s currently in his 24th season as a manager, beginning with the Giants from 1993 to 2002, followed by stints with the Cubs, Reds and Nationals before his current job in Houston.

His solution: “They would have to pay more,” he said.

Baker mentioned his son, Darren. He plays baseball at UC Berkeley and is one of the few Black players on the field during any given game. College baseball programs often lack the resources that bigger revenue-driving sports such as basketball and football have, which means less money for full scholarships.

Baker noted some players get recruited by colleges and still have to take out loans for tuition.

“To go to college, you’re doing good if you get a 30, 40 or 50% scholarship. And that still leaves $25,000 or $30,000 for some guys to still pay,” he said. “And plus, you don’t have to go to the minor leagues in football or basketball.”

Former big league manager, Jerry Manuel, another Sacramento-area native, has taken up the cause of connecting Black athletes to baseball through the Alpha Charter School in Elverta.

“My generation failed to bring (African American) kids into the game, “ Manuel told The Bee’s Marcos Bretón.

Manuel has taken up coaching youth in an effort to bring interest back into the game and serve as a mentor to kids growing up in the same area he did.

“I want the the schools in the south and in other places to you use our model to bring African American kids back into the game,” Manuel said. “And if I can change one life, I’ll be happy.”

THE RISE OF OTHER SPORTS

Another significant factor in the decline of African Americans in baseball is the cultural disconnect.

Baseball in the 1800s and early 1900s was embraced as predominately Black leagues formed after the Civil War while segregation was rampant. The Negro League thrived until Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 in Major League Baseball, which had the unintended consequence of causing the Negro League to disband when Black players began making the same switch.

From then on, there was a slow drip from what baseball was before Robinson to what it is now: a predominantly white sport. The decline since the ’90s coincided with another monumental alignment in sports and Black culture.

“(Michael) Jordan changed all that,” said Marcus Thompson, an Athletic columnist raised in Oakland.

Thompson argued the rise of hip-hop into mainstream pop culture, and baseball’s institutional rejection of it, have played a significant role in the declining interest from the African American community and those who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s during hip-hop’s ascent.

“Here comes NBA essentially adopting hip-hop, right?,” he said. “And swag and cool, and you got this guy named Jordan who’s not really even hip hop, but he’s got all the schtick. It’s just more attractive. I remember Ken Griffey Jr. was attractive that way. And even that was kind of derided a bit. But guys like Deion Sanders, they weren’t really welcomed in baseball.

“There’s an element of baseball, you come here, you got to be like this, and people who are disenfranchised and kind of got to create their own culture, it’s hard to talk to them when you’re trying to tell them to assimilate. They kind of do their own thing. Especially once hip-hop took off, that was it.”

Over the last 40 years, basketball, hip-hop and sneaker culture all connected in a way not found in baseball. Griffey is the only player to have a sneaker widely adopted in the mainstream while sneaker conglomerates put out sought-after basketball footwear every year.

Jordan’s shoes have been the most culturally influential in the world. Nothing associated with baseball can hold a candle to that. Shoe lines from the NBA’s LeBron James and Stephen Curry are global.

“I feel like Jordan brought hip-hop to basketball, and that’s why it was such a marriage,” Thompson said. “He’s getting fined for wearing black socks, which is like the rebellious part of hip hop. The baggy shorts. You could look at Jordan and say, ‘that’s kind of me.’ The gold chain. Baseball isn’t doing any of that stuff.”

Baseball players rebelling the way Jordan did is often rebuked by the baseball establishment. The “unwritten rules” of the game don’t easily allow for players’ personalities to come through as they might on a basketball court. Any time a player flips a bat or shows emotion, it’s often followed by controversy and calls for players to keep their heads down.

WHAT MLB IS DOING, WHAT CAN BE DONE

Major League Baseball, however, is making an effort to reconnect with the African American community. The Players Alliance, driven by former players such as Curtis Granderson, C.C. Sabathia and a host of others, aims to construct leagues, donate equipment and recreate interest in baseball for Black youth through a series of initiatives.

What’s unclear, however, is how successful the program will be.

Still, a case could be made for baseball becoming more widely accepted by the Black community if significant changes are made — perhaps by showing more of an appreciation for what the sport was like before Robinson broke the color barrier in the first place.

“I think baseball could definitely be embraced. And I’m not even starting with the bat flipping and all that stuff,” Thompson said. “I’m starting with, they got to do a better job of telling Black people that Black people play baseball. We don’t even know that this was a Black man’s game. This was it. We weren’t allowed to play basketball. Football wasn’t letting us in, but we were playing baseball. They don’t make that point clear at all. That was our sport, man, and we don’t know. I didn’t know that until I got older.”

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