As Jackie Robinson is celebrated, African-American participation in MLB dwindles
Robinson broke the color barrier 66 years ago, but today African-Americans account for only about 8 percent of MLB rosters, the lowest since the earliest days of integration.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
On Friday, the much-anticipated biopic of Jackie Robinson, "42", will be released in theaters. The following Monday, every uniformed personnel in the majors will don that iconic number to honor Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947 — 66 years ago.
The Mariners are idle on April 15, the anniversary of Robinson's debut against the Boston Braves, so they will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day on Tuesday, April 16, when they host the Tigers.
What will be starkly apparent during these ceremonies across baseball is that while the diversity of the major leagues has never been higher, the number of black American players continues to dwindle.
In 2012, a USA Today study reported that opening-day rosters featured 8.05 percent African-Americans, which their research showed was the lowest since the early days of the sport's integration. That was down from the peak in 1975, when 27 percent of ballplayers were African-American. Though this year's figures aren't out yet, an unofficial check of rosters shows that the percentage is likely to be similar, if not slightly lower.
Seattle's 2013 roster is dotted with ethnic diversity, in keeping with baseball's growing international reach — but no African Americans.
Robert Andino is of Cuban and Puerto Rican heritage. Michael Morse's mother is Jamaican. They also have Cuban-American Raul Ibanez and Cuban defector Kendrys Morales. Three players are from Venezuela (Felix Hernandez, Franklin Gutierrez and Jesus Montero), one from Mexico (Oliver Perez) and one from Japan (Hisashi Iwakuma).
Seattle's eight players born outside of the U.S. (including Canadians Jason Bay and Michael Saunders) are right in line with the 28.2 percent of foreign-born players on this year's opening day rosters. According to MLB, that's the fourth-highest percentage of international players ever.
Last year, MLB got an "A" grade for its racial hiring practices from the University of Central Florida's Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
But with all the attention on Jackie Robinson this month, the focus is bound to return to the declining numbers of African-African players. The World Series-champion Giants not only have no black American players, but they didn't have any African-American representation among more than 70 players in their major-league spring-training camp.
The Rangers also don't have any African-American players, though they have a black manager and third-base coach. The Diamondbacks, Red Sox and Orioles are among teams with just one African-American, while at least 15 teams have just two. The Phillies, with five black players, top the list.
The paucity of black faces has definitely caught the attention of Mariners announcer Dave Sims, the highest-profile African-American in the organization.
"I'm focused on it all the time," he said. "I remember telling my wife the first year, it's halfway through the season and I knew every black guy in the American League. There are so few black American guys in baseball, it's disturbing for me."
Sims noted that "a sociologist would have an absolute field day" ascertaining the theories for the decline of black participation in baseball. But the most common explanations generally center on the cost of the sport. That includes equipment and joining the traveling teams now widespread in youth baseball.
Division I college baseball teams offer just 11.7 scholarships, meaning players often have to share aid. Football teams have 85 scholarships. Sims said that when he covers NFL football, "when the defensive backs come out, I think, 'There's a good-looking second baseman or shortstop. With the linebackers, it's a good first baseman or outfielder.' It's a shame it comes to that."
Then there's what Sims calls "the coolness factor," a reference to the fact that baseball doesn't have the same cachet in the black community as basketball and football, whose pro leagues are comprised of about 80 and 70 percent African-American athletes, respectively (despite the fact blacks make up 13.1 percent of the general U.S. population, according to the latest census).
"Baseball has to do a better job promoting the game to the inner cities," Sims said. "I've talked to Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins — they're doing their part. For each individual doing their little part, there needs to be a huge group effort to get baseball back in the inner cities."
MLB has long supported the Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) youth programs, and has funded baseball academies in Compton, Calif.; Houston and New Orleans, with another on the way in Philadelphia. Since 2007, MLB has designated an annual Civil Rights game to honor the history of Civil Rights.
Former Mariners star Ken Griffey Jr., however, is among those who have complained about baseball's lack of promotion to the African-American community. Here's what Griffey — whose son, Trey, is a college football player despite two generations of MLB in his family — told me on Jackie Robinson Day in 2009:
"First of all, they've got to start off with better commercials. The commercials are (bad). Think about it. You look at the NBA, NFL, their commercials, and they make you want to go out and play basketball, go play football. They show the excitement of the game itself. In baseball, it's come to the bleeping All-Star Game. And that's it. They don't show the excitement of the game."
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has noticed that participation in youth baseball is down across all demographics. But it's most glaring in the black community.
"I do think baseball is attempting aggressively to lure all kids," he said. "We'd love to have young black kids playing baseball. It would be great for our game."
In building a team, Zduriencik said, "you're going to take talent... We... would all love to have black athletes more exposed to baseball than they currently are. It's on everyone's mind. It's a question that comes up frequently."
And one that's certain to come up this week, with Jackie Robinson at the forefront.
|By the numbers|
|In 2012, 8.8 percent of major-league baseball players were African-American. That's down from 19 percent in 1995.|
|Source: The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.|
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.