Cy Young award winner CC Sabathia’s pitching has his New York Yankees in first place. At $161 million, his contract with the Yankees is the highest for a pitcher in the history of baseball. But even with all his on the field success, he is not happy. He’s disturbed by the dearth of African-American players in Major League Baseball – so much so that earlier this spring, he declared it a “crisis”. He is one of only two African-American starting pitchers in the major leagues.
This is a crisis mainly for the African-American community. Major League Baseball is made up of 40 percent minority players according to Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations and the league’s highest-ranking African-American. “The high point of African-American participation in baseball was in the mid 70’s we were about 28 percent at that time. The low point was actually last year we were down to 8 percent,” Soloman said.
While African-American participation in MLB is up to 10 percent this year, it is still not enough for many, including Sabathia, and Solomon knows he has a difficult challenge facing him. He has to compete with sports like basketball which Solomon says, “is particularly suited to urban America, very small space needed, no maintenance cost needed to speak of, and then of course you had Michael Jordan running around. He became one of the most popular athletes on the face of the earth.”
Solomon also ties the low recruitment numbers to a bigger trend in African-American communities, “Baseball is a generational sport passed down from generation to generation, usually by a male member of the family, unfortunately in a lot of African-American households, urban American especially, the male member is not there. Therefore, there’s no one to teach them the sport. It’s a mother who runs the family and the mother doesn’t know baseball. More than likely, that kid will not experience the sport,” Solomon said.
Some kids say the sport is just too slow for them. Eleven-year-old Darryl Galliard plays basketball at Harlem’s Rucker Park, a basketball court that attracts celebrities and had a video game made in its honor. He said baseball is boring to him and he doesn’t participate in the sport or watch it on TV. The basketball court had dozens of people playing, while down the street the baseball diamond was deserted.
Sabathia feels if more scholarships were given to baseball players, then more black youth would participate. “A guy like myself growing up, I couldn’t play baseball at Cal (Tech) or Stanford because my mom wouldn’t have been able to pay for me to go,” Sabathia said. “It’s easy to get a full ride from basketball or football, and I think that has a lot to do with it.”
The numbers support Sabathia’s claim. Division I football teams can each offer 85 scholarships while college baseball can only offer about 12.
Sabathia is working to get kids involved in the sport and give back through a several different initiatives. He started PITCCH program, which helps kids in the inner cities with building self-esteem through sports and activities. He also visits Boys and Girls Clubs, most frequently one in Tampa Bay with Carl Crawford
Major League Baseball also has programs set up to get more African-American involved in the sport. “Urban Youth Academy”, “Wanna Play” and “RBI presented by KPMG”, are programs that are geared to make sure baseball has more young black players.
“We decided to get involved in ‘91 and we made it a national program. RBI serves about now 200 cities worldwide, has served approximately 120,000 kids on an annual basis, and now in its 20 years of existence a million kids participated in RBI. We have 180 kids that have been drafted and a lot of the stars you see today are RBI graduates: Jimmy Rollins, Carl Crawford, Coco Crisp all played RBI,” Solomon said.
Sabathia credits baseball with saving his life: “It took me off the streets. I grew up in the Boys and Girls Club … We were in there playing basketball. I shot hoops for a little bit, but I would always be around the back throwing a ball against the wall or playing strikeout with my boys, so it really just kept me focused.”
“The MLB will never be at 28% again,” Solomon said. ”[But] we should strive to make sure that every kid in urban America – as well as across the world – that wants to play baseball is afforded that opportunity.”
Baseball needs more black stars
Hank Aaron urges MLB to increase black participation