Canary in the Mine Shaft
Last Tuesday night, there were as many African-American presidents at the All-Star Game as players in the starting lineups.
Only the fourteen-year veteran Derek Jeter represented people of African descent. (Jeter, like Obama, is of mixed heritage.) Eighteen percent of the players in the All-Star Game were African-American, including game MVP Carl Crawford, but none were voted in by the fans to open the contest.
Jeter is also the only African-American player in the starting lineups of the two marquee teams in Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox in particular have become so bleached in recent years, you wonder if Red Sox Nation has a Whites Only sign on the front door. This is particularly notable when we consider that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate in Major League Baseball.
It sends a message throughout the land that America's Pastime has reinstituted a de facto color line. Yes, Jackie Robinson's number is retired in every park, but also retired seems to be the historic place baseball has had in the African-American community. As African-American star pitcher C.C. Sabathia said in 2007, "I go back home to Vallejo, and the kids say, 'What's baseball?' It's not just an issue for my hometown, it's an issue for the whole country. I think Major League Baseball should do something about it. I don't know exactly what they could be doing, but I know it's not enough."
In the mid-1970s, African-Americans made up 27 percent of the players in the league. Today it stands at just over 8 percent. In the NCAA only 6 percent of the nearly 9,800 Division I baseball players are of African descent.
Every year I write about this issue, because every year the media assess this problem and get it terribly wrong. Jayson Love wrote on Bleacher Report, "More of the African American athletes whose future is in sports seem to opt for football or basketball over baseball, possibly because the sports have 'more action.' "
Gerald Early, an African-American scholar, wrote, "Black Americans don't play major league baseball so much these days because they don't want to."
Ed Wojtkowski, district administrator of Greater Bethesda/Calvert/Waldorf Little League, said, "You have soccer. You have lacrosse. You have the Internet. You have Nintendo.... Kids have a lot of choices these days."
Seattle's Garfield High baseball coach Tom Riley said, "Right now, if you're a black guy, it's not hip to play baseball."
All well-meaning commentaries; all wrong. It's not a question of action. It's a question of access. Baseball players now tend to come in two groups. There are Latino players, scouted before they are 10, signed into baseball academies before their sweet 16 and imported along a global pipeline until they are cast aside or make the majors. Then there are white players, who largely come from suburban backgrounds and college programs. Baseball--in the US context--has gone country club. Like golf and tennis, or their hemp-addled cousins in the X Games, they are sports that require serious bank for admission. In addition, you need parents with the leisure time to be involved. These sports just don't fit the reality for today's working families, black or white.
Leland Barclay wrote a sterling article for the Times Record of Fort Smith, Arkansas, in which he observed,
Baseball on the youth level has become an elite sport. Hand-picked, all-star caliber traveling teams have taken over the sport, and playing on one of those teams isn't cheap. Upfront costs for uniforms, personalized bat bags, name-brand cleats and air-brushed batting helmets quickly reach several hundred dollars before the season even begins. Add in road trips two or three weekends a month, entry fees to tournaments, motel rooms, meals and gas and costs skyrocket even more....
"It is very expensive," said [Coach Johnny] Young, who also coaches a traveling 11-and-under baseball team. "We have a sponsor that pays for our $300-a-tourney entry fees, but the parents are still out a ton of money."
Major League Baseball has attempted to address the access question through a program it runs called RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), but it has been like shoveling sand in the ocean. The greater problem is that our cities have become shells of their former selves. I live in Washington, DC. I get to travel to places like Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit. The story is the same: deindustrialization, shuttered community centers and home foreclosure signs that pepper the streets the way American flags did after 9/11. In Tom Riley's Seattle, a tent city formed in the shadow of Microsoft headquarters. Five schools are closing and a $200 million jail is being built.
Each city is also the site of a sparkling new baseball stadium, paid for in part or in full on the taxpayer dime. The irony has become a collective noose: fewer African-Americans play baseball because our cities are being strangled; our children are being fast-tracked to a ravenous prison industry; and no one has the time, money or will to organize a good old-fashioned game of baseball.
As sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards told me, "You have three out of five young African-American men in places like California and in most of our urban centers to some degree under the control of the courts. You know they're either under indictment or under arrest, incarcerated, on probation, on parole.... We're jailing, burying and disqualifying our athletes. Well, what's happening with the educational institutions? What's happening with the social institutions? So the athlete is truly the canary in the mine shaft that tells us that something is terribly wrong in the youth culture of black America. And that's an American problem. That's not just a black problem."
For African-Americans the national pastime is now past its time. The canary in the mine shaft has fluttered to the ground. It would behoove us to notice.