On May 28, 2006 Barry Bonds succeeded in hitting his 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth’s homerun record and now second to Hank Aaron’s Major League Baseball (MLB) all-time home run record of 755, it is representative in a number of ways of the present state of MLB. Specifically, the state of the game’s future in the African-American community comes to mind. And it might be an appropriate time to reexamine the decline of participation of the black athlete in baseball, which is a far more multi-faceted problem than commonly expressed.
While there is a dearth of interest among young boys and teenagers in the black community participating in organized baseball, the reasons most often provided are shortsighted and often too easy to come by. Without an honest discourse between the leaders of the black communities throughout the United States, as well as some candor coming from the offices of MLB, what seems an insurmountable problem to attract blacks to baseball, will forever remain.
And although it is simply too easy to blame any one entity for all of the fall-off of black players in baseball, the primary beneficiary, of ignoring players from the U.S. including white players, remains MLB. And it must be held accountable, regardless of myriad cultural reasons attributed to children’s lack of interest in baseball, predominantly in the inner city neighborhoods, for its lack of investment in them.
On February 28, 2006, MLB opened its first Urban Youth Academy in the U.S. At a cost of $3 million which took three years to complete, with the idea shopped around for six, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig clucked, “This is the first of what I hope is a series of academies all over America.” The facility is located at the campus of Compton Community College on 10 acres of land in Compton, CA, south of Los Angeles. It includes two regulation size baseball diamonds, a youth field and one for girl’s softball and a 12,000 square foot clubhouse with locker room, weight room and other training facilities. It is expected to be a prototype for other U.S. facilities, through the Urban Youth Initiative, which will serve not only as a catalyst for reviving baseball but a place for inner-city youth to enjoy each summer and after school.
Starting in June 2006, 125 children each day are expected to participate and to be given instruction by professional level coaches on playing the game. The monetary investment however was not solely supplied by MLB. $70,000.00 was collectively donated by Enos Cabell, Jr. and Tim Purpura, GM of the Houston Astros for batting cages and $500,000.00 was donated by L.A.’s Anaheim Angels. Access to classrooms and computers are being made available by Compton Community College. Compton was picked primarily as so many African-Americans from MLB’s past arose from Compton, but also because the college donated a number of its facilities. It takes on average three years to build a Major League stadium. It is stunning how long it took to put in four ball fields and a clubhouse with so little financial investment from MLB and whose idea largely came to the Commissioner’s Office as a grass roots effort.
In 1989, former Major League player, John Young, developed a program called RBI or Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities in South Central Los Angeles for children ages 12-18. In 1991, MLB got involved and assumed its administration. MLB then teamed with the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association from 1993-1996 in providing grants to various cities demonstrating financial need. After five years, Young went national and by 1997 RBI collaborated with various chapters of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. However, MLB and its individual teams have only provided $15 million for RBI since 1991.
The RBI program now includes both boys and girls and its objective is to also include nurturing children’s interest in school along with baseball as the main component. It claims that it has helped more than 150,000 children in more than 200 cities worldwide play baseball. And its Quick SMART! Program addresses the issues of alcohol, tobacco and other harmful drugs with city youth. Says Roberto Clemente, Jr., who founded the RBI program in Pittsburgh, “RBI keeps kids out of trouble and off the streets, while at the same time teaching them to stay in school. The educational components help them realize their potential and worth in receiving college scholarships based not only on athletics, but academics.” But one can question the program’s expansion worldwide before the job is done in the U.S.
“Campos Las Palmas has set the standard for what a baseball academy should be and we’re extremely proud of the work done here, not only on the field, but in the community as well.” No, this is not another baseball academy planned for the U.S. but a quote from Frank McCourt, owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, upon his visit to the Dodger’s Dominican Republic baseball complex, in celebrating its 20th year anniversary, earlier in 2006. And while no one can find fault with the individual efforts of the RBI program nor with the idea of Urban Youth Academies in the U.S., it is necessary to contrast those programs with over the $60 million dollars each year which MLB and its individual teams pour into Latin American countries for player development.
Most MLB teams have more than one such facility in Latin America with the most located in the Dominican Republic, followed by Venezuela. When Camp Las Palmas opened in the 1987 season, it was the first facility of its kind and became the universal prototype for all MLB teams in Latin America. It sits on 75 acres of land, equipped with two full and two half baseball fields, a dining room, kitchen, recreation room and two two-story dormitories accommodating 100 players. In addition, it provides lessons in adapting to American culture, classes in English, and nutritional counseling.
Players stay up to 30 days at a time and can be signed at age 16 unlike players in the U.S. where players must at least complete high school or be 18 years of age. If they are enrolled in college, U.S. players must wait until the age of 21 to be signed. But then they go into the draft, which clubs claim deters them from investing in any development of U.S. players, as another club could end up as the beneficiary of such efforts. Also, Latin America does not face competition from the sports of basketball and football as baseball does in the U.S., therefore giving MLB many more prospects to choose from.
It is crucial to understand that offshoring of Latin American baseball players is arguably directly proportional to the loss of African Americans being developed in MLB. Black players were at their peak of their composition in MLB in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s or roughly 27% of all players. Today that total hovers around 10%. However, it is the combination of other factors which make the Latin American factor even more decimating to the black athlete’s chances of ever making it to the Major Leagues.
Ideologies include the increased incarceration of young black males, the lack of positive role models and the lack of two parent families as contributing factors. They, however, cannot necessarily be declared the primary determinants of the lack of blacks’ participation in baseball. It is argued that expense is a factor, as it supposedly takes $100,000.00 to build a baseball field and that even if there are baseball fields available, maintenance costs are necessary too. But urban and rural African-Americans played baseball on sandlots and played street stickball for generations, long before pristine $100,000.00 fields were considered a prerequisite to playing baseball.
Others argue that the National Basketball Association (NBA) has done a far better job at marketing to black youth, who rarely ever go to MLB games. And making the National Football League (NFL) is far more attractive than an arduous and lengthy learning process on the way to earning a MLB contract. Both the NBA and the NFL although now require at least a year of college play, are a fast track on the way to fast bucks for those lucky enough to make it. Still, the family fabric not only in the inner city, but more pronounced there, has destroyed the learning curve necessary to build a baseball following. Baseball requires a father or father figure such as a youth leader or mentor to have an impact upon, what used to be considered the National Pastime, the inner-city child. And if they are not hooked by age 13 or 14, it’s hard to get them interested later.
Requisite hand-eye coordination skills do not come to children naturally and must be learned, unlike the immediate impact of shooting a basketball or running with a football. It takes patience and fortitude for those skills that must be nurtured. Historically, such nurturers were fathers. But also absent today is the presence of present MLB players who do not involve themselves with the community like Hall of Famers, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson did. The black MLB player today must step up even more so, especially because of the lack of male role models in the black community.
The dissolution of the once three-sport player has also added to the demise of baseball in the inner city. Many public schools only field a football team or basketball team and have dropped baseball altogether. Intramural programs, the victim of budget cuts, only heightens the chances that black youth will be absorbed into gangs, due to lack of organized programs for them.
And for college baseball players, scouting is limited and even more so for the black baseball athlete who rarely competes in baseball in college due to the small scholarships awarded for baseball. Even Howard University has dropped its baseball program, which one would think is a no-brainer for the development of African American baseball players, given its vast appreciation of black history. The National Collegiate Athletic Association only allows for 11.7 baseball scholarships at any given time for a team of 30 players on a roster. Full scholarships are rare. Football, however, is allowed up to 85 scholarships and basketball gets 13 for a roster half the size of baseball’s. Both programs are provided far more full scholarships.
Frank Robinson, now 70, and presently the Manager of the Washington Nationals after holding several positions within MLB, became part of the first generation of great black players who followed Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in 1947. And Frank Robinson holds today’s players accountable. “People don’t see minorities attached to the community or going home and giving something back. Now the stars and the top players, they hide. They don’t go into the community. They don’t go back into the inner city or where their roots were. Baseball is now third, maybe fourth in the [inner-city] household.”
Yet, the baseball draft instilled in 1965, with stricter age limits, combined with MLB’s vastly increased development in Latin America over the past 20 years, remain the biggest impediments, along with the lack of MLB’s moral will, in increasing the African-American presence in MLB. Much like the ill-fated acceptance of the offshoring of U.S. manufacturing jobs by U.S. multi-national corporations, MLB has enjoyed the same misguided regime, regardless if it ultimately hurts the American athlete.
Commissioner Selig stated after the 2005 season that gate receipts, merchandising revenue, team revenue- sharing and acquired broadcast rights revenue were at all-time highs in MLB. He likes the public to know that, given his abysmal management in other areas such allowing steroids in baseball over the years, the 1994 strike, the handling of the sale of the Montreal Expos, including his lack of involvement with the black community. However, while baseball enjoys such “good times,” like its multi-national counterparts, MLB does not reinvest in the U.S.
Much like cheap labor overseas appears to be a required component of U.S. industry, similarly the benefits of signing and investing in baseball players has been relegated to Latin American players and more recently in Asia, where the rules of the U.S. do not apply. So instead, MLB has found new ways to circumvent its problems by merely skipping over U.S. players. And while the African-American community has seen the starkest decline in participation, the white community is also losing ground to foreign players. More than 40% of major and minor league players are born outside of the U.S., with nearly 30% comprising the major leagues. It is predicted that by 2007 over 50% of all major and minor league players will be Latin Americans.
Prior to 1965, teams could contract with any high school graduate that scouts identified. Since it was believed that this advantaged only the wealthier teams, MLB imposed the draft. U.S. citizens could no longer be signed immediately, starting the cycle of lack of development investment by particular clubs. Along with supposedly eliminating the exploitation of underage players, the age restrictions followed. However, a player can be signed to a MLB contract at age 16 in Latin America with the clubs spending several years developing those players far earlier. By the time a U.S. player reaches 18 or 21 if they are in college, they are years behind Latin American players. Secondly, the contracts offered the Latin American undeveloped players are far less than those offered drafted U.S. prospects. And prior to 1984 there was no age limit on signing Latin American players who were signed as young as 12 or 14.
Since developing players is a big expense, MLB simply went after the “cheap and unregulated labor.” Sound familiar? And for foreign and U.S. players of similar talent levels the expected recompense for U.S. players is much lower given the lack of property rights in developing him and what is expected to be a shorter career. If it is a choice between two players of equal talent in the U.S. or Latin America, the MLB club invariably chooses the foreign or Latin American player.
While white players who are affluent or have a family willing to invest resources to have their sons join available teams outside the inner city, the road still remains a gamble due to the outright scouting delays of Americans, given the preference of the cheaper talent. Unless a draft choice is truly bankable, the chances of that prospect succeeding are contingent upon his former training either from college or paid for opportunities from family. And U.S. baseball players do not have the benefit of competing at academies like those in Latin America, often run like baseball boarding schools with seemingly unlimited budgets.
In conclusion, much like the U.S. watches its industries and institutions being sold bit by bit to foreign entities, it will take the will of the community, not just the black community or the white community, but the American community, to fight for our young people and to show them that America is worth fighting for. We can no longer afford to isolate ourselves from each other regardless of our color or ethnicity. For this fight is far more than the one between basketball and baseball. It is symbolic of the erosion of that which once identified America and was a staple of the family and by extension our neighborhoods. And contrary to popular belief, the hijacking of America’s National Pastime is not unimportant, but is indicative of a dangerous trend in the U.S. And we owe it to ourselves as Americans to not only save our children in the process but in turn to save our country.