Baseball’s Race Problem

Baseball’s Race Problem

More than half a century after they reenergized the sport, Black Americans may not need baseball. But baseball needs more Black players—and fans.

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Roger Angell, who turned 100 in this year of pandemic and upheaval, is one of the best and most beloved writers on baseball, in large part because of his lyrical, sinewy prose. Over the decades, he has cogently analyzed the “summer game” and its importance to American life. Baseball, he wrote, boasts “the most enviable corporate image in the world.” Its evocations, overtones, and loyalties, firmly planted in the mind of every American male during childhood and nurtured thereafter by millions of words of free newspaper publicity, appear to be unassailable. It is the national pastime. It is youth, springtime, a trip to the country, part of our past. It is the roaring excitement of huge urban crowds and the sleepy green afternoon silences of midsummer.

Without effort, it engenders and thrives on heroes, legends, self-identification, and hometown pride.

Yet even as far back as 1964, when Angell wrote those words, he knew that this bucolic corporate image had been smudged and distorted by exploding television revenues and the owners’ avarice for newer, more profitable locations for their teams. The brusque departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants for the West Coast seven years before, he wrote, left those teams’ fans bereft and with “the new knowledge that baseball’s executives cared only for the profits inherent in novelty and new audiences, and sensed no obligation whatever…to the fans who had built their business.” Still, because much of the American psyche was for so long tethered to baseball, the game remained at the very least a symbol of national continuity, even consensus.

Whether you liked baseball or not, you at least knew what it was, how it was played (three strikes, etc.), what it represented, who its stars were. And how you related to it (or didn’t) still connected you to a part of the country’s soul. Despite more shifts of franchises and players from one city to another, despite Astroturf, cocaine, collusion, strikes, steroids, Pete Rose’s gambling bug, Al Campanis’s bigoted ramblings, and tackle football’s all but total conquest of America’s athletic dream life, baseball endured. If none of those could kill the grand old game, it can certainly withstand a mutilated regular season with cardboard cutouts in the stands instead of people.

What was also telling in 1964 was that the racial integration of baseball that the owners had fought—even after Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Dodgers in 1947—had altered more than just major league rosters. Black players brought to major league ball a kind of base-running dynamism and defensive flair that hadn’t been prevalent since the early 20th century, before Babe Ruth went to the New York Yankees in 1920 and inaugurated the boom, so to speak, of home-run appeal. The contrast between 1964’s National League pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals, with their roster of slick, speedy, and strong Black stars like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood, and their American League counterparts, the once-mighty and soon-to-decline New York Yankees, with an aging roster that featured Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford, demonstrated how far the AL still lagged the senior circuit in signing African Americans. (The Cards won a tough seven-game World Series, with Gibson’s gritty pitching sealing the deciding game.)

Today, more than half a century after Black Americans helped reenergize the sport, baseball once again has a color problem: a steep decline of African American interest and participation in the game. The trend was most trenchantly detailed in a 2015 visual essay for HBO’s muckraking Real Sports by comedian Chris Rock, who argued that such problems have their roots precisely among the nuances, subtleties, and grace notes nostalgically exalted by the Roger Angells of the world. Rock is a middle-aged New York Mets fan, as am I. And as 50-and-over Black baseball fans, we are in no way happy with—but also in no way surprised by—the difficulties that baseball has connecting with younger fans, Black and white.

“Baseball,” Rock said, “wants everything to stay the way things used to be. But the world has sped up, but the game is slower than ever…. It’s old-fashioned and stuck in the past…. [It’s] the only game where there’s a right way to play the game: the white way. The way it was played a hundred years ago, when only whites were allowed to play.”

When Rock’s Real Sports essay first aired, the percentage of Black Americans in major league baseball had fallen from its 1981 peak of roughly 18.7 percent to just 8.0. As of 2019, the centennial of Robinson’s birth, the figure was about 7.8 percent—and by some pessimists’ reckoning, still dropping. I can’t speak for Rock here, but if you believe, as I do, that the sport of baseball, while not always deserving of the secular worship it often draws from lifelong supplicants, should remain a vital American connection fusing generation to generation, creed to creed, and neighborhood to neighborhood, then it should alarm you as much as it does me that, according to NCAA statistics from 2018, only 4 percent of collegiate baseball players are African American.

Most players of color coming up through the minors and colleges are from Latin American powers like the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Peru. Some of those players are recruited to play for baseball teams at historically Black colleges and universities. The rest of those HBCU baseball teams are predominantly—even overwhelmingly—white. A 2019 New York Times story focused on Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., an HBCU with just four African American players among the 28 people on its team. According to the Times, sometimes no Black players are on the starting roster when the team plays other HBCUs in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Howard University, the alma mater of Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, Vernon Jordan, Sean Combs, and Kamala Harris, dropped the sport in 2002, though that was more because the school lacked the proper facilities. Howard still fields a lacrosse team, but baseball hasn’t returned—and there doesn’t appear to be much of an outcry for it on campus.

“At least I haven’t heard of any,” says Gary Williams, a Howard alum who was the sports director of the school’s student-run radio station, WHBC-FM, in the mid-1980s. He is now an announcer for sports events at Baltimore’s Coppin State University, whose baseball program is “good and thriving,” with a roster that he says is roughly half African American and half white or Latino. So things may not be quite so dire in the HBCUs overall. But the decline in Black America’s interest remains unlikely to be reversed anytime soon.

“It’s not the money,” Rock says. “You can’t tell me Black kids can’t afford baseball when everybody’s buying Jordans [basketball shoes] for $300. That’s six gloves right there!”

(Well, actually, Chris, an aluminum bat can cost as much as $350, and a decent to good glove can run more than $400. Also, as many active and retired Black American players can tell you, if a child qualifies for a traveling youth team that can provide valuable experience for playing as an adult, the costs involved can run into the thousands. We good? Let’s move on.)

Being an entertainer, Rock identifies much of the problem with what he sees as anachronisms in presentation. “You got cheesy old organ music at the games. I mean, where’s the Beats by Dre?” (He’s got a point. I went to a San Francisco 49ers game last fall, and instead of a brass band or organ, there was a DJ working up the crowd with his turntables and speakers along with the cheerleaders at Levi’s Stadium. So 21st century!) Also, as with other critics of baseball as it is played now, Rock thinks the games can take too long, and he’s right, with innings lengthened by shifting lineups, pitching changes, and the relatively new phenomenon of umpires convening to review videos of base running or fielding plays—not, thank the baseball gods, balls and strikes, not yet, anyway.

Major League Baseball has been trying to address its timing issues by experimenting with pitch clocks that give a pitcher 20 seconds to throw, which are already used in the minor leagues and college baseball to speed up the pace. The major leagues tried them during spring training a year ago but balked, as it were, at mandating them unilaterally. There’s even been loose talk by at least one unidentified MLB executive of shortening the game from nine to seven innings, meaning that games on average “would finish closer to two-and-a-half hours than three hours or longer,” he told ESPN, and thus would be a “better fit for the common attention span.”

Maybe. But picking up the pace is, as far as I’m concerned, the least of baseball’s immediate worries. There’s also showmanship, bravado; consider the hip-hoppers’ idea of cool, as opposed to the 1950s ethic of “those who show don’t know, and those who know don’t show,” as embodied by, say, Miles Davis or Steve McQueen. My taste favors the latter version, which is why I’ve never been partial to showboating football players who turn every touchdown into performance art. But if flourishes at the plate and on the basepaths are what get the kids hyped, then I’m with Rock when he disses the code of never showing outward or excessive exuberance after hitting a home run, for fear of getting a ball thrown at your head as payback.

It’s not rocket science why black parents with athletically gifted children steer them to basketball and football. In the deathless words of the late TV sports impresario Don Ohlmeyer, “The answer to all your questions is money.” In the wonderland that is American pro sports, basketball rules in terms of player income, according to the most recent available figures, with the average National Basketball Association salary about $8.3 million per year. The MLB, however, seems to be holding its own among the rest, with its average player salary coming in at about $4 million. The National Football League, considered the 800-pound gorilla of American sports, has an average salary of about $3.6 million.

But surely much of the appeal of basketball and football is the room they allow for self-expression. Even in the quasi-fascist, polyethylene-armored venue of tackle football, kids are indulged in the process of Being Themselves within the parameters of accepted behavior. If flipping the bat like a circus juggler is what a kid wants to do after taking one downtown, then it seems a relatively minor concession when compared with shaving off another generation of potential Black or non-Black players and fans.

Clarence Carter III, a Bethune-Cookman player, alluded to such unofficial but sanctioned behavioral norms when he told the Times, “If people could just accept us more in this sport, if they let us express ourselves—not in a disrespectful way—but just learn to accept how we actually play we will come out of our shell and start picking up the bats again.”

After all, if the racial integration of the major leagues that began with Robinson helped nudge the sport back to its pre-Ruthian emphasis on base stealing, slick fielding, and other small-ball tactics, then what would it hurt for the big leagues to update the old Negro Leagues’ emphasis on stagecraft? Shadow ball, say, when players pantomimed warming up with an invisible baseball.

I know a lot of hard-core baseball fans who blame the grand sonorities of Ken Burns’s 1994 megadocumentary series Baseball for making the game seem even loftier and, thus, unreachable to younger fans. But when I listen to the colorful, almost Joycean patter of Buck O’Neil, a veteran and sage of the Negro Leagues, as he recounts at the end of the series’ fifth installment the fateful bottom-of-the-ninth meeting between pitcher Satchel Paige and batter Josh Gibson, twin towers of Negro League history, in the 1942 Negro World Series between Paige’s Kansas City Monarchs and Gibson’s Homestead Greys, I think that it wouldn’t be the worst thing for baseball to allow some contemporary correlatives to Paige’s outrageous decision to load the bases for the powerful Gibson, followed by his big, broad show of chugging down a foaming glass of seltzer before hurling the first of three strikes to his friendly rival.

You’d need to figure out how best to go about staging such set pieces for a generation that takes its cues from Drake, Chance the Rapper, and Kendrick Lamar, which might mean finding rappers and others in the business willing to apply their craft and imaginations to the game. Nelly (aka Cornell Iral Haynes Jr., formerly of St. Louis, didn’t play with the Cardinals, but he did flash some leather with the city’s amateur baseball association and remains a devoted fan of the sport. You could at least start with him.

At a time when the media has been paying greater attention to race—and when even the mainstream press now uses the term “systemic racism”—Black culture still sets the table for what young people think is hip and happening. The post–George Floyd surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, which involves more and younger white people, should offer baseball an even bigger incentive to amp up its ties to Black America.

That baseball players, many of them white, were recently seen to kneel before (not during) the national anthem in solidarity with the BLM protests is a promising sign. At this point, it’s only a sign. But the overall response so far is a whole lot better than what Bruce Maxwell, a biracial catcher, faced in 2017, when he was the first major leaguer to take a knee during (not before) the national anthem while playing for the Oakland Athletics, not far from where 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first made a similar gesture of protest. Maxwell sustained death threats, racial epithets, and emotional stress severe enough to cause him to contemplate suicide. After playing in the Mexican League and restoring his shattered confidence, Maxwell is back in major league baseball with the Mets.

The work of connecting with younger fans begins by acknowledging just how much younger. The average major league baseball fan now is 53 years old, with only 29 percent of fans in that much-coveted (by advertisers) 18-to-34 demographic—the same age bracket that encompasses most active ballplayers. In a summer when Covid-19 turned athletic contests into live TV shows without live audiences, the biggest baseball stories for older fans like me were the deaths of pitching greats Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver, along with that of Gibson’s teammate and peerless base runner Lou Brock in September.

Seaver and Brock were contemporaries in the 1960s and ’70s whose exploits for the Mets and the Cardinals, respectively, became embedded in the memories of those growing up with the game in those years. Reliving those memories, augmented by YouTube clips and social media tributes, provided the kind of release from worry and ennui that the present-day games were supposed to give us. Whatever the current Mets and Cardinals were doing, somehow it didn’t seem to mean as much in the present time, especially when it remains uncertain whether this year’s World Series, planned to start October 20, will go ahead if there’s an autumn surge of coronavirus cases.

Even if it does, some of us oldsters will likely go to bed before those games end if, as seems likely, the networks maintain their prime-time playoff series schedules. The prevalence of nighttime baseball on television, beginning as far back as the 1970s, helped lose a couple of generations of kids. Think of the teens (and younger) who couldn’t hang out in front of the tube late enough to see some of the greatest baseball games of the postmillennium, whether it was the rousing comeback of the Boston Red Sox over the Yankees (and their teams’ respective histories) in the 2004 American League Championship Series or the marathon everything-but-the-kitchen-sink seventh game of the 2016 World Series, when the Chicago Cubs ended their century-plus championship drought. Maybe they wouldn’t all have become committed fans of the game from such exposure. But that doesn’t mean the MLB shouldn’t try to find a way to start its prime-time games earlier in the day.

Think of the all the teens and tweens, twenty- to thirtysomethings, and even fifty- to seventysomethings you might catch in your TV webs (in Variety-speak) if you regularly aired those games during Eastern Time happy hours. Great games and great teams raise baseball’s profile on their own, even spur revivals in interest. But they need to be seen and experienced as they happen, not just in game highlights served for early morning TV like cold pizza.

Baseball, along with the rest of us, has a lot to deal with in the anxious present, mostly in trying to keep track of confirmed Covid-19 cases among players and tests for all the others. But what also occurs to me, at least, is that the constricted nature of this 2020 season might goad the MLB and its TV enablers to consider that not all games—and especially playoff series—have to be aimed solely at a prime-time viewership.

Games in broad daylight might not seem so risky or esoteric a prospect, especially in a post-Covid economy that will almost certainly be transformed beyond immediate recognition. The rhythm of daily life could once again be stretched and adjusted to accommodate weekday baseball in the afternoons more often than national holidays because—maybe—we will once again find ourselves needing the grace of baseball, with all the poetry, brashness, complexity, and above all, personality of America as we want desperately to believe it to be.

If we must have home-run derbies, celebrity softball, and DJs to goose the ratings, so be it. I’d also settle for a regular diet of shadow ball, please. The legacy of the Negro Leagues, born the same year as Roger Angell, can never be honored enough.

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