Sunday, April 22, 2012

Number of African American Baseball Players Dips Again

Number of African-American baseball players dips again

By Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY

ST. LOUIS – Major League Baseball, celebrating Jackie Robinson Day on Sunday, has the lowest percentage of African-American players since the earliest days of the sport's integration, according to research conducted by USA TODAY Sports.

The African-American population in baseball this season has plummeted to 8.05%, less than half the 17.25% in 1959 when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate their roster, 12 years after Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

It's a dramatic decline from 1975, when 27% of rosters were African-American. In 1995, the percentage was 19%.

"Baseball likes to say things are getting better," says former 20-game winner and front office executive Dave Stewart, now a player agent. "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."

Ten teams opened the year with no more than one African American on their roster, and 25% of African Americans in the game are clustered on three teams — the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Angels and Los Angeles Dodgers.

A dearth of collegiate scholarships, increasing cost of funding teams in inner cities and, some say, a lack of opportunities in major league front offices all have contributed to the paucity of African-American players.

The void has been filled beyond the USA's borders. Foreign-born players in 2012 made up 28.4% of opening-day rosters.

While the game's overall diversity has increased, the decrease in African-American players can seem stark in a sport where they once were its marquee performers. From 1990 to 1995, nine of the 12 American and National League MVP winners were African American.

In 2012, Chicago Cubs center fielder Marlon Byrd is the lone African-American major leaguer in the city of Chicago.

"I don't even know what to say," said Byrd, who was also the only African American on the field Sunday at Busch Stadium in St. Louis during the 65th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier. "I remember when I came up with the (Philadelphia) Phillies in 2002, we had six (African-American) 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."

The St. Louis Cardinals, who once had some of the game's top African-American stars, such as Hall of Famers Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith, haven't had an African American on their opening-day roster since infielder Joe Thurston in 2009.

"It's concerning," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said. "I think the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) is helpful and growing. We're all about talent. It doesn't matter if you're white, black, brown or green."

Major League Baseball officials, aware of the dwindling numbers as many of the USA's top athletes apparently opt for other sports, said it is trying to reverse the trend with their urban academies and annual Civil Rights exhibition game.

"We're trying to get better. It won't happen overnight," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "And we're very comfortable saying it will be better. We are doing great work with our baseball academies and working in the inner cities. It's getting better."

Robinson would want more

While baseball has the lowest percentage of African-American players since Dwight Eisenhower was president, Major League Baseball's hiring practices are lauded by Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. MLB received an "A" for race on Lapchick's Racial and Gender Report Card last year.

"I remember Jackie saying 10 days before he passed (in 1972)," Selig said, "he wouldn't be satisfied until we had a black manager and general manager. If he went through all of our front offices today in baseball, he'd be proud."

Still, the Chicago White Sox's Kenny Williams and the Miami Marlins' Michael Hill are the lone African-American general managers, and the Cincinnati Reds' Dusty Baker and the Texas Rangers' Ron Washington are the only African-American managers. There hasn't been an African American hired as manager since Jerry Manuel was promoted in 2008 by the New York Mets, and there have been five African-American general managers in baseball history.

"I think Jackie would be very disappointed," said Ron Rabinovitz, whose friendship with Robinson was the subject of an MLB Network documentary. "He would want more than this."

Stewart, who gave up pursuing a general manager's job when clubs repeatedly bypassed him, believes there never will be improvement on the field unless MLB's hiring practices change.

"Bud keeps making the comment that things will get better," Stewart said. " But Bud is not in position to make it happen. Bud works for the owners. He can't make them do something they don't want to do.

"And right now, they don't want to hire blacks as decision-makers. Certainly not GMs. You have a lot of young executives who can do the job if they have the opportunity. But all they get is an interview for window dressing."

Stewart says MLB should be embarrassed by its recent run of managerial hires. He wonders why white managers can be continually recycled, with several recently out of the game, and still be hired ahead of any African-American candidates.

"What did Jerry Manuel do to not get another opportunity to manage?" Stewart said of the former Mets manager. "He didn't get one interview after he was hired from the Mets. Not one. He had to go to the MLB Network just to stay around the game.

"Look around. (Buck) Showalter was out of the game. Bobby Valentine was out of the game. Jim Leyland. Davey Johnson. They got jobs just like that. It's a joke, man."

African Americans within the game have taken a grassroots approach to reversing the trend.

Still, despite the obstacles, there are African-American players and executives trying to make a difference. LaTroy Hawkins, one of 11 African-American pitchers in the major leagues, spoke Sunday in New York at baseball clinics with Sharon Robinson, daughter of Jackie Robinson. Tyrone Brooks, the Pittsburgh Pirates' assistant general manager, got started in Hank Aaron's internship program with the Atlanta Braves and formed the Baseball Industry Network to help those trying to get jobs in the game.

Oakland Athletics scouting director Billy Owens and Los Angeles Dodgers assistant GM DeJon Watson constantly try to persuade prep athletes to play baseball.

"What I want to do is hopefully give these people an opportunity that they didn't quite know how to go about it," Brooks said. "If it wasn't for the people that started that internship program with the Braves, who knows if I would have had a chance to work in this game."

Making baseball cool

Baseball also constantly fights the stigma of being a dull sport. Even former American League MVP Ken Griffey Jr.'s son Trey abandoned baseball to accept a football scholarship at the University of Arizona, and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin's son Shane is playing basketball at Miami.

The lack of African-American players also affects diversity in the stands. Just 9% of fans who attended an MLB game last season were African American, according to a recent Scarborough Marketing Research study.

"It's what you grow up around," Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen says. "For the African-American community, it's more basketball, it's more football. Just the hype of it. It's what people like. Baseball is more of a laid-back sport. There's not a lot going on.

"Growing up, I really loved baseball, and it's something I flourished at as a child. But look at the world now. Technology is running the world. There are so many different things people can do, so it kind of turns them away from baseball."

Said Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp: "We're definitely aware what's going on in MLB as far as African Americans. I'm trying to make baseball cool for African Americans and let African-American kids know that baseball can give you the same opportunities as football, basketball or any of the other sports. You get paid just as much, get to drive those nice cars and do all of that fun stuff that all the other NBA guys get to do. We're just a little bit more low key."

It's tough scouts and general managers say, since colleges also are attracting few African-American athletes. Universities offer 11.7 scholarships in baseball, vs. 85 in football.

"The lack of full scholarships in NCAA baseball sways kids to other sports," Oakland Athletics scouting director Billy Owens says. "Plus there are more options athletically and recreationally. Back in the '40s and '50s, baseball was unequivocally the No. 1 sport in America. Now it's extremely popular but not a monopoly. We should embrace our past, promote the present and continue to strive and make things better for everyone."

Williams says perhaps there's too much emphasis on the lack of African Americans in baseball. The White Sox GM is more intrigued with the additional benefits of MLB's efforts.

"I'm happy with MLB's efforts to bring more young men to the game, but not why you think," he says. "It's the educational and motivational part of the programs that hopefully lead to college opportunities that most impress me."

Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz in San Francisco

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