?There were 52 blacks on the rosters of teams in the six biggest conferences ( ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC), including three in the 11-school Big Ten, according to The Daily Northwestern.
?There were 11 blacks on the eight teams that participated in the recently concluded College World Series.
"My wife and I talk about it every night," says Al Davis, who has an older son, Julian, who plays college baseball at St. Leo ( Fla.) University. Stephan plays first and third base at Hillsborough High in Tampa. "It's a sad thing, to be honest with you. You ask the black kids, 'What is Cooperstown?' They look at you like, 'What's that?' "
The Pittsburgh Pirates won the 1979 World Series with 10 blacks on their 25-man roster. As recently as 1994 all six starting outfielders in the All-Star Game were African-American ( Barry Bonds, Joe Carter, Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, David Justice and Kirby Puckett).
Why has the number of black ballplayers dropped so sharply in recent years? Baseball's inability to match the buzz-producing marketing of football and basketball is an easy target, as is the fallout from the 1994-95 strike. "Football and basketball have come up," Cleveland Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia says. "One big thing: Baseball took a big hit in the last strike with both races." No African-American ballplayer emerged with nearly the broad-based marketable appeal of basketball icon Michael Jordan. Two of the stars headed on that track, Griffey and Frank Thomas, had their careers and images derailed by injuries and ineffectiveness. Bonds, one of the game's greatest players ever, turns 39 this month and has exhibited little interest in a Jordanlike responsibility to sell his sport.
There are, however, many more complex and grass-roots reasons beyond how the major league game is packaged and sold. Many blacks are encountering economic and instructional gaps—they don't have access to the groomed fields, expert instruction and the pay-for-play mentality associated with suburbia. The demise of the two-parent household and the passionate neighborhood volunteer coach have cut the connection between baseball and young blacks. And colleges, by maintaining a low ceiling on baseball scholarships, continue to make football and basketball more attractive options.
The ominous net effect of the socioeconomic factors is that now there are so few blacks in the sport that baseball has lost its aspirational appeal to many African-Americans. The game, built upon opportunity for European immigrants in the first half of the 20th century and more recently for Latinos and Asians, no longer is viewed by many blacks as an inclusive sport for them. "I guarantee you," says New York Mets outfielder Cliff Floyd, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago, "there are many people from where I come from that don't even know I play ball. I could say, 'I'm Cliff,' and they'd ask me what I was doing now. There's just not a high interest in baseball. If I played basketball, it would be totally different."
Rollins, who grew up in Alameda, Calif., outside Oakland, says friends there "kid me" about playing baseball. When asked if he meant they kidded him about playing a sport with so few blacks, as opposed to football or basketball, Rollins nods and says, "Exactly what you just said."
"I think there's definitely a sociological element to what we're talking about," says John Young, an African-American former major league scout who in 1989 established Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), a development program run by Major League Baseball for youths 13 through 18. "Now that two girls from Compton dominate tennis [the Williams sisters] and a kid from Cypress dominates golf [ Tiger Woods], a lot of intelligent black people that I know—professional, educated people—believe that the last bastion for white America is baseball. I'm talking about very intelligent people who believe that."
Outspoken Atlanta Braves outfielder Gary Sheffield says former Los Angeles Dodgers teammate Eric Karros asked him once how he could withstand booing and criticism in Los Angeles when he played for the Dodgers. "I told him, 'Imagine if you looked to your left in the clubhouse and everybody was black, and you looked to your right and everybody was black,' " says Sheffield of playing in a predominantly white atmosphere. " 'You went in the trainer's room and everybody was black. You looked in the stands and everybody was black. Then maybe you can understand how we feel.'