Collective Identity and Basketball: An Explanation for the Decreasing Number of African-Americans on America's Baseball Diamonds

Article excerpt

Introduction

A growing body of evidence shows that African-Americans are underrepresented in the stands and on the fields of baseball parks. While African-Americans comprise 12.5 percent of the national U.S. population, only five percent of those in the stands at Major League games during the 1997 season were African-American (Melcher, 1997), and the percentage of blacks on Major League playing fields is the lowest since 1968 (Lapchick & Matthews, 2001). On the surface it appears that basketball is to Black culture what baseball was more than 50 years ago. There may be numerous processes bringing about this change. One of these dynamics, however, is a cultural shift for African-Americans in what Appiah (2000) calls "collective identity" (p. 610). Through collective identity certain aspects of an individual's culture become part of that individual's self-image and self-identification. Basketball has become a means of expression and freedom in African-American communities, particularly those in the inner city (Boyd, 1997; E arly, 2000). Black male youngsters are encouraged by mass media (Kelley, 1997) and authority figures (Harris, 1994) to pursue basketball. Youth baseball coaches and officials report that basketball draws Black youths' attention away from baseball (Ogden, 2002). Fifty years ago, however, baseball captured the imagination of Black youngsters and their communities. Much in the same way as they have used basketball to create cultural space, African-Americans used baseball as a means of collective identity and civic pride, despite Blacks' exclusion from the highest and most lucrative levels of organized play (Peterson, 1970; Ribowsky, 1995).

This article focuses on some of the reasons for the shift from baseball to basketball in African-American culture and among African-American male youths. Although the perspectives offered here are not exhaustive of the possible reasons for that shift, they can serve as a foundation for reaching a deeper understanding of the change.

Baseball and African-American Culture

To gain a sense of the shift in collective identity from baseball to basketball, one needs to investigate the role of baseball for African-Americans during the first half of the 20th century and how that role changed during the last half of the century. African-Americans embraced the game of baseball and formed their own professional organizations and styles for the game. Some Black teams achieved commercial success shortly after the turn of the century in major cities, "where the burgeoning Negro populations insured a faithful nucleus of ardent fans" (Peterson, 1970, p. 68). Most of the profits from those Black teams, however, went into the pockets of White owners and White booking agents. But Black entrepreneurs and baseball veterans, such as Frank Leland and Andrew "Rube" Foster, worked to ensure that Black baseball teams became black-owned businesses. Foster's goal of allowing African-Americans to reap the economic benefits of professional baseball was realized through his control of the Negro National Le ague. Foster envisioned that the league "would not only encourage opportunities for black capitalists but would also generate jobs for blacks on and off the diamond, as scouts, umpires, clerks, and secretaries" (Riess, 1999, p. 200). In 1920, the inaugural season of the league, teams in Kansas City and Indianapolis were drawing as many as 10,000 to Sunday games (Peterson, 1970). Chicago Leland Giants' games drew crowds between 4,000 and 10,000 and the team had its own booster club which met weekly (Peterson, 1970). Rader (1994) estimates that Negro League games drew approximately two million spectators in 1942. In 1947, Jackie Robinson's inaugural year in the Major Leagues, the Negro Leagues' East-West "all-star" game in Chicago was attended by more than 48,000, "perhaps hoping for a look at some future major-league stars" (Peterson, 1970, p. 201).

Smaller African-American communities also used baseball teams as an expression and extension of identity during the first few decades of the 20th century. …

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