‘Around-the-horn’ on race and baseball
My True/Slant buddy, Bob Cook and I, have been having our own virtual “beer and race” conversation. Bob got things going with his post: “Race and baseball: the gravity-defying Little League dynasty of Jackie Robinson West.” The kids of Jackie Robinson West are a successful, Chicago-area Little League team, on its way to the Central Regional Finals of the Little League World Series. The team is comprised solely of African-American boys. As he accurately points out in his post, their quest for Little League immortality — while playing the “national pastime”– is quite unique these days:
In 1983, African-American representation was off its peak of the near 30 percent in the late 1970s, but it was still a lot higher than the 8.2 percent rate in 2007, the lowest since 1959, when Pumpsie Green’s debut with the Boston Red Sox integrated every major-league team.
That rate is up above 10 percent now, but baseball is in full throttle pushing programs to fight the decline of African-American representation. It has an Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., to give top inner-city players travel-ball-type exposure, runs an RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities)program to encourage urban kids to play ball and presents an annual Civil Rights Game (Chicago White Sox vs. Cincinnati was this year’s), all in an attempt to make the sport more relevant to a community that once embraced the sport so tightly, so much so that Jackie Robinson intergrating the majors in 1947 is as much or more a civil rights touchstone as an historic baseball event.
Bob provided a link to a Baltimore Sun op-ed by Mark Anthony Neal, which analyzed some of the reasons behind the decline of African-American participation in all levels of baseball. That piece included my own observations about the decline:
One explanation is that many poor youth are simply challenged by the lack of available space and equipment to play baseball. Longtime music executive and baseball fan Bill Stephney suggests another reason for the diminishing presence of black baseball players. According to Mr. Stephney, baseball lost legitimacy in black communities when black fathers became marginalized in those same communities.
There is merit in Mr. Stephney’s observation. Unlike basketball, which youngsters can learn by watching older youth play the game, the game of baseball requires a certain level of organization and instruction that, very often, only adults can provide. Indeed, my own father sparked my interest in baseball as a youth; I can’t imagine I would have become interested in the sport without his involvement.
In a nutshell…well, a ball-park peanut shell at least, I am part of a currently-dying, unprotected species: the African-American baseball fan. I played Little League and high school baseball. I even played “pick-up baseball” — impromptu games at local parks, and in the streets with any kids we could find. In Hempstead, Long Island during the 1970s, those kids were mostly African-American.
My late father, Ted, worked in the photographic editorial department of the magazine, Sports Illustrated. He took me to my first Mets game when I was five years old. His father William (my paternal granfather, of whom I am named after..), during the 1940s, used to take him to see Negro League games featuring the New York Black Yankees, at Yankee Stadium. Black folks would fill the seats for those contests.
My maternal grandfather, Bernard Bonilla, was also a big baseball fan. He was New York City-bred, of Afro-Cuban heritage. To this day, my mother Estelle, goes to more Mets games than I do. One of Bernard’s grandsons turned out to be a pretty good ball player himself: my cousin (former all-star and 1997 World Series ring-bearer), Bobby Bonilla.
When fathers began to massively disappear from the African-American families in the mid 1980s, so did the game of baseball from those communities. Beyond playing the game, fathers pass along the appreciation of baseball tradition: the history, the stats, team loyalty, tossing the ball, going to see the pros play. You still see this tradition passed along in the suburbs, while five-foot weeds grow on once-active diamonds in urban neighborhoods. I attribute African-American fatherlessness largely to short-sighted public policy, but that is for a future post. In Indiana, roughly 80 percent of African-American children are born to unwed moms. To be honest, the loss of baseball appreciation is probably the least important casualty arising out of this environment. Plus, other sports have gone through racial and ethnic shifts. The NBA used to be filled with names like Red Holtzman, George Mikan and Bob Cousy. We didn’t lose any sleep over basketball’s metamorphosis. But if you saw Willie Mays play centerfield, Lou Brock steal second base, Dwight Gooden throw a rookie fastball, or Hank Aaron launch a grand-slam, a traditional demographic of potential great players are unfortunately being disconnected from a game based on tradition. For true fans, it is disturbing.
The issue is not one of race, and is much more demographically-nuanced: many of the Caribbean, Spanish-speaking players who have been imported into Major League baseball, are of African descent (what we Americans have historically referred to as being “black”). In fact, most of them share a West African/slavery lineage, that puts them genealogically closer to most black Americans, than President Barack Obama’s background.
Major League Baseball has been aggressively addressing all of this for some years through its “RBI” (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program. I am currently working with the Newark Bears, an independent, minor-league team that proudly traces its history to the Negro Leagues. They are committed to rebuilding baseball in Newark, New Jersey and urban communities, as well: the kind of urban communities where the success of programs like Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West, were once unremarkable. That’s the way it should be.