On any given game day, in any Major League Baseball stadium, and in any given seat, there may be a young African-American boy squinting at the field. He may be scanning the area, the on-deck circle, the bullpen. In desperation, he may start peering into the dugout. But he’s likely too sophisticated to be satisfied with various hues of beige and brown. For in today’s MLB — dominated as it is by Latino talent — the color of a player’s skin is no longer an accurate representation of his cultural and ethnicity. No, the boy wants to see the names on the backs of jerseys. Names that may sound like his own — derivatives of a shared culture, a history and of pain.
In three MLB stadiums — those of the St. Louis Cardinals, the San Francisco Giants and the Arizona Diamondbacks — that young man may very well go blind before he finds what he’s looking for. That’s because those three teams don’t have one African American player on their rosters. On opening day this year, according to MLB data, only 8.3 percent of major league baseball players considered themselves African American. In 1986, that number was roughly 19 percent, according to Society of American Baseball Research.
If our prototypical black boy was in U.S. Cellular Field, he would’ve had to look beyond the players on the field or in the starting lineup. Although data on the racial breakdown of each MLB team roster isn’t readily available, a rough scan of the 40-man roster on the White Sox’s website, and a subsequent Google search, reveals three black players — pitcher Donnie Veal, infielder Marcus Semien and outfielder Jared Mitchell.
The disappearance of professional African-American baseball players has been so pronounced that the league is investigating the matter. Last April, league Commissioner Bud Selig announced the creation of a 17-member committee to investigate its causes.
But if Mr. Selig wants to know why blacks aren’t proliferating his league now as in the past, he could start by looking at the grassroots level. He could look at the West Side, Austin and Garfield parks in particular, which has had a shared Little League for some time now.
A ground-level perspective
The decline of blacks in professional baseball, experts note, is tied to the game’s shrinking popularity among many of today’s black youth, who opt for basketball or football instead.
But for Austin’s Dwayne Truss, 50, and Frank Brim, 57, that wasn’t always the case.
“I grew up in the 1970s. Baseball was king all over America,” recalled Truss, who has coached youth baseball in Austin for many years. “It was more popular than football. We looked up to guys like Reggie Jackson and Carlos May and Dave Winfield; those guys.”
Growing up in West Garfield Park, Truss and his friends would find cracked wooden bats, which they’d doctor with tape, and old catcher’s masks and play in vacant lots. It was a safe haven away from the dividing lines of rival gangs.
“We used to have to walk straight down Van Buren to Garfield Park to and from practice and games, because that was the safest route,” Truss said.
It wasn’t until Truss began organized high school ball at Westinghouse High School that he regularly played on an actual baseball diamond. Brim’s love of the game was also nurtured growing up.
In 1968, about 20 years after Jackie Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Brim moved from the Robert Taylor Homes to Washington Heights, which was home to the venerable Jackie Robinson Little League. From there, Brim’s path led him all the way to undrafted free agency with MLB. Although he never played a regular season game in the majors, he was paid to play during one spring with the Pittsburgh Pirates and another with the White Sox.
Brim recalled that his brief flirtation with pro baseball taught him valuable lessons. He’d instill those in the West Side youth he’d eventually coach and mentor.
“I was under the impression that if you’re just faster and bigger and stronger than everybody else, they’ll keep you,” Brim said. “There were so many things I didn’t understand. Right now, I’m teaching our 7, 8, 9-year-olds the same things that I didn’t know when I was 21.
For instance, if you’re serious about playing pro athletics, teams will look at what it is you do during your time off, as well as what you do on the field,” Brim said. “I didn’t drink or smoke, but I definitely chased girls and hung out late partying. I didn’t have the necessary maturity.”
Those missing traits were what motivated Brim to found the West Garfield Park Little League in 2008. He says he wanted to give another generation of youth the elements for success that he may not have attained until later in life. Both he and Truss — along with Billy Avery, Charles Smart and Marvin Stokes operated the Austin Mandela Little League from 1990 until 2003 — believe in early player development. That, they insist, is key to addressing the lack of black baseball players, at the pro level and playing the game in general.
“If you don’t get them in the Little League, you won’t get them in the major league,” said Brim, whose organization registered 270 players this year, ages 5 to 18 and mostly black.
He and Truss both believe that the decline of baseball in urban America began with rise of one phenomenon: Michael Jordan.
The Jordan era and pro basketball’s meteoric ascent in popularity among black youth was undeniable. All of the enticements associated with big-time basketball and football — including college exposure, shoe contracts and the endorsement deals — propelled its popularity among black boys.
“Everybody wanted to be the next MJ,” Brim recalled, noting that the MLB couldn’t compete for that spotlight. Part of baseball’s lag, according to Truss, was an unwillingness to go the distance in appealing to its core fan base. “Even hockey,” he says, “does a better job at marketing to its niche base than baseball.”
Mastering the money game
Another part of the lag is structural, according to Brim.
“Look at the guy projected to be No. 1 in the NBA draft. I think he just started playing basketball about four years ago. That will never happen in baseball. You have to play it early. The kind of skills you need, you’re not going to just pick up in a short period of time.
“Our kids want instant gratification, they want to do well right away without the time it takes,” Brim said. “Baseball is a game of failure. The typical player strikes out nine, 10 times before he gets a hit. Kids today don’t have to live with that kind of failure because they’ve got all kinds of other things, like video games that reward them instantly. The hand-eye coordination, the practice that’s needed, the fact that we play in a non-controlled environment — these all make baseball harder to master.”
According to Truss, MLB’s “Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) Initiative” is laudable, but targets the wrong age group: adolescents and teenagers instead of “tee ballers.” In addition, MLB should be funding more inclusive programs, such as the Garfield Park and Jackson West County Little Leagues, Brim insists.
The lack of money is no small matter in communities like Garfield Park and Austin. The median household income for both areas is roughly $34,000, $10,000 less than the average citywide. A new glove can cost upwards of $150, Brim said. Bats can cost upwards of $400 apiece, to say nothing of cleats, insurance and team uniforms, he added. Registration for a traveling team, he noted, can cost about $3,000, while signing up to play in a program rich in history and resources can be about $300.
Though registering 270 participants this year, Brim’s target was 1,000 players. And to get those registrants, he had to cut the prices he typically charges in half; normally it’s $80 for youth ages 4 to 9, and $100 for 9 to 18 years old. Ultimately, however, the issue of costs becomes irrelevant if a kid can’t afford the registration fee, Brim noted. His response is to give them a uniform, anyway, and he never turns down a kid whose willing to play.
The economic hardships experienced by so many black, urban Little Leaguers only reinforces certain cultural disadvantages, Truss added.
“In Oak Park, they start games at like 5 p.m. because that’s when most people are getting off of work,” he said. “Those kids have fathers and mothers who have jobs and businesses to accommodate the sport. In a lot of single-parent homes, it’s difficult for mothers to get dinner ready and to go to practice. It’s less of an economic than a cultural issue. When you don’t understand something, you don’t find it all that exciting.”
Truss and Brim both would rather see baseball fully incorporated into the school system. That way, it stands a much greater chance of seeping into the culture. This was actually attempted in the past, but to no avail, Truss recalled.
The best, immediate measure that MLB can take, Truss insists, is to infuse urban school districts with the funding needed to implement baseball programs. In the meantime, however, both he and Brim have been seeking support in other places.
Brim has relied on corporate and individual donations to keep his program going. Recently, he was a guest on The Steve Harvey Show. He said the appearance exposed his mission to millions of people. Some of them, he said, may even be a donor in the likes of Theo Epstein of the Chicago Cubs, whose donation helped save his organization’s season last year. A lieutenant with the Chicago Fire Department, Brim spends the majority of his off-hours figuring out ways to make the Garfield Park Little League financially sustainable. To run a 3-year, top-notch program would cost around $100,000, Brim estimates.
And although his Austin Mandela Little League is no more, Truss plans on partnering with Pyramid Players Production (P3 for short) to launch a tee-ball team. He said he’s looking to establish a paid internship program so high school kids can serve as coaches.
“Baseball is the bait that we use to grab kids and connect with them, so they can see the love we have for them,” Brim said. “If they believe what I say about baseball, then they might believe what I say about staying off those corners.”
Michael Romain is founder and editor of TheVillageFreePress.org