Curtis Granderson, Andrew McCutcheon and comedian Chris Rock have all recently expounded on the new problem baseball has with African Americans. This issue is not one of discrimination reminiscent of the pre-Jackie Robinson era, but rather the problem the game itself is having reaching the overall black community.
The numbers are pretty staggering. While the US Census Bureau puts the number of African Americans in this country at a fairly steady 13% of the population, it wasn’t that long ago that representation in the game of baseball exceeded 20%. Today it is at just 8% and falling. That represents an average of just about 2 black ballplayers per club. Some don’t even make that standard. Chris Rock, in his recent “Real Sports” segment cited the World Champion San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals both having rosters wtihout a single black player. (Given the recent issues in nearby Ferguson, not having any African Americans on a St. Louis-based team is a little incongruous).
While Rock maintains that even poor Dominican children can play the game, thus demonstrating it is not an issue of economics, McCutcheon begs to differ. He said that in the USA the days are gone when someone simply walks up to a pickup game, spots the player with the best raw talent and mentors him into becoming a superstar. Today’s games are heavily marketed and sanctioned, that include traveling squads (at the player’s expense), YouTube video productions (at the player’s expense), social media campaigns and personal websites, specialized conditioning and training (just like the Barwis program for the Mets’ major leaguers) at their expense, and so forth. Therefore he said there is a huge economic disconnect between more affluent children’s chances of getting noticed and the much slimmer opportunities available to someone who cannot fund these new approaches.
McCutcheon continued, “When you’re a kid from a low-income family who has talent, how do you get recognized? Now, you have to pay thousands of dollars for the chance to be noticed in showcase tournaments in big cities. My parents loved me, but they had to work hard to put food on the table, and there wasn’t much left over. They didn’t have the option of skipping a shift to take me to a tournament over the weekend.“
On Jackie Robinson Day Curtis Granderson lamented, “We consider baseball the American pastime," said Granderson. "And if it's going to be the American pastime, obviously the African American population is at 13%. So the numbers aren't matching up accordingly. The big thing is, there's other interests that kids are involved in, and we've just got to continue to keep baseball as one of those interests that kids want to play."
Commissioner Rob Manfred has vowed to work towards marketing baseball to inner city youth but that may be more of a gesture to creating fans rather than players as it does not address the economic challenges of modern youth baseball player marketing.
Another disconnect is how baseball is perceived at the college level. Stillman College, one of the oldest predominatly black colleges in the country has 36 players on its baseball team but only one of them is African American. Howard University eliminated its baseball program altogether.
McCutcheon points out the economic disparity and how it forces some players into other sports, “And you know what’s crazy? Even despite all the breaks I got with baseball, I probably wouldn’t be a Major League player right now if I didn’t tear my ACL when I was 15. I thought I was going to play college football. Why? Economics. If I could’ve been a wide receiver for a D-I school, I would have chosen that path because of the promise of a full scholarship. The University of Florida offered me a baseball scholarship, but it only covered 70 percent of the tuition. My family simply couldn’t afford the other 30 percent. The fact is, no matter how good you are, you’re not getting a full ride in baseball.”
However, the economics at work in the Latin American countries do not play out the same way in the USA. Said McCutcheon, “Fixing that problem is complicated, but when I was a kid, I looked at baseball players growing up in Latin America with a lot of envy. If you’re a talented kid in the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico, a team can come along and say, “We’re going to sign you for $50,000 and take you into our organization and develop you, feed you, take care of your travel.” To me, as a 14-year-old kid whose family was struggling, that would have meant everything to me. I would have taken that deal in a second.”
Consider also the cost of attending a game. It wasn’t that long ago that the Mets faithful were incensed to hear Sandy Alderson say the team would spend more when there were more fannies in the seats. The average cost to attend a baseball game now is now $212.46 for a family of four. For many people that number is simply too high to fit within their budget.
In addressing the image of the game, Rock was critical of the trend towards retro-designs for baseball stadiums that evoke images of the “good old days” which, for African Americans, were not the same bucolic reverie that they were for many Caucasian people. In fact, right now the demographics of a typical baseball TV viewer shows that 5 out of 6 are white and the average age is 53. Chris Rock said, “That’s a Tea Party rally!”
To buttress his argument, he pointed out that Little League participation has fallen 20% since 1995 nationwide and World Series viewership is down 50% over the same period of time. You’d think someone would be paying attention to these trends to figure out how to change course.
Rock further criticized the so-called unwritten rules of baseball which seem to run contrary to other sports. He suggested that the Dodgers instructed flamboyant outfielder Yasiel Puig to learn how to duck if he was going to keep up his swagger. That differs greatly from football, soccer, basketball and most any other sports where scoring is indeed a cause for celebration. In Korea, he rightly points out, flipping a bat after a home run has become performance art.
He also picked on the pace of the game issue, citing a half inning with the Mets last season that lasted 22 minutes without a run being scored. The perception is that the game is boring yet precious little is being done to change its appeal. Hopefully the powers that be are paying attention. After all, it is often the African American community that helps set the tone for what younger people consider cool. If the game continues to lose this segment of the population then its fan base will continue to shrink in the future.