What if Lebron James Played Baseball?: The Decline of African-Americans in the Major Leagues, Part 1
I want my son to play baseball. I played it as a kid, and I learned a great deal from it: teamwork, patience, sacrifice, courage, humility, how to win, how to lose, how to handle disappointment. Yes, one can experience and embrace these virtues in a myriad of sports, but there’s something special about the way baseball teaches these lessons. One day you can hit a grand slam and win the game, the next day you can go 0-4 at the plate. Like your average American male two-year-old, my son likes to hit things with sticks, toy light sabers, wooden spoons, and anything else he can get his hands on. Introducing him to baseball, at least the hitting the ball part won’t be hard. For me the question is, will he continue to play? By the time he’s a teenager, will there even be any African Americans playing in Major League Baseball? With the number of African-American players dropping from nineteen to only barely nine percent since 1986, the future looks grim, to say the least.
In 1979, the World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting line-up was almost completely made up of African-Americans and Latinos. The team’s song, sung by millions of fans across the country, was “We are Family” by the R&B group Sister Sledge. The Pirates were truly one of the most racially diverse teams in history. Fast-forward to 2012 — take a look at the roster of the World Champion San Francisco Giants and there is not a single African-American on the team. The disappearing of the American Black ballplayer didn’t happen overnight. It can be likened to a science fiction film where the character is diagnosed with some type of fading disease and over the course of the movie the actor becomes more and more blurry until all that is left is shadow, then just voice, then nothing.
Nearly everyone I knew was a Mets fan in 1986. The team’s colors were very similar to those of my hometown Durham Bulls, and the starting pitcher was a young Black phenomenon named Dwight Gooden. It was also the last time I could call myself a true fan of Major League Baseball. There was no one incident that caused me to lose interest, not Doc’s use of cocaine along with other star players of the eighties. It wasn’t the ’94 Strike or the use of steroids by players like Clemens and Bonds, guys who would have been first ballot hall of famers before they took the first pill, cream, or injection that has kept me away. For me, it was an unconscious happening, a subconscious retreat like a couple that has been married for years, only to wake up one day with nothing to talk about and no desire to do so. The magic walked out the door while no one was paying attention. I will always love baseball. It is the first organized sport I ever played. But I haven’t been in love with baseball since I was sixteen.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig wants African-Americans to be in love with baseball, and he should for several reasons. There are the great contributions made by African-American players and the legacy those players have left behind. There is the need to atone for the racist past, which prevented some of the greatest players in history from having an opportunity to achieve economic prosperity via their chosen profession for no other reason than their skin color. And last but definitely not least, there is the simple-to-understand mercenary motive of American business, the desire to maximize profit. African-Americans make up roughly twelve percent of the population. That’s millions of possible fans that could buy tickets to games, ball caps, jerseys and foot-longs at the ballpark. This year baseball created a seventeen-member committee to study the decline of African-Americans in baseball and suggest solutions.
Some think this work is futile, others unnecessary. Those from the futility camp say, “Black people in general just don’t like baseball.” Those from the unnecessary camp say, “No one’s forming committees or complaining about the lack of white players in professional basketball.” While whites were never banned from professional basketball, no one can deny their small numbers in the NBA. Some of it is indeed a cultural choice, but the foundation on which that choice is made is often problematic. Certain sports, by the lack or dominance of a particular ethnicity, seem to have people self-identifying with the sport based on race rather than skill or enjoyment. Basketball is viewed by many as the game of inner-city youth and therefore Black — fun to watch, but not the national pastime. Baseball, on the other hand, is viewed as America’s game — apple pie, hotdogs, and therefore white. If this were true, that a sport just belonged to one race, one of the greatest basketball players of all-time wouldn’t be a white guy from French Lick, Indiana named Larry Bird, and baseball’s all-time home run record wouldn’t belong to a guy named Barry Bonds, or Hank Aaron before him. Sadly, I’ve seen this kind of racial stereotyping not only play out in the way a particular sport is viewed on a whole, but also by position within the sport. I played on a team as a youth where a black kid who had a hell of an arm was moved to receiver, and I’ve seen white players who had speed discouraged from trying out for running or defensive back. I personally know white guys can jump because I’ve been dunked on by a few, just like I know Blacks can and do play baseball as well as anybody else.
As an African-American male, you become familiar with adjectives like “endangered” and phrases like “becoming extinct” being used to reference your very existence. But being familiar doesn’t make you accept that idea or description of yourself. So you fight that perception, you look at the reasons and try to change course, you do everything you can to send the game into extra innings. Black baseball players are going the way of the Dodo bird. Those who love baseball need to pay attention. Some of the best young African-American athletes in the country aren’t even considering the sport. Just imagine if Lebron James had chosen baseball, played it all throughout high school, participated in all the youth leagues and camps. Think of him as a pitcher, six foot eight, two hundred and fifty pounds of man throwing a fastball from the pitcher’s mound. Imagine how many stolen bases someone like the Philadelphia Eagles’ speedster DeSean Jackson would rack up in a single season. We’ve witnessed what great African-American athletes like Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders were able to accomplish just playing baseball half-time; some say the last home run Bo hit still hasn’t come down.
As a father who wants his son to experience the joy and excitement of this beautiful game, I’m most certainly concerned about the decline of people playing it who look like him. Understanding that I have to start with some self-reflection, my first question has to be, why did I fall out of love with baseball? I remember what being in love with it was like, and I desperately want to feel that once again.