Let's start with an email I received this morning from Kap Fulton:
"Who are Justin, Josh, Lance, Ryan, Dan, Grady, Chase, and Evan?
A. Roll call for a second grade class in at a suburban Ohio elementary school
B. The most popular boys names in Denver, CO
C. Characters from the new 90210
D. Bud Selig's attempt at diversity: one Canadian."
If you answered D, take a bow. Yes, Justin Morneau, (the Canadian), Josh Hamilton, Lance Berkman, Ryan Braun, Dan Uggla, Grady Sizemore, Chase Utley, and Evan Longoria were the contestants in this year's Home Run Derby on the eve of the 2008 All Star Game, and it was quite the Caucasian ovation (Although, as I've learned since posting this column, Grady Sizemore's father is African American, his mother of European descent.). Granted, the big time rainbow coalition of home run boppers like David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, and Ryan Howard declined to participate, but it was still bizarre and even a touch disturbing to see a home run derby that looked a lot like a contest out of 1946, before Jackie Robinson integrated the game. The vibe wasn't helped when one of the announcers celebrated Josh Hamilton's record setting derby barrage, by exclaiming, "This is a bad night to be an atheist!" (Please may God have better things to do than watch - and intervene with - the Home Run Derby.)
Yet an all-white derby complete with hallelujahs and hosannas might be appropriate for All-Star festivities drenched in nostalgia for its host site Yankee Stadium. The 85-year-old ballpark is of course known as "the house that Ruth built," a testimony to the dominance of Babe Ruth in the 1920s, when the game was segregated and Ruth never had to face great Negro League pitchers like Satchel Paige or Smokey Joe Williams. In the All-Star game itself, the only African American to suit up was Milton Bradley, a player excoriated four years back for saying, "White people never want to see race-with anything. But there's race involved in baseball. That's why there's less than 9 percent African-American representation in the game."
The numbers back up Bradley's frustration. In the 2008 Racial and Gender Report Card, Richard Lapchick, Nikki Bowey and Ray Mathew wrote, "The game has the lowest percentage (8.2) of African-Americans in the two decades that we have published the Report Card. That number is less than half what it was in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of [Jackie] Robinson's debut with the Dodgers, when African-Americans made up 17 percent of the players, and less than the percentage of blacks in the general population of the U.S. (12.3 percent)."
Ironically this is occurring while baseball has gone global, with 29% of all Major Leaguers born in Latin America, with impact players from Asia making their mark as well. The number of white players has remained remarkably constant with the numbers at 58-60%. (86% of college baseball players are white.)
The debate about why the number of African American players has plummeted has been explored aplenty. The predominant argument is that baseball has an "image problem" in black America. It has no cultural cache and therefore young athletic black men gravitate toward basketball and football. I think this gets the argument completely backward, (although it can't help baseball's image in the black community that Barry Bonds can't find a team while all manner of proven juicers grace major league rosters). To make this an argument about whether or not baseball is "cool" is like saying there aren't any prominent African American harpsichord players because the harpsichord just isn't funky fresh. While it's true that if you poll an inner city classroom, and ask how many young people want to be baseball players you may get the same number that want to play the harpsichord. But is this a question of what is "cool" or is this about actual access, choices, and opportunity? Baseball requires equipment, investment, and infrastructure. But baseball owners have chosen to make this investment beyond the border where players can be developed signed and discarded on the cheap. This game of baseball that was so closely associated with the black freedom struggle in the days of Jackie Robinson has been removed physically from our cities, and is now as culturally alien in many areas as the steeplechase. I recently spoke with sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards and he put it very sharply.
"Forty percent of baseball is foreign born, they've gone global, globalization in sports follows globalization in corporations with the same outcome. There are off-shoring the jobs... Blacks are going to be displaced. The reality is that because of deterioration of education in the community, because of the violence in the community, we're disqualifying, jailing and burying our potential boxers, wide receivers, and baseball players. When you see that happening, then you understand that the Black athlete is really just a canary in the mineshaft because what they're really telling us is something happening in the African-American community. They're merely a canary in the mine shaft saying we have serious problems of survival."
If baseball is sincere about seeing the game return to the cities and if they don't want home run derbies whiter than the Republican National Convention, they are going to need to do more than offer meager urban academy programs. Major League Baseball might have to use its political clout to make sure our cities aren't hollowed out husks. They might have to forgo public stadium funding for a different set of priorities that pours money in instead of vacuuming it out.
[Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome (Haymarket) and A People's History of Sports in the United States (The New Press), coming out this summer. Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.]
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