By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, April 14, 2007
The baseball fields in black neighborhoods crackled when I was a kid, not only in Chicago, where I grew up, but also in Detroit and Cleveland and Compton, where we would visit relatives. On driving trips, we'd take along a bat and a glove because chances were we would find a field and play baseball. The talk in the barber shop wasn't of Wilt and Russell nearly as much as it was of Aaron and Mays. The great baseball players weren't close to being rich, not in the 1960s and '70s, and the black ones lived in black neighborhoods in segregated times, sometimes renting a room from a neighbor with a big house, and they would play catch with kids on off-days.
It doesn't seem like it's been 35 years since baseball was so important to black America; it seems like another century, like the story should be illustrated in black-and-white clips. The 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson integrating baseball is tomorrow, and African American participation in what was once American's pastime has dropped to a stunning low. Only 8 percent of Major League Baseball players are African American. Historically black colleges and universities field teams that are often one-third to one-half white and Hispanic because African American children have no interest in playing the sport their fathers and grandfathers would play from sunup to sundown from the time slavery ended until the mid-1970s.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Robinson wouldn't be proud of what he started that day in 1947 when he played in that Brooklyn Dodgers uniform for the first time. Robinson's fight, first and foremost, was about inclusion, about opening doors that had been sealed shut for decades. I can't help but think that Robinson, given his intellect and broad view, would weep joyfully and openly if he could see that 40 percent of major league rosters are composed of Hispanic, African American and Asian ballplayers. Robinson didn't just dream of inclusion; he fought for it, dying too early from the stress that resulted from fighting for it.
"It's a wonderful thing that 40 percent of our players are minorities," Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, said in a conversation yesterday about the Robinson anniversary. "The troubling part in that great number is the decline in participation of African Americans."
Another troubling aspect is that this problem, if it is one, too frequently is being laid at the feet of Major League Baseball. But this isn't a chicken-or-egg conundrum. We know which came first: Black kids stopped playing baseball, to some degree of their own free will. Nobody forced them out, or even nudged them. They fell out of love with baseball, probably at about the time Michael Jordan became America's No. 1 sporting icon, and have had a basketball obsession since the mid-1980s. Football, with its 85 scholarships per Division I school, vs. baseball, with an average of 11.7 scholarships per school, became firmly entrenched as the No. 2 sport in blackworld.
"If I'm a parent whose child needs a scholarship," Solomon said, "I'm going to point him to football, where there's a full ride, not to baseball, where there might be one-half scholarship available, or one-third or one-fourth. Most black kids can't go to school like that."
And perhaps the world simply changed too.
When Shirley Povich was writing in this space -- or at least during the first four decades of his 75 years as The Post's sports columnist -- baseball, boxing and horse racing were the sports that mattered. The NFL was behind college football in popularity until the early 1960s.
Professional basketball had no profile until the late 1950s. The NBA wasn't yet born when Robinson broke in. More black kids were interested in riding in the Kentucky Derby than shooting a basketball until the late 1950s. Solomon, a Washingtonian and baseball's most plugged-in executive when it comes to this topic, sees a "perfect storm" of sorts having dropped baseball in the pecking order of African American interests.
"When basketball did begin to catch on, Julius Erving was an incredibly glamorous figure, and then Michael Jordan became, outside of Muhammad Ali, the most recognized person in the world," Solomon said. "Shoe companies like Nike came to the realization, 'We can market these shoes not just to the basketball consumer, but to everybody.' The shoes became a general fashion statement, then a cultural statement. The NBA is often credited with that, but it was the shoe companies that paid for it.
"Meanwhile," Solomon said, "the first programs that schools and recreation facilities had to drop were baseball. . . . You needed a lot of green space and there are high maintenance costs. But . . . if one kid in the neighborhood can afford one basketball, the whole community can play. If you're an urban planner, thinking of putting a facility in, say, Anacostia and budget is an issue . . . the most inexpensive, durable, accessible thing is a basketball court, not a baseball diamond."
There's simply no debate to have with Solomon on these points. I went to Los Angeles the week after the 1992 riots to find out whether there was any legitimate relationship between the unrest there and the neglect of baseball diamonds for financial reasons. At a meeting of Bloods and Crips at the home of football great Jim Brown one night I got my answer, from the gang members themselves. Yes, absolutely. They told me which weed-covered fields to visit and how they turned from Little League to gangbanging because they no longer had baseball to turn to.
And by the time money was appropriated, it was too late. Black kids wanted to be like Mike. He had a shoe, and a logo. Tony Gwynn, great as he was, didn't have either. Neither, then, did Barry Bonds. "LeBron never played a minute of professional basketball, yet had a $90 million contract from Nike," Solomon said.
Now that Major League Baseball has restored fields from Compton, Calif., to Brooklyn and spread seed money all over the country, African American kids aren't interested. Baseball "takes too long" and "there's not enough action" and "it's too complicated." Scouts talk of going to tournaments and seeing plenty of Hispanic players, black and white, but sometimes no African Americans. A couple of summers ago, I went back to the park I grew up in, West Chatham Park on the South Side of Chicago, where we played baseball until somebody's parents made us come home.
Nobody was playing. Kids sat two deep in a ring around the basketball court, but the baseball diamonds -- three of them, as I recall -- were empty, unlined, not mowed.
So I asked Solomon -- who oversaw the building of the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, which has attracted 2,000 kids since it opened 14 months ago -- what in the world MLB is going to do, even though MLB isn't in my mind part of the problem.
"Basketball rides the backs of the shoe companies when it comes to marketing," he said. "But baseball will have to market itself. We have to find a way to raise the profile of African American players, make them cool. . . . Ryan Howard, Dontrelle Willis, Torii Hunter. . . . We've got to find a way from a business and social standpoint to raise their profiles. Ryan Howard was rookie of the year one year, then MVP the next. Who does that? But do African American children know him? And how do we market without exposing ourselves to the pitfalls of what happens with the individual player? There's a little trepidation."
Yes, the shoe companies (and as a result, the NBA) have found that out the hard way. Basketball markets the individual, which can be risky.
Baseball markets the game, which black kids don't know and aren't attracted to.
"It's a generational sport," Solomon said. "Your dad or your granddad or uncle explained all the nuances to you, the game within a game, how to fill out a scorecard. . . . The game was passed down. Well, we've lost a generation of teachers because of all the new interests."
Sadly, depending on your perspective, the game is being passed over instead of passed down. The Urban Youth Academy already has produced a couple of kids headed for the majors, including one, who is white, drafted in the first round.
But it's fair to wonder whether we, African Americans, ever will embrace baseball the way we once did, whether we'll love it, obsess over it the way Robinson and Mays and Aaron did, whether we'll see the powerful and skilled Ryan Howard as an American sporting hero or somebody who plays a sport that was important to us once upon a time.