Unbeknown to all but baseball statistics nuts is that the percentage of black pro baseball players is the lowest it's been in 10 years -- about 30 percent. And it may not rise much more any time soon. I hope this low percentage drops even lower in the next few years.
While few people want to call it a trend, I hope it is.
My observations about this drop have raised some strong objections. One high school coach in southern California vehemently warned me of a "lower quota" that would result should the number of black ball players drop too low. He added, "Basball has the longest history of racism in major league sports compared to the NFL and the NBA. What you don't want to do is give those people a lower target to aim for."
Another long-time black Little League coach was just plain worried. "Yeah, I could see it coming. Been happening for about six or seven years now. I start my summer programs as soon as school lets out around the first week in June. But the kids just don't come out like they used to."
The truth is the decline has very little to do with racism or the lack of it in baseball. The real reason is that baseball for the black community is being caught between increasing opportunities outside of pro sports and competition from other sports.
Frank Robinson, newly appointed manager of the San Francisco Giants, has also noticed the decline. "After Jackie Robinson broke the color line in '47, the clubs went looking for black ball players. You've got to remember also that baseball in the 1950s was by far the No. 1 sport. It's not No. 1 anymore in the black community or the white community. And clubs are not looking for black ball players now -- just players."
Robinson, who is black, also sees the decline as a good thing, although he doesn't see a drop to 15 percent. He further notes a differentiation between the numbers of the American blacks and blacks from the Caribbean and Venezuela. Currently, black Americans make up roughly 20 percent and Hispanics around 10 percent. These figures were substantiated by Monte Irvin, one of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn's assistants and a black former major leaguer himself.
Irvin added, "Colleges have also deemphasized baseball. What with inflation and Title IX, even the big schools have had to specialize. Soon we may see only Florida, the Southeast, the Southwest and southern California colleges with baseball teams. But we hope that is not the case."
Even so, the primary reason for the drop in black participation is that the black communities are deemphasizing baseball and black colleges are cutting it out all together for financial reasons.
Robinson also believes that in spite of the huge salaries in baseball, black youngsters are now less willing to spend years in the minors before being called up. "What black kid these days looks forward to five years in the minors before making the majors?"
"Good black football players who might also play baseball in college are now forced to go through spring football practice. The schools are in a money pinch and they can't afford not to have the best football team possible. So the baseball teams suffer."
Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the black civil rights activist, has noticed the drop. "We are aware of the trend. and while we take justifiable pride in our black athletes, we believe the message is getting through to our kids that the chances of being Reggie Jackson are slimmer than the chances of being a city councilman."
I have believed for a long time that some black kids -- too many -- dream too long of a career in pro sports. I am not alone in this assessment.
Perhaps this new, moderate level of black participation in major league baseball underscores a fundamental shift of emphasis in the black community. What is important here is not the loss of 200 or so black ball players in the major leagues. What is important is that 2 million or so black kids are finally awakening to the staggering odds against their making it in the big leagues.