The Kansas City Star had a piece today about the sharp decline in the number of African-Americans playing baseball. Of course, when I grew up, the Royals relied heavily on African-Americans. George Brett was the star, but without Willie Wilson and Frank White hitting ahead of him and Hal McRae and Willie Aikens or John Mayberry hitting behind him, opposing pitchers would have never thrown Brett a hittable pitch.
Today, the Royals’ starting position players, their five starting pitchers and all of their key relief pitchers are all either white or Hispanic. The only African-American on their roster right now is speedy outfielder Jarrod Dyson.
I think I know why.
Playing competitive baseball is expensive, both in terms of time and money. My cousin has a grade-school-aged son who plays competitively. He’s good. He pitches and hits in the middle of the order on teams that go to the championships every year. But the time and money commitment is higher than what I spend on professional development every year–and I’m the kind of guy who’s required to take tests of 200-250 questions that take 4-6 hours at a cost of $500 per pop on a regular basis.
You can safely assume that when Daylight Savings Time is in effect, they’re doing something baseball-related every evening, and playing local games or traveling to tournaments every weekend. It’s a serious financial commitment on my cousin’s part, and it limits the kind of work he can do. I’ve had jobs that don’t allow me to make the kind of commitment he’s made.
And if you’re not a white-collar professional of some kind, it’s hard to find the money to compete at that level. So you have to have a job that pays enough, but gives you the flexibility to have weekends and evenings free.
The financial barrier to entry may not be quite as high as it is for golf or tennis, and the geographic barrier to entry isn’t as bad as it is for hockey, but there’s no question to me why African-American athletes tend to gravitate more towards basketball and football than towards baseball. Neither sport requires the financial commitment that baseball does. A gifted athlete who lives in the inner city with one parent who works for minimum wage and with highly variable hours can still play basketball and get a lot of time in, by playing at a public school and by playing in church leagues, which are often free or low-cost because the inner-city churches see it as an outreach ministry. And a church with limited resources can more easily justify a multipurpose gymnasium than a baseball diamond.
Both basketball and football are accessible to kids who were born into families who can’t afford baseball.
So what about Hispanics playing baseball?
Climate has a lot to do with it. The closer you are to the Equator, the more months out of the year you can spend outside, playing baseball. Hitting a baseball is exceedingly difficult, and the only way to learn it is by spending a lot of time doing it. The climate in Hispanic countries is conducive to playing baseball most of the year, and the momentum swings that direction too–young Hispanics have plenty of star baseball players to look up to and try to emulate. Poor Hispanic kids can–and do–play in the streets with a broomstick and makeshift gloves and balls, and they can do it nearly year round. That’s not possible in many parts of the United States.
With African-Americans, the momentum is towards football and basketball. It’s much easier to find an African-American star to relate to–whether he plays in the city nearest you, or grew up in the same area you did–in football or basketball than it is in baseball.
And let’s face it–you like the athletes you can relate to the most. Almost every baseball team has a guy who can play five, six or seven positions and possesses above-average speed but doesn’t hit well enough to really justify being in the lineup every day. I like that guy because I can relate to him.
I also asked my cousin about the skills required to play each sport. I only played soccer and baseball competitively growing up–he was a five-sport athlete, so he knows more about it. He said it’s possible to play basketball and football at a high level on athleticism alone. And he noted that running and jumping are gifts, not skills–you either have them or you don’t.
Baseball requires a tremendous number of skills that require a lot of time to learn. Many baseball players are very poor athletes–I’m out of shape and more than a decade older than Billy Butler, but I’ll bet I can outrun him–but they developed skills over the years that made them good baseball players in spite of their inability to run.
But I agree, it’s sad. In the 1980s, I watched Frank White and Willie Wilson star for the Royals, and I watched Andre Dawson, Leon Durham, Gary Matthews and Shawon Dunston star for the Chicago Cubs. Closer to home, the stereotypical St. Louis Cardinal at that time was an African American who could hit both right- and left-handed and steal at least 30 bases a year. They always had at least four people like that in the starting lineup and one or two more on the bench. For the better part of about 12 years, the Cardinals actively sought out that type of player, and for whatever reason, they could always find more speed-demon switch hitters who were African-American than they could find who were white or even Hispanic. Ozzie Smith was the only one of the bunch who ended up in the Hall of Fame, though Cardinals fans of a certain age can quickly rattle off other names, like Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Lonnie Smith, and Terry Pendleton, and if you remember David Green and Curt Ford in the right place in St. Louis, you won’t be buying any of your own drinks that night.
It’s sad to see a demographic that makes up 12.6 percent of my country basically shut out of a sport that they once excelled in.