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Baseball Tries to Reclaim Minority Interest

African-American Participation in Majors Is Way Down as the Sport Targets Inner City Youth

By Mark Maske and Tyler Kepner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 25, 1997; Page C01
The Washington Post

As Major League Baseball celebrates the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the sport's color barrier, its leaders are struggling to attract black players to a game that perhaps can no longer be called America's pastime.

Black players make up a smaller percentage among the 28 major league teams this season than in 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last of the 16 major league teams to integrate. There are more foreign-born players in the majors this season than African-Americans. The Los Angeles Dodgers -- who as the Brooklyn Dodgers brought Robinson into the majors and were the pioneering force behind the integration of baseball -- currently have one African-American on their roster.

For much of young, black, urban America, baseball is a slow, boring sport. Basketball and football have outmaneuvered and out-marketed baseball for years. It's Michael Jordan or Emmitt Smith, not Ken Griffey Jr., who shows up on the television screen every time kids turn around. Now baseball is living with the consequences.

"What I think is the best marketing for baseball is to get every young man and woman in this country playing baseball," said National League President Leonard Coleman, baseball's highest-ranking African-American official. "We have to have renewed interest in the cities. Baseball clearly has lost ground as a city game. Jackie [Robinson] fought for inclusiveness. We don't want to give up any turf. We have to have renewed emphasis on baseball as a city game."

Major League Baseball recognizes its problem and in 1991 took over a two-year-old program called RBI -- Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities -- to fund urban youth leagues. The RBI program now includes 74 baseball and softball leagues for young boys and girls in 70 cities. Participation in RBI has doubled in the past year alone, from 30,000-40,000 last year to about 76,000 this year, according to Tom Brasuell, RBI's national program manager.

The District has four RBI leagues of four teams each. The leagues are divided into players ages 13-15; players ages 16-18; a coed softball division; and a girls softball league for 13- to 15-year-olds. (Girls can play on the boys teams, and vice versa.) This weekend, eight RBI teams -- including all-star teams from Washington's 13-15 and 16-18 leagues -- will compete in a two-tiered tournament in Baltimore, with the championship games to be played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"Baseball takes a second or third to football and basketball in the inner city, and I'm sad to say in Washington, we're battling soccer every day for athletes and money," said Joe Ruffin, the director of Washington's RBI league and the constituents' service director for D.C. Council member Franklin Smith.

"With D.C. United in town, Major League Soccer has done a wonderful job of promoting soccer in the District. I think because we don't have a major league baseball team here, we're missing that extra push that would add more participation from our kids."

Approximately 350-400 youths are participating in D.C.'s RBI program this summer, according to Ruffin. Among them is Lonnie Graham, who is in his fourth year in the program and has been selected to play on the 16- to 18-year-old all-star team.

Baseball is "not as popular as it should be," said Graham, a junior at Dunbar who pitches and plays all positions except catcher. "You've got football, and there's some baseball, but baseball's like an alternative sport. Like, [older teenagers] play baseball if they have no football or basketball to play, so they just play baseball for the fun of it."

Graham said that without the RBI program, he probably wouldn't play baseball in the summer.

"I doubt it," said Graham, who learned the game at age 8 from an uncle. "I play baseball for my school, then when the school season's over, there's no 16-18 teams in D.C. The only thing we have here in D.C. for 16-18 is RBI, and without that, there would be no baseball for a whole lot of us."

Downward Spiral

Baseball's tenuous hold on young people, especially in the inner cities, is being felt at the sport's top levels. According to a study conducted by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, just over 17 percent of major league players were African-American in 1959, the first year that every team was integrated. In 1980, 23 percent of major league players were African-American. On Opening Day of this season, that figure was just over 15 percent.

Just over 7 percent of the collegiate student-athletes on baseball scholarships at Division I schools in 1994 and '95 were African-American, according to a survey by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Only one member of the U.S. baseball team at last summer's Olympic Games in Atlanta was African-American. Three African-Americans were among the 30 players selected by major league clubs in the first round of the 1996 amateur draft.

"I think it's pretty clear that when young black children across the country think about the sport they're going to play, baseball is not in the first two choices," said Richard Lapchick, the director of the Northeastern center. "There aren't fields in the cities. . . . It's a lack of facilities [and] it's a lack of marketing."

For years, baseball's national marketing has lagged far behind basketball and football. In a recent ESPN Chilton poll, Cal Ripken -- the Baltimore Orioles third baseman who became the sport's most beloved figure in September 1995 when he surpassed former New York Yankees great Lou Gehrig's major league record for consecutive games played -- was the only baseball player ranked among the nation's 10 most popular athletes. The top 10 contained three current or retired basketball players (Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Magic Johnson) and four current or retired football players (Smith, Troy Aikman, Joe Montana and Dan Marino).

"You still see [black youngsters playing baseball], but at a younger age," Orioles outfielder Eric Davis said. "You see the younger kids playing. You don't see the 16- or 17-year-olds playing.

"If we don't find a way to create some interest in these kids for baseball, then we're going to lose them," said Davis, who's black. "We'll have to go to the international market for players, and you already see that happening. It's been happening for 10 years. Football and basketball are doing a better job of marketing themselves. If people see Michael Jordan all the time, they're going to want to be Michael Jordan."

Davis is on target in his assertion that major league teams have gone on a global search for talent; 19 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters this season were foreign-born.

`No Feeder Program'

The beleaguered national pastime is an afterthought on the District public high school sports scene. Interest in some other sports, including football, has declined, too, but not as much as baseball. Baseball games in the DCIAA most often are not treated as serious sports endeavors. Willie Stewart, the football and baseball coach at Anacostia High, said recently: "Baseball is not a number one priority at Anacostia. Basketball and football are. . . . The baseball team consists of football and basketball players. . . . They play as a favor to me."

Stewart has coached at Anacostia since 1980. Before that, he spent 11 years at Eastern High. He says that before the Senators departed Washington following the 1971 season and became the Texas Rangers, leaving the District without a major league baseball team, he'd have to scramble to find enough uniforms for all of his baseball players. Now, he says, he scrambles to find enough uniforms for all of his football players.

"The Senators kept the interest up while they were here," Stewart said. ". . . Baseball was real big when we had a [major league] baseball team. . . . There were kids growing up playing baseball at a young age. Now there's no feeder program. The only contact with baseball now is what they see on television."

Local schools' baseball budgets are not sufficient to produce properly maintained fields, Stewart says. "No one wants to play the infield because they're afraid the ball will come up and hit them in the face," he said.

Major League Baseball donated $9,500 last year to the District's RBI program and $8,000 this year. Ruffin, the director, said all the money goes for equipment and travel. Unlike basketball, which requires little equipment other than a ball, a baseball team needs, at the minimum, bats, gloves, spikes, helmets, bases and catcher's equipment.

"Most of our kids haven't held a ball or gripped a bat because it's an expensive sport to play," said Ruffin. "Major League Baseball has given grants to allow these kids to hold a bat and a ball and wear caps for the first time. . . . It's important in a depressed community to give kids a chance to play a game, but mostly to teach the lessons of the game that transfer with them through life."

Davis, who grew up in Los Angeles and played on the same Connie Mack League team as Yankees outfielder Darryl Strawberry, says it's not all about well-groomed fields and organized youth leagues, though. "We'd play in the middle of the street," he said. "We'd create a baseball field. We played baseball in the middle of the street with cardboard boxes for bases. Kids don't do that any more.

"Ten, 15 [or] 20 years ago, basketball wasn't as popular," Davis said. "Football wasn't as popular. Baseball was popular. At the park and rec center, you'd play baseball. . . . I played all three sports. Whatever season it was, that's what I played. You play high school sports now, and your [basketball] coach tells you, `You've got to shoot 200 jump shots a day all summer.' So you do that. You don't play baseball."

It's not the excitement of the game or the lack of marketing wizardry that hurts baseball, Davis says. It's economics: Inner-city African-American kids play basketball and football because they view those sports as avenues to college scholarships, he says.

"They're not looking for heroes," Davis said. "They're looking for a way out. . . . If you live in the inner city, your parents can't afford to send you to college. You need a scholarship. So what are you going to play? You're going to play basketball and football. Our best athletes are playing basketball and football now. They're not playing baseball."

Special correspondent Bryan Tucker contributed to this report.

THE PROGRAM

RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) is a youth outreach program designed to promote interest in baseball, increase self-esteem of disadvantaged children and encourage kids to stay in school and off the streets. The program includes more than 76,000 boys and girls in 70 cities. The national RBI tournament will consist of six regions with the winner of each division -- junior boys, senior boys and girls modified fast pitch softball -- advancing to the RBI World Series hosted by the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field.

* REGIONAL RBI TOURNAMENT

WHAT: Mid-Atlantic Regional RBI Tournament.

WHERE: Friday and Saturday games will be played at Patterson Park at Eastern and Linwood avenues in Baltimore. Sunday championship games will be played at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

WHEN: Today through Sunday.

TODAY: 12:30 games: Juniors: Maryland vs. D.C., Field 1; Pennsylvania vs. North Carolina, Field 2.

3:00 games: Juniors: Virginia vs. Maryland, Field 1; D.C. vs. Pennsylvania, Field 2.

5:30 games: Juniors: North Carolina vs. Virginia, Field 1. Seniors, Pennsylvania vs. Virginia, Field 2.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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