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Baseball is supposed to be America’s favorite pastime. So, why aren’t more Black kids playing? Granted, it is difficult to quantify the number of African-American children racing to the neighborhood sandlots in the summer or hitting a few balls in an open field with a group of friends; but when it comes to organized baseball, Black children are alarmingly absent.
Train Up a Child
Youth baseball participation is tracked by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. SFIA defines “core” as children that have played baseball at least 13 times in a year. The core percentage of Black children playing baseball from the ages 6-12 was only 8.4% - close in proportion to the 8.2% of Black players on MLB opening day rosters in 2020. The numbers are even more paltry as children age with only 6.1% electing to play baseball from ages 13-17.
There are a number of factors that contribute to this disparity, but the one that stands out the most is the socioeconomic factor. As the years have progressed, participation in youth baseball has become more and more demanding. The sport requires a lot of time and money — time and money that is not readily available in under-served communities. Several elite programs begin training and playing at the age of 5 and begin travel ball (tournaments) at the age of 8. Sun Sentinel reported that families of elite players between the ages of 8 and 14 spend roughly $24,000 annually on tournaments, equipment, and lessons. This is a far cry from the Little League recreational programs of the past. In additional to the financial aspect, parents have to have the flexibility to travel with their athlete – many of whom play year-round in hopes of making it to the next level. In the current climate of youth baseball, missing a tournament could cost an athlete tons of exposure, and subsequently, future opportunities to make it to the major league.
“Travel ball is as close as you can get to real Major League Baseball,” said Anthony Russo, coach of the Lantana-based South Florida Stealth. “By 12 years old, we know everyone who is [any]one.”
Yeah, missing a youth tournament can be career suicide – even before the age of 16. Take, for instance, a four-day tournament in mid-February that aired on ESPN3. The tournament included elite teams from California, Texas, and Florida. One of the most prestigious tournaments, the Cooperstown Dreams Park, boasts a 2021 registration fee of $1295 per player and per coach. The tournament requires a minimum of 11 players and two coaches. This does not include travel. The costs of that tournament alone eliminates a large chunk of would-be Black youth baseball players, as the systemic racism that continues to oppress Black communities stifles the access and income needed to participate.
These differences in resources manifest quite often in the makeup of high school athletic teams. High schools that cater to a mixed demographic often include neighborhoods within the district that are on opposite ends of the economical spectrum. Therefore, such high school teams often have few, if any, Black players. How could you compete with someone who has been traveling and playing in a structured, elite travel program when your community doesn’t even have a league? Absence of established baseball leagues in the Black community also shuttles young athletes to football and basketball.
It Takes a Village
Another socioeconomic factor that further complicates the recruitment of young baseball players is the absence of Black fathers in the home. According to the head of Jackie Robinson West Little League, a rare predominately Black league in Chicago, convincing children to play baseball is tougher than recruiting them to youth basketball and football programs. One reasoning he gave is that fathers pass a love for baseball down to their sons as a “cultural touchstone” – and there is a staggering number of one-parent households in the Black community. Some of these instances are yet another result of systemic oppression due to flawed a justice system and police brutality, as we have witnessed even more so as of late.
With the absence of “legacy” recruiting to youth programs, many have called for Black Major League players to aid in bring baseball back to the Black community. Keronn Walker, a Black Chicago Cubs scout says, “Our community and former baseball players need to step up and teach more kids what they learned about the game in order to get more kids playing.” Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond, who is biracial, took to Instagram to share his thoughts on the racial disparities of his sport.
Much like the NFL, the racial disparities of the MLB begin at the top where this is a severe lack of African-American presence. There are only two African-American managers, Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Dusty Baker of the Houston Astros, and no majority team owners. As stated earlier, on opening day of 2020, only 8% of MLB players were Black. With a lack of athletes that look like them, Black youth gravitate more to basketball and football where the professional leagues are more than 70% Black.
The Long Road
The road to playing Major League Baseball is fashioned with several obstacles and is not a straight path like the NBA and NFL. There are roughly 299 NCAA Division I baseball programs. Each team is only allotted a total of 11.7 scholarships to disburse among a maximum of 27 players. In many underserved communities, financial assistance is the only way some children get to realize the dream of even attending college. By contrast, FBS, or Football Bowl Subdivision, programs are allowed to award 85 scholarships while basketball is allotted 13 scholarships. When you look at the numbers, the lack of participation and interest in pursuing a career on the diamond makes sense.
Making it onto a college roster is only half the battle – actually, being drafted is still only a part of the battle. Only 22 drafted players have jumped straight into the MLB, or “The Show,” as it is affectionately called. None have made the leap since 2009. Most journey through the Minor Leagues before getting a shot and that journey could take two to three years or even longer.
Bottom of the Ninth
With such a small African-American presence, many were surprised to see the usually conservative league take a stance on social justice. The league suspended play on Aug. 27 in solidarity with the NBA, and the fight against systemic racism and police brutality following the shooting of Jacob Blake. Since then, the league and its player association announced on Sept. 21 that they are pledging $10 million toward increasing Black presence at all levels of baseball. The $10 million pledge will be given to the Players Alliance, which was created by 100 current and former Black players in response to the killing of George Floyd. Through 2024, the Alliance will use the money to fund annual grants to improve access to the sport from youth programs to front office recruitment. Former player Curtis Granderson serves as its president. Youth-focused initiatives include the funding of leagues, equipment donations, tournaments, clinics, and playground activities. Additionally, the Alliance will seek to support baseball programs in public schools and community centers, as well as provide grants, scholarships and community services to Black communities. As the initiative moves to level the playing field, will more Black kids choose to “play ball”?