When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, the league was flooded with African-American players exhibiting Hall of Fame talent.
Ernie Banks, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron rode the wave of equality to legendary baseball careers, inspiring generations of children along the way. This wave flowed through to the 1990s, as successful athletes such as Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn and Barry Bonds chose baseball as their sport. But, in the last three decades, the deluge of African-American players into the major leagues has gone from a flood to a trickle. From the height -- in the mid 1970s, when African-American Major League Baseball players comprised at approximately 27 percent, the numbers have dwindled down to a paltry 8.5 percent.
Why is the number of Major League African American players falling so drastically? There are multiple reasons:
Cost of playing baseball. The over-riding reason is its cost. Most urban areas have limited resources. It is less expensive to have a black top with a basketball hoop than a landscaped baseball diamond, which needs significant green space and constant maintenance. Additionally, the equipment requirements of baseball also create a hurdle since every player needs to have a glove and cleats. That is costly compared to basketball, where all one needs is one ball and a pair of sneakers (that can also be worn to school).
Increasing competition with football and basketball. Success in baseball is less determined by athleticism then it is in football and basketball. You can take a great athlete and introduce him to football, basketball and baseball in his late teens. History has shown, that he has a much better chance of succeeding in football and basketball than in baseball. The reason is because baseball is dependent upon a collection of skills which are usually learned early on in life, where football and basketball success is more based on athleticism. It takes more than just being an athlete to become a professional baseball player. Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player, and a tremendous athlete, but he could not hit a curveball, and could never advance past Double A when he tried his hand at professional baseball. Therefore, in many cases, young minority athletes found themselves migrating to sports such as football and basketball in which athleticism flourishes.
Lack of mentor. Baseball is a collection of skills, and is usually taught early in life from a male member of the family. In the urban African American society, a father figure might not always be present.
MLB's focus on Latin American recruiting. In addition to the social and economic issues at home, the reduction of African Americans in Major League Baseball can also be attributed, at the corporate level, to their internal development decisions. The Major League Baseball Clubs built academies in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other Latin American countries to train recruits. Those players do not have to go through the MLB draft, thus ultimately saving the teams' money on the player's initial contract and development. This has also diminished the focus on the development of African-American players nationally.
Lack of NCAA Scholarship opportunities. Colleges and universities definitely do not help develop urban African-American baseball talent, as they are more concerned with revenue-earning sports like football and basketball. A Division 1 baseball program has only 11.7 scholarships available, and rarely provides a baseball student-athlete a full scholarship. In contrast, a Division 1 football program has 85 scholarship opportunities, and most players are granted them in full.
And the national marketing of the game of baseball. Also, baseball has always been very traditional in its marketing. It has not addressed the "cool factor," which other sports do. Baseball has been marketed as a traditionalist sport, and is not holding the interest of most African Americans. Other sports capitalize by development marketing that connects with their emotion and energies. The slower play -- one of no time clock -- versus dynamic fast transitions in basketball or gladiator-type hard hits in football, create an uphill battle. Another is the fact that basketball and football generate excitement through individual players. As a social society that celebrates glamor and glitz, more enthusiasm is derived from an amazing basketball player's new sneakers than any small tweaks in the game of baseball. Since the values of the African Americans are not being considered in baseball's marketing initiatives, interest is lost. When you do not inspire fans, you ultimately do not get the players.
What has been done, and are we attempting to create a change?
In 2006, I established the Urban Youth Academy (UYA) in Compton, CA; and later in Houston, TX; New Orleans; LA; and San Juan, PR. These Academies tackle the issues affecting the lack of African-American baseball players head on. UYA addresses the need for top instruction, world-class facilities and equipment, providing opportunity for prospective minority players in urban areas.
Seventy-five UYA boys have been drafted and six have gone on to play at the major league level. More than 200 boys and girls have earned NCAA scholarships for baseball and softball. And that's just since 2006.
It should be noted that the UYA provides a three-prong curriculum. This includes baseball instruction, year-round vocational programs (like groundskeeping, umpiring, scorekeeping, general manager programs and broadcasting), and educational tutoring. The goal for these programs is to provide girls and boys with the opportunity to learn marketable skills while keeping them safe between the critical hours of 3-7 p. m. daily. All this is provided, while giving them the best opportunity to obtain a post-secondary education.
If Major League Baseball continues to build additional academies throughout urban America, it is my belief that the downward trend can not only be stopped, but the percentage of African Americans playing baseball will increase back into the double-digit levels.