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Blackout
Tom Verducci
July 07, 2003
The African-American baseball player is vanishing. Does he have a future?
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July 07, 2003

Blackout

The African-American baseball player is vanishing. Does he have a future?

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Like the folklore of an ancient tribe, love of baseball is passed down from elders in the form of oral history. Such are the nuances of the game and the subtleties of its requisite hand-eye skills that children rarely come to it naturally and independently—not, say, as jauntily as they learn to fling a ball through a hoop or tuck a football under one arm and feel the wind whistle past their ears as their feet fly over the ground. Baseball needs its elders. Young, the former scout, knew men like that when he was growing up in South Central Los Angeles, volunteers whom he calls "pied pipers."

"Now that older guy likes basketball," Young says. "Baseball lost those pied pipers."

Traditionally those pied pipers have been fathers, and there is even a media genre dedicated to the father-son dogma of baseball theology. In 2001, Bob Muzikowski wrote the book on urban black Little Leaguers. Safe at Home chronicles how Muzikowski, a white insurance broker transplanted from New Jersey, started a Little League program in the neighborhood of the famously dangerous and downtrodden Cabrini Green projects in Chicago. He has since begun another Little League program for blacks on the West Side. "How many Little Leagues do you know of where fathers are not coaching?" Muzikowski asks rhetorically. "The backbone of Little League baseball is nurturing fathers. Most of our kids wouldn't know their fathers if they walked into the same room. People don't want to talk about it—it's not politically correct—but the facts are obvious. In 1960, 80 percent of urban black families were two-parent households. Now it's 20 percent."

Al Davis is a pied piper who not only teaches baseball to his sons but also offers free lessons to neighborhood boys. Davis lived in Tampa before moving to one of its suburbs, Valrico, for 14 years. He marveled at the manicured, lighted fields, the batting cages, the expensive bats and gloves and the army of parental volunteers, who would appear in great numbers to drag the infield, cut the grass with their own riding mowers, organize car pools to and from games and provide good instruction.

Recently Davis moved back to the city. Sure, the lack of groomed facilities was obvious, but what saddened him more was the lack of interest and instruction. In the 14 years he was away, Tampa had fallen out of love with baseball. Football and basketball had stolen the hearts of the pied pipers, who were drawn to games with a faster beat and more players with faces like their own. The number of black players in the NFL, for instance, grew from 60% in 1990 to 65% in 2002, though the rise of blacks at the glamour position, quarterback, made their presence seem larger still. Basketball prospered with money sprinkled around from shoe companies, whose products became icons not just in the sporting culture but the increasingly mainstream hip-hop world. The NBA has been between 72% and 82% black for the past 12 years.

"The thing about baseball is that it's such a team sport," says the Phillies' Rollins, who was a point guard in high school. "And when you're in the inner city, it's all about being the man, about establishing your strength as an individual. So how can you be the man? You want that ball in your hands with three seconds on the clock to take the shot, or you want the football under your arm. That's how."

Without its pied pipers, baseball, the more pedagogic game, suffers. "Just grabbing a bat and ball doesn't make you a coach," Davis says. "I don't see the baseball knowledge [in the inner city]. Blacks don't understand the degree to which they have to take the game seriously. By the time the kid tries out for the high school team in ninth grade, it's too late. I know people get mad and there's prejudice everywhere in life, but it's not [the reason in this case]. It's because kids didn't get proper training to compete."

There is also an economic gap between baseball and basketball. Baseball requires bats, balls, gloves and a large field that has to be maintained. Basketball needs only a ball and a court. Larry Harper, founder and director of the Good Tidings Foundation, which supports youth programs and builds athletic facilities in the San Francisco Bay Area, says a state-of-the-art basketball court costs $30,000, with a generic blacktop one running as little as $5,000. A baseball field, he says, costs $100,000. Then, too, Harper says, "even if you get the field built, there's [only] a 50-50 chance the field will be maintained."

Yet that economic breach was a fundamental truth even when many blacks were playing baseball. The gap that has recently changed the landscape is the instructional chasm to which Davis refers. With the demise of the three-sport athlete (SI, Nov. 18, 2002), those suburban kids who play baseball are saturated with practice and games year-round. Parents are doling out up to $5,000 to have their sons play on travel teams with multiple sets of fancy uniforms, up to $500 to attend showcase camps in which they walk away with promotional CD-ROMs of their son and up to $60 an hour once or twice a week in the off-season to have Johnny take private lessons. The young African-American without access to that kind of intensive training is hopelessly behind the learning curve of a game that is difficult to grasp. "We've lost them by age 13," says Dejon Watson, director of professional scouting for the Indians.

Says Al Davis, "By the time the kids get to high school, the white kid who's had pitching lessons can throw three pitches and the black kid has one pitch, a fastball, and all the batters can hit that. Come tournament time you see the inner-city teams get knocked off quickly. The white kids might not have as good athletic ability, but they understand the game. It's a sad thing, to be honest with you. I've seen such good athletes who just didn't understand [the game], and now you see them hanging out on the corner. If they had had instruction, maybe you could have done something for them. The [rich person's] game was golf when I was a kid. Baseball is almost like golf was. You've got to have the money or you're in bad shape."

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