Blackout of a New Kind in Baseball Sport Sees Major Decline in Its Number of African-Americans

Article excerpt

Byline: Bruce Miles Daily Herald Sports Writer

MESA, Ariz. -The irony is so cruel, so vexing.

For almost a half-century, black athletes fought for their rightful share of this country's favorite pastime: major-league baseball.

Seemingly invisible while playing in plain sight as members of the Negro Leagues, black ballplayers and their champions in the press petitioned "organized baseball" to let them in for almost the entire first half of the 20th century. The door opened in 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke the "color" barrier.

Today, as the 21st century takes shape, many black athletes seemingly want nothing to do with baseball.

"It's definitely a small number," said Derrek Lee, the star first baseman of the Cubs and a second-generation African-American professional ballplayer.

"It disappoints me. I think African-Americans play the game as well as anyone. It's just a matter of African-American kids aren't playing baseball, I don't think. So there's not a large pool to draw from. In that regard, it's disappointing.

"We go across the seas to Japan, and we go to all the Latin countries. But it seems like we're missing out on a huge pool of possible players right here in the States. We need to tap into that."

At the major-league level, the drop-off in participation by black players has been precipitous. As recently as 1975, black ballplayers made up about 27 percent of the members of major-league rosters. Today, according to those same studies, that number hovers around 10 percent, while the number of Latin American ballplayers is at about 25 percent and rising steadily.

Interestingly, the Cubs today are a notable exception. In addition to Lee, they have a relatively high number of black players on their major-league and spring-training rosters: Jerry Hairston Jr., Jerome Williams, Jacque Jones, Juan Pierre, Marquis Grissom and Les Walrond.

When spring camp breaks at the end of this month, it's a good bet all but Walrond will be on the team's opening-day roster.

The Houston Astros, on the other hand, received national attention last fall for not having any blacks on their World Series roster.

While the White Sox have the only black general manager in the major leagues in Kenny Williams, World Series MVP Jermaine Dye likely will be the only black athlete on their roster to open the season. The White Sox will have at least six players of Hispanic descent on manager Ozzie Guillen's roster, and one from Japan.

The Astros and the White Sox are closer to the rule than the exception, and those in the game cite several factors:

- Economics - baseball costs too much to play.

- Lack of suitable facilities in inner cities.

- Fewer college scholarships available for men's baseball.

- Fear by some scouts to go into inner cities to recruit or watch players.

- The rise of other spectator sports, particularly basketball and football, along with the perception among many young people that baseball is slow, dull and boring.

Whatever the reasons, baseball isn't tapping a significant source of potential talent for its game, which in turn suppresses any interest that potential spectators might have for baseball.

"For one thing, when they turn on the TV to watch a baseball game, they don't see people who look like them," Lee said of young blacks. "They turn on a basketball game and they do. So they go play basketball or football. That's No. 1.

"No. 2, yeah, it's tougher to play baseball. You've got to get a lot of guys, equipment and a field. It's a little easier to go to a local park and shoot some basketball by yourself.

"It's a little tougher, but I don't think that's an excuse. We just have to find a way to get them in Little Leagues. Where I'm from, there's not even a Little League team. That's ridiculous. You have to make it accessible. …