Fewer black baseball players a disturbing trend amongst America’s pastime

Justin Onslow and Justin Onslow

Major League Baseball celebrates an iconic American figure April 15.

Each year, baseball honors Jackie Robinson. Not only did Robinson compile a Hall-of-Fame career in 10 marvelous seasons, but he also broke baseball’s color barrier, progressed race relations in professional baseball and effectively “led off” the effort for equal rights for blacks and minorities in the United States.

Robinson paved the way for black athletes to play the game that, at the time, was America’s favorite organized sport.

When he broke the color barrier in 1947, it was a monumental and joyous feat for the black community. After all, it was America’s pastime. After years of being underrepresented and discriminated, blacks finally had their shot at stepping into the spotlight to play the game as equals.

According to Gallup Polls conducted between 1951 and 1954, 52 percent of blacks admitted to actively following Major League Baseball.

Fifty years later, Gallup Polls have shown a disturbing trend.

In 2002, only 5 percent of blacks considered baseball their favorite sport, giving way to overwhelming popularity for basketball and football.

The incredible decrease in popularity of baseball among the black community is troubling for several reasons. Fewer blacks are watching baseball — but more disturbingly — fewer black athletes are playing baseball than ever before.

As a fan of the sport, I grew up admiring the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds. Recent steroid scandals aside, all three of those players were among the most talented and popular players in the game. They were as fun to watch as anyone on the diamond. During long summers filled with whiffle ball home run derby, I’d often step out of my comfort zone and switch sides of the plate to imitate Griffey, one of my favorite center fielders of all time.

In my coverage of the University baseball team this season, I have noticed the same trend in Mid-American Conference.

Fewer black athletes are choosing to play baseball now than at any time in the sport’s storied history, and although some may argue this problem is being blown out of proportion, I disagree.

Granted, choosing to play a respective sport is a matter of personal preference, but there are reasons that choice may no longer be in the hands of black youth. Look no further than MLB’s implementation of the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and Junior RBI programs, which aim to, among other things, “promote greater inclusion of minorities into the mainstream of the game.”

Baseball is an expensive sport, and many inner-city communities simply do not have the capabilities to provide opportunities for many black youths to play baseball at a young age. Many of those children shoot jumpers on basketball courts or toss footballs on vacant lawns; sports less expensive to establish and play compared to baseball.

I believe the problems begin with the lack of opportunities for blacks, but no one jumps straight from grade school to the MLB.

Because of Title IX, colleges with state funding are required to provide an equal amount of scholarships to both males and females. In recent years, the number of baseball scholarships on the college level has plummeted, providing fewer financially-assisted education opportunities to baseball players.

Consequently, more black athletes stray away from baseball and turn to basketball and football — two sports providing more scholarship opportunities and a better chance at moving on to the next level.

I don’t think this was what Jackie Robinson had in mind for his posterity.

Baseball is a game steeped in tradition and grandeur. Although several events tainted the game’s storied past, baseball has overcome its own struggles and remains a popular game in America. It’s still considered America’s “National Pastime.”

With the systematic decline of black athletes choosing to play baseball, there are even fewer reasons for black youth to get into the game.

In 1975, 27 percent of Major Leaguers were black, and any child turning on a television would get to see “Hammerin’ Hank Aaron” or “Mr. October,” Reggie Jackson hit towering home runs and establish a legacy worthy of imitation.

The lack of black major leaguers is a major problem, and the trickle-down effect has never been more apparent. Baseball is a sport that has benefited from racial and cultural diversity for decades. In a time in which sports have become more publicized than ever, the opportunity to present that diversity to America’s youth has never been bigger.

Baseball cannot thrive without cultural diversity, and the declining popularity of the game proves this. It is our responsibility to raise awareness of the problem and take steps to ensure Jackie Robinson’s legacy does not fade away.

Next year, the University will be the home to Brandon Howard, a top-ranked black middle infielder from Cincinnati. Although this might not seem like a big deal, given the state of baseball today, it kind of is. And it could be a big deal to future black athletes that visit the University with the intention of one day playing baseball at the collegiate level. Every coach will tell you his or her goal is to put the most talented group of players on the field, and black players can be as talented as any.

What we as a society must do is recognize the decreasing number of black baseball players as a problem, and do something about it. American ideals are centered around inclusion and diversity. If baseball truly is America’s pastime, we have to recognize that baseball would not be the great sport it is today without the diversity and success of the athletes playing the game.

Jackie Robinson once said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

So often we forget how much impact we can have on those around us.