Monday, February 22, 2010

Can't Paucity Be a Result of Choice? - Lack of Black Baseball Players Isn't Just Systematic

Many arms will be raised and eyes will be rolled once again after Hank Aaron cried about the lack of African-American players in Major League Baseball.


Many fingers will be pointed and damnations will be had once again after Hank Aaron voiced his concern about the lack of African-American players in Major League Baseball.

Next to PED/steroid use among players and the disparity of payrolls, this is arguably the sorest topic within the baseball community. It’s the sorest topic within this country’s borders, let alone its sports. The mere mention of black and lack sends us some folks into a blind rage; giving reason to post pseudo-anonymous incendiary comments online or craft coded messages in other visual media. They also rile up other folks who seem to wake up in the morning looking to be… well, riled up against anything that feels or looks wrong, even if the truth reveals something more.

There have been thousands of conversations about the lack of black baseball players; most, if not all can be cupped into one of the following opinions, theories and realities:
  • Black families are unable to afford the commitments to the game: purchasing equipment, traveling, insurance (more of an institutional question than familial), etc.
  • Black families have their priorities out of whack: they can “somehow” buy a Playstation 3, the new Kobes and some new rims, but still get welfare money and don’t eat.
  • Baseball lacks new black superstars to make young kids pay attention: After Jackie & Larry broke the color line, Mays & Aaron carried the torch and passed it on to Jackson and Morgan, Griffey Jr. and Bonds, Jeter and… and… There’s no one to hand it to.
  • Baseball carefully opened the gates to Latino players because black players were getting a bit full of themselves.
  • For municipalities, it’s easier and cheaper to maintain a basketball court than a baseball field.
  • These kids look for the instant gratification and the dollars in basketball and football; don’t appreciate the hard work to play this game.
Many of us fans and media share at least one of these concerns/excuses. They are convenient to return to every time this comes up because some want to ignore it and some want to force institutional changes.
The thing about progress is that at some point, fighting for and gaining the right to participate in something would eventually lead to future generations having the chance to do what couldn’t be done before.

In the case of baseball, progress led to the idea that black kids just may not be interested in the game.

Jason Heyward,
Top Rated Prospect in Baseball
Photo Credit to AJC
One of the more irksome, but unmentioned aspects of the paucity of African-American players in the game is that the game’s caretakers have this assumption that a finite number of available young athletes must become baseball players. This paucity would be even more glaring if this was 1970; where the sport dominated in the media (especially TV where there were just three networks and cable just came to the mainstream) and the population was 2/3 of what it is today (200+ million Americans).

Yet, this is 2010.

A black President was inevitable. A black man winning an Olympic gold medal in SPEEDSKATING was unfathomable… because you probably didn’t know it was a sport until last week.

Entertainment options are aplenty, to the point that kids don’t really know what to do with themselves. Yes, technology is the sticking point for curmudgeons and sociologists alike, but in terms of sports, there seems to be a new game cropping up somewhere in the world every other day. We’re fascinated by curling because most of us are trying to understand what makes it a sport, better yet an Olympic sport. Alongside the ‘traditional’ sports are all these ‘fringe’ sports that have grown in profile over the past twenty years.

We also have the same diversity in other realms of entertainment; especially for kids without an athletic bone in their bodies. There’s something for everyone in 2010 and the offerings continue to grow, even as the Great Recession takes hold on the world.

Look, considering this country’s racial history, the dearth of black baseball players – superstars or career minor leaguers – is painful to look at. In the face of the NFL and NBA, where the black populations mirror little else in this country, baseball’s stewards will never live this down. However, there will continue to be people who say that baseball is losing black athletes to these other sports and entertainment outlets.

No sport, no company, no one… is guaranteed to anyone in the population for its future. That sense of entitlement doesn’t help the cause.

Baseball is still a great sport and fans who truly love it will embrace whoever suits up in their uniforms. They’ll embrace any player on the roster as long as they help their teams win, even if they harbor uneasy sentiments about social issues in sports.

What they won’t embrace is a long-term debate on this issue. For all the great programs Major League Baseball has initiated to strum up interest in the game within the black community, what they need to do more than anything else is to understand the realities of 2010. Understand that promoting African-American stars, hosting tournaments in urban communities and merchandising itself onto the heads of kids across the country just may not be enough to interest every black child in America.

And that’s okay.

Past generations fought for so much to ensure that kids of all ethnicities can look forward to how they will participate in society. As the son of parents who have done as such, it’s not lost on me at all that men such as Aaron would love to see greater validation of that blood, sweat, tears and big flys hit so long ago. Yet, I also hope that it’s understood that arguably the greatest aspect of their legacy lies in the fact that millions of children who came after them were allowed another sort of opportunity; to look at the game in a different prism on its own merit…

And respectfully say thanks, but no thanks.


Eric said...

I say this without judgment, but it is my understanding that the percentage of African Americans in the Big Leagues lines up pretty squarely with the percentage of US-born players in the Majors and the African American population in the United States.

MLB consists of about 70 pct American players.

The USA consists of about 13 pct African Americans.

The MLB consists of about 9 or 10 pct African Americans.

Maybe the paucity isn't quite as dramatic as it's made out to be?

Jason Clinkscales said...

Eric, I absolutely agree with what you are saying in that population-wise, it's on par.

However, the reason for the way the post started how it did is that we can look at a black-and-white, plain-as-day fact in two different ways. There are millions of fans who will say that just because those are the numbers, it doesn't mean that they should be accepted.

Baseball's position in this country - though not as tied to the social fabric these days as it wants to believe - puts its lacks and surpluses in greater scrutiny than any other sport. That's not just about race, but payrolls, market sizes, merchandising & ticket revenues, etc.