April 17, 2007
A WHITER SHADE OF PALE...
As all of Major League Baseball commemorated the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, there wasn't a black player on either team in our series finale against UALR. The irony of that fact hit me as I watched Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Joe Torre, and the entire Dodger team wearing Jackie's number 42 yesterday.
My wife was surprised that every player in Major League Baseball wasn't wearing that number to honor someone who holds such an important place in the history of Baseball, and in America. My reply was that many young people in baseball are unaware of the history of their sport, let alone their country. Eleven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus, Lt. Jackie Robinson refused to move to the back of a bus in Fort Hood, Texas. His fire as a man burned early and hot.
Major League Baseball has seen the number of black Americans dwindle to only 9%; my guess is that the numbers are lower for College Baseball. There's been a lot written lately about those numbers and what might be the cause or the solution. As a college coach in this country, I've been asked a number of times about this issue. There is always the risk that in trying to explain something, it sounds as if you are making excuses or being defensive.
Fully aware of that risk, I thought I would throw my feelings out there after all the attention garnered this past week by the Robinson celebration and the Imus debacle.
This country deals painfully with the issue of race. It seems to color much of what we say and do, how we judge people, and are judged by others. As Bruce Springsteen said, we all "live in our American skin". The fact that it is American has historically made life difficult.
I once had a boss who criticized the absence of black players in our program and strongly encouraged me to change it. Despite any reasons I could voice to explain, it was pointless to try. I had to raise our minority profile. That recruiting season I paid particularly close attention to any black players that were in games.
The truth was that black players were few and far between.
I remember visiting Okaloosa-Walton C.C. that fall and being honest about my needs. I met with a young man named Kerwin Bell who had played a solid game for O-W the first night of the weekend. He had good grades and seemed interested in FAU. I was open about our roster and the reason for my interest in him. I told him he'd be the "Jackie Robinson" of Florida Atlantic. There weren't any other black players, but we had good kids. Kerwin said it didn't matter, he had rarely had black teammates before, he just wanted a chance to play.
There have been other black players here since then, although Kerwin had the most success. He went on to be a student assistant during his fifth year with us. He's now a proud father living with his family in Toronto. I'm glad he was part of our program, but part of me wishes I wasn't conditioned to think of him as a "black" player. He was a player, like everyone else.
So why aren't there more Kerwin's in college baseball?
I read a statistic in an article on this subject which stated that in 1960, 80% of black American homes had a father in residence. By 1980 the numbers had changed to 20% of homes with fathers. If those statistics are anywhere near accurate, they are telling in regard to the loss of blacks to the sport of baseball.
Few sports are as closely tied to fathers and sons as is baseball.
The first coach of any kid is usually his Dad in the backyard. The Little League teams are coached by the fathers. It is a sport which has grown to depend on organized games and thus on parents to enable a youngster to participate. It requires no parent, and little space or equipment for a kid to play basketball or football every day.
The current method of recruiting in college changed in the 1980's. Showcases and recruiting services began replacing American Legion and Babe Ruth League games. Gradually, it became necessary for high school kids to pay to play ball in the summer and be seen by college recruiters. I remember the day John McCormack told me about the first big showcases and how they were going to help the big schools and hurt the hard working smaller schools.
But they did more than that; they hurt the average or lower income kid. Where was he going to get the entry fee for the showcase, or the fee to play on a good travel team? Then there is the rise in personal instructors for players. I can't tell you how many kids have had their personal hitting or pitching coach providing them instruction throughout grade school and beyond.
Kids, in general have left baseball for other sports. The rise in popularity of basketball and football, and to a degree, soccer, has siphoned off a lot of kids who used to play baseball. That would include blacks and whites. Baseball is a sport which requires time and skill to master. It is not conducive to young children whose eye-hand coordination won't develop until about the age of nine. Yet youth baseball has five and six year olds taking balls off the shins, and players striking out and walking away humiliated. Failures in football, soccer, and basketball are less isolated and often less painful.
In high school and college, football and basketball are king. That's where all the money is spent by administrations, it's where all the crowds are, and the bands and cheerleaders to boot. How many high school baseball games are packed with the whole town? "Friday Night Lights" would never be about a baseball game.
So, there are reasons for a shrinking pool of baseball talent for college recruiters, and specific roadblocks to diminish the number of black players in that pool. I have heard people say that College Baseball has become a "country club" sport.
Should colleges shoulder the blame for the lack of black players? Is it a problem? Are black youngsters just not playing sports, or are more and more playing sports other than baseball? In a society of instant gratification, College Baseball promises a talented kid a chance to play a great game and possibly be signed professionally. But if you are a stud at Texas in baseball you usually go to the minor leagues for at least a few years before getting to the majors. But if a stud football player from Texas heads to the NFL, he's an instant millionaire and never rides a minor league bus. The same goes for the NBA. The college teams in those sports are the minor leagues for them, despite what Myles Brand would try to have you believe.
Black kids as well as white kids recognize that football and basketball provide a shorter and more glamorous route to the top, so why play baseball? Throw in some of the family and financial factors, add on the marketing job of the NFL and the NBA of their black stars and it's small wonder that only 9% of "The American Pastime" is black.
Pretty soon it won't even be American.