Major League Baseball [MLB] has seen a dramatic decline in African-American participation over the past 20 years – from 16 percent in 1996 to 7 percent today.
In fact, when the new season opened in April, only 69 African-American players had made big league rosters – an average of two players per team. The Atlanta Braves and the Colorado Rockies are playing without a single Black player on the roster.
Here in our own backyard, the Washington Nationals have four African Americans on the roster: three exciting, young ballplayers, pitcher Joe Ross; and two in center field, Michael Taylor and Ben Revere. And then there’s the team’s charismatic and experienced skipper, Dusty Baker, who is in his first season as the Nationals’ manager.
All four men opted to forgo college and instead signed minor league deals. Similarly, they all began playing at an early age and began to play the game after being introduced to it by their fathers.
“Playing youth ball is imperative to making it to the big leagues,” Taylor said. “I started playing at five years old. My dad got me involved.”
Revere says he was even younger.
“My grandfather passed it on to his son, my father, to my brother and me. My sister played softball,” he said. “They gave me a baseball and I got my first size appropriate glove when I was one. I played tee ball, fast pitch and high school baseball. Then they brought me upstairs to the big leagues. Baseball’s been in my blood for a long time.”
Across the country, MLB continues to take steps to connect its players to its communities in an effort to encourage youth participation and parental involvement. The Nats’ Academy in Northeast regularly hosts clinics and youth leagues so that area athletes and families can see African Americans as role models in the game.
Still, the challenge that teams face nationwide can be daunting. The median age of an MLB viewer is 53; 83 percent of the audience is white. Only nine percent of MLB’s audience is Black, compared to the NBA whose audience is 45 percent Black.
“That’s who they see [whites] on TV,” Baker said. “You’re going to identify with people who have something in common with you.”
Comedian Chris Rock recently spoke about the decline of African-American participation in baseball during a segment on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. Rock compared MLB’s audience to a Tea Party Rally, and called out Howard University for cancelling its baseball program while refusing to accept financial inequity as an excuse.
“You can’t tell me Black kids can’t afford baseball when everybody’s buying Jordans for $300. That’s six gloves right there,” he said. “It’s the game. It’s old-fashioned and stuck in the past.”
Several young players have spoken out recently about baseball’s unwritten rules stifling excitement. Younger players want to drop old traditions of being conservative and start celebrating big plays without being accused of bad etiquette or poor sportsmanship. The league’s Most Valuable Player, Bryce Harper, said it simply, “It’s a tired sport.”
The Nats’ stadium store sells a T-shirt that reads, “Make baseball fun again.” To increase viewership among young people the sport may have to adjust its rules of etiquette.
The NCAA allows college baseball teams to grant 11.7 scholarships a year. That means everyone is on a partial scholarship. Most high school baseball players are multi-sport athletes who can get a full scholarship in football or basketball or get drafted to the minor leagues. Families that cannot pay half of the college tuition often have no other option but to go to the minors or choose a different sport to play in college.
“I had a number of football and basketball scholarships but no baseball offers,” Baker said, explaining why he chose to sign with the minors and remain committed to the sport that he loved.