At a time when Black players make up over 50 percent of the NFL and NBA, the game Jackie Robinson desegregated almost 67 years ago languishes far behind. If the trend continues, African Americans will make up less than 10 percent of major league baseball players when the gates open for the 2014 season on March 31st.
According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, a University of Central Florida research institute that releases diversity report cards on major American sport leagues, in 2013 African-American players made up over 76 and 66 percent of the NBA and NFL respectively. In baseball, that number was just over 8 percent.
Ken Singleton played for the Baltimore Orioles from 1975 to 1984, during what he called “the zenith of African American or Black ballplayers,” in an interview with the AFRO. Currently a broadcaster for the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network, Singleton cited a number of factors contributing to the decline of Black involvement in professional baseball, including the costs associated with the game, and the greater availability of educational scholarships for football and basketball.
“There’s another reason for the Black athlete to think about football and basketball … they’re getting an education, and right after they come out of college, if they’re good enough, the next stop is the NBA. You don’t have to go to the minor leagues,” Singleton said.
Ray Banks, a board member of the Hubert V. Simmons Museum of Negro Leagues Baseball in Baltimore County, also spoke about factors related to access, especially in inner-cities. “There are no batting cages in the city of Baltimore … all the batting cages are in the outlying areas of Baltimore County.”
Jimmy Bland, a former player for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues from 1959-62, had his chance at a major league career undone by the military draft. He added the Vietnam War as another factor for the decline in African-American participation in baseball.
Bland said, “Those guys came back to the United States with a lot of trauma. There were a lot of single mothers taking care of the boys, and the father wasn’t in the home. And I think that had an awful, awful lot to do with it.”
For Bland, many soldiers affected by their experience of war came back addicted to drugs and were not present in the lives of their children. They were not teaching them about baseball. This information gap helps account for the decline in baseball participation among African Americans relative to other sports. “Baseball is a boring sport,” said Bland, “if you don’t know the game.”
For those interested in learning more about the game and the history of African Americans in baseball, the Hubert V. Simmons Museum moved to its new permanent facility at the Owings Mills branch of the Baltimore County Public Library on March 27th.
For Luther Atkinson, a former Negro Leagues player, the history of the Negro Leagues is not simply about baseball, but about civil rights. “I want the kids to know what we had to go through,” Atkinson said, “and what we had to endure just to play the game of baseball, which they called the all-American game. But it was the all-American game for Whites, not for Blacks. That’s why we try to let them know what these great men had to go through and how great they were.”