This past Sunday, Major League Baseball celebrated the 65th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier. Robinson’s entry and subsequent Hall-of-Fame career opened the door for scores of legendary African-American baseball stars — but in the last 30 years, the percentage of black players in the league has plummeted.
A recent USA Today study found that just 8.05 percent of MLB players are black. It is a stark contrast to the nearly 20 percent during the 1980s and 90s, when Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tony Gwynn, Frank Thomas, and Dwight Gooden were some of the sport’s biggest stars.
It is less than half of the 17.25 percent from 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate. A far cry from the peak of 27 percent in 1975, when Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Lou Brock, Frank Robinson, and Willie Stargell were household names.
“Baseball likes to say things are getting better,” former MLB pitcher and executive Dave Stewart told USA Today. Stewart, who won 168 games in 16 Major League seasons, including four consecutive 20-win seasons in Oakland from 1987 to 1990, is currently an agent representing numerous MLB players, including Los Angeles Dodgers star Matt Kemp.
“It’s not getting better. It’s only getting worse. We’ve been in a downward spiral for a long time, and the numbers keep declining.”
Of the 30 MLB teams, 10 of them began the season with no more than one African-American player on the roster. Furthermore, 25 percent of the black players in Major League Baseball play for just three teams: the Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Los Angeles Angels. Those teams feature All-Stars Kemp, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, C.C. Sabathia, and Torii Hunter.
“I don’t even know what to say,” Chicago Cubs centerfielder Marlon Byrd told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale.
Byrd is the only black player on either of Chicago’s two teams. “I remember when I came up with the Phillies in 2002, we had six black players. I thought that was the norm.
“Now, you look around and don’t see anyone. Will it change? I don’t know. I’m hoping it’s a different story four or five years from now.”
Today’s most prominent black players include Granderson, Sabathia, Jeter, Kemp, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Justin Upton, and Prince Fielder. Howard and Fielder are two of MLB’s highest-paid players, but even that has not stoked much interest in the sport.
“At one point in time, baseball was our sport,” said Bob Kendrick, the President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. “Seeing these numbers dwindling in Major League Baseball is very disconcerting.”
Part of the decline is attributed to the lack of resources in many urban areas. Baseball, a sport that once had Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders splitting time between it and the NFL, has also become less desirable to black youth with the increased popularity of football and basketball.
The Negro Leagues Museum has worked with MLB in recent years, with the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, along with the annual Negro League tribute games held yearly in Detroit and Kansas City.
“What you saw happen right around the end of the 1970s is that you started seeing where baseball teams started to move to the suburbs and away from the African-American communities,” Kendrick said. “That certainly played a part in the disconnect between baseball and the black community.
”(Baseball) went from being everybody’s sport. It didn’t matter what sport you played, everybody played baseball back in the day. During the era of the Negro Leagues, it was the only sport (blacks) could play and get paid for. All the great athletes gravitated to the game of baseball. Those dynamics changed.”
Kendrick also noted the decline of the infrastructure in many inner cities, such as churches and school leagues, has played a major role in the loss of interest in baseball. The cost of the game was another issue, as equipment such as bats, gloves, balls, catcher’s equipment, and bases are often too much of a cost to bear when sports such as basketball are much cheaper and football is in much higher demand.
“The sport has to become important to the African-American community again,” Kendrick said. “When it does, you’ll start to see parents steering their kids to play baseball.
“The days of sandlot baseball are over. If it’s not organized, kids are not playing it. We’re talking about a sport that was once a blue collar sport that has now become almost a country club sport (in the United States).”
In spite of the stiff decline in African-American participation, Major League Baseball has managed to become the one of the most multi-cultural American sports. Foreign-born players, a large number of them of Latin decent, made up 28 percent of Opening Day rosters this year. Many of MLB’s biggest names are Latino, including Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Jose Bautista, Alex Rodriguez, and Robinson Cano.
“Baseball is still the sport in most Latin American countries,” Kendrick said. ”(MLB) has invested a great deal in developing talent in those Latin American countries and the Latin American baseball stars do a wonderful job of going back home and promoting the sport. I think that’s why we’re seeing such a significant growth.”
The Latino presence in baseball has skyrocketed on all levels. Where Latin players made up just 13 percent of the majors in 1990, that number has since more than doubled, with 10 percent of all current MLB players being from the Dominican Republic.
Controversial Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, then of the Chicago White Sox, jokingly said in 2010 that within 10 years “American people are going to need a visa to play this game because we’re going to take over.” Guillen, who is from Venezuela, also added that in his home country baseball is all they have, while Americans have numerous options in terms of sports.
“Here you can play basketball, you can be another athlete, you can do so many things when you have the opportunity,” Guillen said to the Orange County Register in March 2010. “And that’s why there’s not many (African-American) players out there.”
Kendrick added that the style of play by Latino players is reminiscent of Negro League players. Numerous Latino players, many of them from Mexico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, were also barred from Major League Baseball due to segregation and would often partner Negro League teams.
“At one point in time there was a great brotherhood between the Latin America and the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said. “The athletes from the Negro Leagues would go to those countries and were treated like heroes. What I find so intriguing is that those Latin athletes have a style of play that is similar to what the Negro Leagues taught their ancestors.”
Baseball’s upper ranks have continued to very slowly open for blacks and Latinos. Currently, two teams — the White Sox and Marlins — have black general managers, and there have only been five in MLB history. There are just three Latino managers and only two African-American managers: Texas’ Ron Washington and Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker. The last black manager hired in MLB was Jerry Manuel in 2008 with the New York Mets.
Even with the Dodgers being sold to a group fronted by basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson on March 27, baseball still has a lot of work to do in terms of bringing more African-Americans into the game. Kendrick said that the Negro League Museum continues to work with MLB in its effort to bring more blacks back to baseball, and it will be on full display when Kansas City hosts the MLB All Star Game in July.
”(African-Americans) have a rich history and a rich tradition in baseball and we don’t want to lose that,” Kendrick said. “This problem didn’t happen overnight and the solutions won’t come overnight. We have to be committed for the long haul if we want to objectively address this issue of the lack of participation.
“We haven’t given up. We believe that we can get kids to fall in love with the sport the way that I did when I was a kid, if we just provide them with an opportunity to play.”
Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith