Invisible Men 

The disappearance of the black baseball player

African American participation in Major League Baseball today stands at its lowest point in 20 years.
African American participation in Major League Baseball today stands at its lowest point in 20 years—a meager 8.4 percent, vs. 28 percent as recently as 1975, the year Joe Morgan and Ken Griffey helped the Big Red Machine to the first of back-to-back World Series titles. Last Saturday, on a cold, rainy afternoon in Memphis, the Chicago White Sox and the New York Metropolitans played in the second Civil Rights Game, both to celebrate the movement that gave the exhibition game its title, and, perhaps more pressingly, to address what the game’s official program called the “gradual disappearance of the African American baseball player, and what to do about it.”

Why should we do something about it? After all, no one seems concerned that fewer whites are playing professional basketball or football than ever before. OK, maybe there are some people who are concerned. The NBA and NFL, however, don’t seem concerned that so few whites play their respective sports. But neither basketball nor football is our national pastime, and even if you could argue that one of them was, by citing some metric such as television viewership, revenue or jersey-popping per capita, we still wouldn’t call it our national pastime. In matters of the heart, symbolism always wins.

And baseball is still America’s heart. Baseball is still held to a higher standard than other sports—look no further than the ongoing steroids imbroglio for evidence of this—because of what it means to our national identity. What would it say about our country if baseball, the sport that integrated before public schools or the armed forces, really did reach a point where there were no longer any black players? As symbolism goes, this would be devastating. If we really are the greatest, most inclusive nation on earth, then it would say plenty—none of it good—if Jackie Robinson’s legacy in the Major Leagues were allowed to die out.

Understanding this, Bud Selig (no matter what you may think of him otherwise), has been proactive in promoting racial diversity in baseball. And Selig regards the significance of Jackie Robinson’s donning Dodger blue so highly that he unilaterally retired Robinson’s No. 42 across all Major League teams. The Civil Rights Game, in its second year, is the more visible front end of a movement within MLB to encourage wider participation in baseball by young black athletes. The RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) is one attempt to redress the dwindling numbers of blacks in the game. With its equipment and grounds-keeping costs, baseball is a difficult sport for young players to keep up with, especially at schools in the “inner city.” (I once heard the poet Gwendolyn Brooks give a talk in which she expressed her dislike for the term “inner city.” Despite its apparent specificity, it really means “poor black area,” no matter what part of the city it actually occupies.)

Throughout the weekend’s Civil Rights Game festivities, the term “diversity” was out in force. Promo materials trumpeted its importance: “The White Sox have long championed diversity”; “The Mets have been a diverse bunch since their inception in 1962.” Ironically, at a time when the percentage of black Major Leaguers is hovering in the single digits, baseball today is more racially diverse than it ever has been. From Ichiro to Johan Santana, Dice-K to Big Papi, the game is attracting foreign-born talent—and courting it as well. Major League Baseball may have opened the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., with the goal of “bringing opportunities to urban youth throughout the country”—“urban” being the latest code word for “black”—but 28 of the 30 teams already operate baseball academies in the Dominican Republic, where the majority of the nation’s approximately 9.7 million people live in poverty and where players can be developed for pennies on the dollar compared to so-called “urban” youths in the U.S. On opening day last year, there were 98 Major Leaguers of Dominican heritage, roughly 11.5 percent of players.

Not everyone loves the internationalization of the sport. When Washington opened its new ballpark last Sunday by hosting the Braves, it was only sort of opening day. The Red Sox and A’s had already played two games—which both counted on their regular season records—in Tokyo. When ESPN broadcaster John Miller mentioned this fact, his partner in the booth, the very same Joe Morgan who in 1975 was playing in a sport just four years removed from seeing the Pittsburgh Pirates field an all-black lineup, replied rather sourly, “I only recognize this one”—meaning that any “opening day” that didn’t happen on U.S soil wasn’t really opening day.

With more and more young black athletes choosing football and basketball, it’s hard to know what the future of baseball will look like. Will “diversity” come to include more Native and Asian Americans? Openly gay players? In the meantime, a very good baseball game (the Mets won, 3-2) was played in a beautiful park in a richly historic city to celebrate one era of change, and, hopefully, to stave off another.

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