What if LeBron James Played Baseball?: The Decline of African-Americans in the Major Leagues, Part 2
Photo by Alex Harris.
This is part 2 of a series by Howard Craft about the decline of African-Americans in baseball. Part 1 is here.
I began my career as a Red Sox, finished as a Yankee, and retired at thirteen a champion. Mini Well Park, Little League champion — it was a big deal. We didn’t celebrate with champagne, but my grandfather owned a corner store so we had two fruit punch Capri-Suns or one orange Gatorade apiece waiting for us after our win behind the dugout. Baseball mattered. It mattered on Weaver Drive, between T. Jr. and Mr. Cowan’s house. It mattered in Tom Woodom’s backyard, where I got smacked in the forehead with a bat by standing too close behind the dirt spot we used as home plate. It mattered in the empty lot on Stadium Drive next to my best friend Dwayne’s house, and it mattered Saturday morning with Johnny Bench and the baseball bunch. The 1984 NBA draft changed all of that. A kid from Wilmington, North Carolina was picked third by the Chicago Bulls, and the relationship between baseball and my neighborhood of little rascals (who didn’t look much different than the old Fat Albert gang) was never the same.
Being like Mike was a year-round endeavor, not just during basketball season. But baseball can’t blame Jordan and Nike for the decline of African-Americans playing the national pastime; baseball can only blame itself. From the mid-eighties to now, baseball has done the worst job of promoting its stars of any of the three biggest professional sports. I recently asked my wife, who doesn’t watch sports often, to name three players from professional baseball, football, and basketball. In every sport except baseball could she name more than three stars. With baseball she could only name Alex Rodriguez. You have to follow baseball to know baseball players. If you were to say you’d never heard of Peyton Manning or LeBron James, people might look at you funny. For the African-American males of my generation, many of us left baseball in ‘86 after the great Mets team won the Series, and we didn’t pay attention again until the Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire home run record chase. More than a few in the generation after us, who didn’t see Reggie Jackson in pinstripes and knew no sports world before Jordan, never gained interest.
Meet Justin Goodson. He’s got a big smile on his face, and he’s scooping up grounders and tossing the ball to his father as best as his little three-year-old arm will allow him, all with a joy that kids his age usually reserve for talking puppets on Sesame Street. It’s 1993, I’m a college student at Morehouse College, and I’m visiting the Goodsons, longtime family friends who have been tasked with looking out for me as I matriculate in the big urban city of Atlanta. The joy of visiting the Goodsons wasn’t just the great Eagle Rock chicken Uncle Ron would make, or the big loving laugh Aunt Constance would give me when I brought in enough dirty clothes for an entire army. The joy of visiting was also in watching their toddler smack a baseball off a tee like a miniature Dave Justice. Fifteen years later, I would see Justin diving for line drives and throwing runners out at the DBAP as a shortstop and second baseman for the North Carolina Central University Eagles.
The hall-of-famer Dave Winfield said with regards to the decline of African-Americans in the MLB that the challenge was threefold: continuity, cost, and competition. Justin represents continuity. He played from the time he was two-and-a-half until his last game as a senior in college. The dedication of his father — not only as Justin’s first coach, but also (and just as important in this era) as Justin’s financial backer — had a great deal to do with Justin being able to accomplish that. I got a chance to talk to Uncle Ron about Winfield’s other two C’s, cost and competition, in a recent interview.
H: I know Justin played on a traveling team; what was that experience like? Was it expensive?
R: Yes. If Justin wasn’t as talented as he was and didn’t have the desire he had, I wouldn’t have paid for it.
H: Were there many Black kids in the travel league?
R: No. There were six on our team. But when we traveled, it would be mostly all-white teams. There might be one or maybe two Black kids on a team, but not often.
H: How talented were the white kids?
R: Some very. But some were just there because their parents had money. Money is definitely a reason why there weren’t more Black kids playing on those traveling teams. I found out later that some of the parents were spending money on private lessons for their kids, as well.
H: Both of your sons played Little League, and there are years between them. What was the major difference in your experience as a parent with each of them and Little League?
R: Well, Justin’s time in Little League was more organized. You know, Justin began playing tee-ball at three. Three-year-olds weren’t playing tee-ball when Ron [the older son] was playing.
H: How is baseball viewed in the Black community now, compared with how it was when you grew up?
R: Baseball was the sport. Every little town within a ten- to fifteen-mile radius had a baseball team — baseball team, not softball team. And you had to be able to play to be on that team. You had to be good. The season started Easter Monday and went until September when school started back. Sandlot games were happening all the time. Now, not only do you rarely if ever see a sandlot game, but it’s hard to even find a sandlot baseball field.
H: Why do you think baseball was so popular with African-Americans then?
R: Then, it was truly the American pastime. Basketball wasn’t as popular as it is now. But I think the main reason is that we had a lot of Black superstars: Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays. We wanted to be like those guys. And you had Blacks in the glamour positions: pitcher, shortstop, and catcher. There are very few Black pitchers or catchers now.
H: Do you think that’s because the talent pool is smaller?
R: No. The talent is out there if you’re trying to find it. I don’t think they’re really trying to find it, and when they do find it, they’re not necessarily pushing to develop it. There was a kid on Justin’s team who was extremely gifted, and the coach didn’t look out for him at all with regards to colleges. Now white kids on the team of lesser talent, well, he was focused on getting them placed. I think a lot of people are fine with baseball just how it is. And there are still some people who think we don’t have the mental acumen to be pitchers or catchers. It’s similar to football; there was a time when not only were there no black quarterbacks, but black players weren’t considered smart enough to play center on the offensive line.
I remember watching Night Line when Al Campanis made his infamous quote about Blacks lacking certain necessities to be managers and pitchers. Campanis was fired from the Dodgers for his statement, but the man had been their general manager for nineteen years and would have continued on had he had the savvy to dodge Ted Koppel’s questions. I want to believe that the thinking of Al Campanis is a thing of the past, but with the recent defacing of Jackie Robinson’s statue and a banana being thrown at the Orioles outfielder Adam Jones in San Francisco, it would be illogical to think that the small numbers of Blacks in baseball is simply the result of a lack of interest in the sport among African-Americans.
When the ability to play, practice, and compete on a high level can cost a parent three to five thousand dollars a year, certain kids are simply not going to grow up playing the national pastime. And that is indeed a tragedy. It’s also why some refer to baseball as the new lacrosse, a sport played more often by wealthy kids than by the ragtag bunch I played with as a child.
The MLB is trying to do something about the lack of Blacks in baseball. They sponsor the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, for example. Alumni include C.C. Sabathia and Coco Crisp. But since the program started in 1992, only two hundred players from the program have been drafted into the major leagues. With a draft that is forty rounds and a league that has thirty teams, the MLB is going to have to do a hell of a lot more if they want to truly increase the number of African-American ball players.