In anticipation of the 2014 season, former Baltimore Orioles Ken Singleton spoke to the AFRO about the decline in the number of Black baseball players in the major leagues, major league’s efforts to combat that decline, as well as his path to becoming one of the few Black play-by-play announcers covering professional baseball. Singleton was a member of the last Orioles team to win a World Series (1983), and played with the club from 1975 until his retirement in 1984. He is currently a broadcaster for the Yankees Entertainment and Sports Network. In Part I, Singleton discusses the decline of African-American participation in major league baseball.
AFRO: When you played in Baltimore, did you feel like the team had a strong Black fan base?
KS: I wouldn’t say that was particularly true. There were Black fans, there’s no doubt about that, but as far as “strong,” I’m not sure. Remember, a lot of games were on TV, and people watched the games on television.
AFRO: Do you think that was a function of the economics of the city at the time?
KS: Most definitely, and that’s probably true in just about every single city, it’s not only Baltimore.
AFRO: I don’t get the sense that there’s a lack of Black fans, but sometimes there seems to be a lack of African-Americans participating, whether it’s going to the stadium or playing the game itself.
KS: I don’t think that was the case when I was with the team, because in those days, I think that was the zenith of African-American or Black ballplayers. I think there were over 20 percent in the league, and I had several Black teammates: Pat Kelly and Lee May, over the years. Eddie Murray, of course. Floyd Rayford, Al Bumbry, Elrod Hendricks were on the team, although he’s from the Caribbean … but the fact is that the numbers have dwindled over the years. That wasn’t the case back in the day. We had a strong representation of Black players on the Orioles during my 10 years with the team.
AFRO: What has been the biggest change since the era when so many African Americans were representing the game?
KS: I think that, No. 1, baseball’s kind of an expensive game to play. And also, maybe you don’t have facilities within the city limits where most African-Americans or Black players grow up. … Black players have a tendency to gravitate towards the other sports, basketball and football, where educational scholarships can be handed out if you’re pretty good, and we see that all the time. We see how, even now, the NFL is 70 percent Black, and the NBA, certainly, at least that, maybe more. And I think what is happening in baseball is most of the good athletes are gravitating towards those sports. But also I see in baseball, and this is something people don’t talk about very often, the percentage of foreign born players goes up every single year in major league baseball. That means eventually it’s not only going to be an African-American problem, it’s going to be an American problem, if you want to look at it as a problem of having players that fans might have a little harder time relating to, particularly if the team isn’t playing well. They want to see somebody on the field that they can relate to.
AFRO: It was in the 90s when you started to really see a large number of foreign-born players, especially from Latin America.
KS: They put academies in the Caribbean. You know, it’s a cheap source of labor. Only Puerto Rico is subject to the draft. So you can find some very good players like a David Ortiz, or a Robinson Cano, or somebody like a Manny Ramirez relatively cheap, much more cheaply than you could someone you have to draft here in the United States and have to pay maybe a couple million dollars to just to get a contract signed and then you don’t even know if they’re going to be any good. That’s one of the issues here.
AFRO: Do you think the game could have done more between the era in which you played and the era in which you started to see more international faces, to make more Black players the faces of franchises or of the sport?
KS: You know, that’s a good point, but, as I said, if the majority of the fans are White, they are going to gravitate towards somebody they want to root for and usually it’s another White player rather than a Black player. There’s very few instances where you might say that an African-American or a Latin America player is the face of a team. One major exception, of course, would be Derek Jeter. I’ve covered him for 19 years now, and he might even be the face of Major League Baseball over that majority of period of time. And it’s going to be tough to replace somebody like him, not only for the Yankees but for major league baseball itself.
AFRO: Do you think the notion that baseball has a White-majority fan base is more a function of who is showing up at the stadium versus who is watching the game?
KS: To watch the games on TV – I mean everybody has a television. And it’s getting to the point where attendance in ballparks is almost becoming secondary. I will say this, the teams love to have people in the ballparks, there’s no doubt about it, but with teams now having their own TV networks, it’s almost going to be more important how many people are watching on television.
AFRO: Do you think as teams increasingly move away from relying on ticket sales as their major revenue stream that we’ll start to see other faces become the face of the franchise?
KS: I would hope so. It depends on how good a player is, of course. Everybody likes to see a winner. I think that that is one reason why Jeter has been so admired, not only in New York but throughout baseball. When he leaves, he’ll be seen as a winning type player with five world championships. And I think, at this point in his career, he has the highest personal winning percentage of any player that’s currently active. In other words, of all the games he’s played, his percentage of wins is greater than anybody else. And fans love to see winning-type players.