The Shadow League has written many pieces on baseball and the sport’s relationship with the African-American community. The declining number of African-Americans in MLB and at the grassroots level of participation has been so alarming that over the past half-decade MLB has developed an entire structure and implemented major initiatives with a sole purpose of increasing diversity and participation in the sport at every level, for male and females.
FanGraphs resident Shakeia Taylor recently wrote a piece, Diversity In Baseball Begins In Little League. Taylor says cost is the major deterrent to Black kids playing baseball and the driving force behind the Black community's increasing disenchantment with the sport.
Taylor says, “According to a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, 9 million kids between the ages of seven and 17 played baseball in the United States in 2002, but by 2013, that figure had dropped by more than 41%. With participation on the decline, teams and leagues have been forced to either shut down or merge, further constricting access for poorer families and making the sport whiter and more affluent. Baseball is expensive, and that expense is having an adverse effect on the participation of Black and Latino Americans... Teams in economically disadvantaged areas are often forced to apply for grants and fundraise heavily in order to support kids who want to play.”
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Shefocused on the city of Chicagowhich has been a leading force in keeping the spirit of black baseball alive through its extensive and accomplished baseball league that makes it a community-enhancing priority to provide baseball opportunities for players 4-18 and 19-25 that would not be able to play without special accommodations.
Chicago Little League baseball’s dedication to sharing the game and the spirit of pioneer Jackie Robinson with inner-city kids paid off in 2014 when Jackie Robinson West Little League from Chicago made history by becoming the first all-black squad from an urban city to win the coveted Little League World Series.
The entire LLWS was a PR grand slam and a wonderful advancement in the perceptions concerning race and baseball and a revelation of its growing diversity at the grassroots levels.
At the time, Jackie Robinson West was a hidden hood jewel. A baseball haven -- operating on Chicago's crime-ridden South Side and it has a long-standing baseball tradition fueled by the community’s love for the sport. They advanced to the first round of the 1983 World Series, coached by the late Joseph Haley, and after a few near misses, they finally went back to the World Series and shocked the nation by bringing home the U.S. Title.
That was a watershed moment in Little League baseball and despite the aftermath of drama concerning addresses of the players which resulted in the team being stripped of the title, they had already provided a generation of African-Americans with inspiration. Proof that baseball is better when it's all-inclusive.
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In addition to JRW's dominant display of power, speed, pitching, and personality, 13-year-old pitcher Mo'ne Davis from Philly, captured the hearts of America by becoming the first young lady to toss a shutout in an LLWS game for her Taney Dragons squad.
Another great performance from this baseball player
The success didn’t immediately translate to more African-Americans playing baseball. Even if they wanted, too many underserved kids don’t have the resources to play baseball consistently.
Most kids from the inner-city don’t have the excess cash to chase a baseball dream, so for many of them, that possibility ends by junior high school. They turn to sports such as basketball and football which isn’t as high-priced to play.
Further, Taylor said, “The burden of that expense contributes to the ethnic and racial disparity we see in professional baseball today. The 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball reveals the game to be overwhelmingly white. Among the players present on last season’s Opening Day active rosters, 31.9% were Latino and just 7.7% were African-American or African-Canadian. And while those levels are consistent with 2016– and while the overall participation of non-white players is at an all-time high — they represent a marked drop from the peak of African-American participation in the sport in the mid-1970s, when approximately 27% of players were African-American.”
A TRIBUTE TO THE FUNK OF BLACK BASEBALL PLAYERS
Taylor also finds in her research that, “the disparity extends to those who watch the game. As of 2013, 83% of MLB television viewers were white; just 9% were Black. Of that same group, 50% were 50 years or older. Seeing oneself reflected in the game isn’t the only reason people engage with baseball, but it creates an important, lasting link to the sport. And with the current viewing audience increasingly composed of a white and aging demographic, it is vital to the future health of the sport that kids of color and girls develop an interest the game and are able to sustain that interest.”
Anyone who has participated in the growing business of youth travel baseball is familiar with the exorbitant costs. A basic travel team schedule from Spring-Fall can run a family between $2000-$4000 per kid. Travel and transportation and hotel costs also add up depending on how far the teams go to find elite competition. Bats are absurdly priced ($400-$500) and quality gloves aren’t cheap. With so many turf fields sprouting up at elaborate travel ball tournaments and stadiums, players need special turf shoes in addition to regular cleats.
I have coached travel ball for years and know the exorbitant costs all too well. When my son gets chosen for All-Star tournaments in locations such as ESPN Disney Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, the costs add up. We have to bring the entire family and are usually tournament contracted to stay at a sports-themed resort. You can wind up paying over $5000 or more once the trip is complete.
That’s where MLB comes in. Its RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program allows Little League aged kids to enjoy a baseball experience, free of charge. Founded in 1989 in South Central Los Angeles by former Major Leaguer John Young, the program has been a home run at the youth level.
"Sometimes it gets misrepresented," Del Matthews, MLB's Senior Director of Baseball Development tells The Shadow League, "Black kids are playing baseball all over the country. There's plenty of evidence of that but at the end of the day when you work with MLB you have an opportunity to have a larger impact."
Each August, Major League Baseball sponsors the RBI World Series. Winners of regional RBI tournaments meet for the chance to win championships in one of three divisions: the junior boys (13-15 year olds), senior boys (16-18 year olds) or girls softball (15-18 year olds).
Kids in the @Phillies RBI program had a great time receiving free instruction from MLB Alumni at our #LFYClinic in Philadelphia last Friday!
There’s also the next level of competition with Breakthrough Series events, Elite Invitational Development Series, Urban Youth Academies and Dream Series, which aims to prepare high school pitchers and catchers of color for the next level of competition and has exposed thousands of kids to the elite coaches, high level training and support needed to play baseball in high school, college and beyond.
The Dream series comes after MLB executives sought to popularize the game among African Americans. #BlackBallPlayers pic: Minor League Ball
Baseball’s lack of diversity is painfully evident at the position of pitchers and catchers. Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige are turning in their platinum-studded baseball graves right now.
Major-league rosters on Opening Day included just 13 African-American pitchers and one African-Canadian catcher, the Blue Jays’ Russell Martin.
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However, there is slight progress being made that shows how these grassroots programs are directly responsible for an increase in elite black baseball prospects.
“We do believe we are seeing a lot more productivity," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement after the 2017 Draft. "Prior to this year, about 20 percent of our first-rounders were African-American, and (our Youth) Academies have been built in communities largely African-American. Almost all of those kids had some touch with one of our Academy programs or with the Elite Development Invitational, and we believe that the bigger we make those programs, the more diversity we will attract to the game.”
Frank Thomas weighs in on the dwindling number of African American players in Major League Baseball.
Right now, the buzz is all about diversity and the slew of Black Knights who were drafted in the 2017 MLB draft. The progress is slow and the numbers still skew in the favor Black disenchantment with baseball but it is evident as three African-American ballers were chosen in the first 10 picks, including No. 2 overall pick Hunter Greene who is a two-way player.
There were seven African-American players participating in the 2017 MLB All-Star Game. While black players comprised just 7.73% of opening day rosters, African-American diamond miners comprised 10.9375 % of the All-Stars that participated in the 88th MLB Midsummer’s Classic.
There are other underlying factors contributing to the decline that occurs at the highest levels of the sport and trickles down as well such as the Steroids Era which tarnished MLB and also nearly killed “black baseball.”
The PED-enhanced homer-fest created a reliance on the long ball. Baseball’s desperation to get the money machine rolling again and win back fans after the strike-shortened ‘94 season, encouraged an atmosphere where steroids and other PEDs were rampant and eventually became part of baseball’s underground culture.
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Consequently, the strategy of most managers shifted from the traditional aspects of baseball such as stealing bases, hit-and- runs, bunts and featuring speed as a game-wrecking weapon. MLB lineups began to resemble NFL football teams and the muscle-bulging, plodding, juiced up power hitter with these celestial slugging percentages became the player of choice. The stolen base – once baseball’s greatest weapon –became almost irrelevant as Earl Weaver ‘80s powerball became the blueprint for most MLB teams.
The progress is slow, but what I do see in my extensive youth baseball travels are more fathers and sons in the park hitting and throwing the ball. I see more fathers and mothers seeking out baseball teams and training and therefore baseball training facilities throughout Long Island are thriving with customers. I see a ton of new travel teams popping up which are sponsored by companies such as DeMarini and Under Armour allow kids who may not be able to afford the costs of travel baseball a chance to travel and compete and develop a lasting love for the game. I also see more people of color; Asians, African-Americans and Pacific Asians playing the game around the country.
Dream Series participants reflect on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for equality for the African American community Check out http://MLB.com/video for more! About MLB.com: Former Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig announced on January 19, 2000, that the 30 Major League Club owners voted unanimously to centralize all of Baseball's Internet operations into an independent technology company.
The relationship between baseball and the African-American community runs deep as this country’s dark history of segregation. It’s a game that's historically intertwined with the Black experience in America and it's only a matter of time before the African-American community begins to value the sport again for its undeniable impact on our culture in America.