Sunday, August 9, 2009

Baseball and the Black Man

J.S. writes:

One of the things I like to read about is your take on baseball and being a big Toronto Blue Jays fan from the Toronto area, I'm curious as to your take on this idea I've been thinking about. This weekend, the Jays are having a reunion of their '92 and '93 World Series teams and I was struck by how much cultural/ethnic diversity there was on those teams as opposed to now (or in baseball, in general).

What's your take on why African-Americans have steered away from baseball? And there even seems to be less players from Latin and Caribbean countries as well. I mean, yeah, I'm sure you could list some socio-economic factors (which other writers have done) but I'm interested in your opinion.

I've always thought the socio-economic explanation was lazily convenient for the media. Full disclosure: my five-year-old son's t-ball fees for the fall season are $130, but the abject poverty in Latin American locales such as the Dominican Republic puts American suffering to shame and they're still cranking out Major League talent at a greater rate than Black communities in the U.S.

In my mind, there are three reasons why baseball has lost Black folk.

(1) Jackie-to-Griffey - Everyone knows about Jackie Robinson's relevance to the game, but his impact on a generation of African-Americans cannot be understated. Robinson broke the color barrier at a time when baseball was truly America's national pastime. African-Americans who knew nothing about the game – and, in 1947, there weren't many of them – knew about Jackie Robinson.

Consequently, I'm reasonably certain that every Black male born during Robinson's 10-year run with the Dodgers (and the resultant influx of African-Americans into the sport) were steered towards baseball. My unscientific assessment would explain the Black demographic peak in the game during the 1970s and 1980s.

However, those young adults of the '70s and '80s were now having kids – in the '80s and '90s – who were being force fed the incessant imagery of African-American athletes by a media/advertising hype machine that the NBA and NFL were smart enough to be in front of first.

Major League Baseball's inability, for example, to market the early '90s version of Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the most egregiously inept promotional failures in business history. Since lessened by the 1994 strike, steroids and Junior's own star-crossed career, there simply hasn't been a player more universally loved whose appeal stretched across to any ethnicity like The Kid. Baseball, however, was content to let Nintendo and Nike to their dirty work.

(2) What Baseball Doesn't Have - It's been my experience that African-American sports fans – including myself – gravitate towards larger-than-life personalities. Baseball, on the other hand, insists on checking personalities at the door. This wasn't always the case as talents like Reggie Jackson – and even non-talents like Ken Harrelson – roamed America's ballparks with impunity.

Yet, in 1994, the entire Atlanta Braves roster mutinied against OF Deion Sanders (.290/.334/.475 from 1992-93 in 575 ABs) who dared bring 5% of his NFL flamboyance into an MLB locker room. In 2006, Mets OF Lastings Milledge high-fived fans after an extra-inning home run and, in the media aftermath, you'd have thought he shot someone. Earlier this summer, Rays OF Carl Crawford lamented all of baseball's unwritten rules even as he chose the sport over a football scholarship to Nebraska.

I'm not suggesting that baseball become pro basketball, but when Eric Byrnes' superfluous hustle and Nick Swisher's kamikaze redneck schtick pass for personality across rosters eager to emulate Kevin McReynolds' mood…well, yeah.

(3) Love - I know it sounds corny, but baseball is the one sport that still relies on the whole "passed down from generations" pap. How powerful is that pap? Hey, people actually believe Field of Dreams is a good movie, don't they?

Depending on which study-of-the-week you want to believe, anywhere from 40% to 70% of African-American children are born to and/or are raised by single mothers. My son is five-years-old, yet he knows and loves the entire god-awful roster of the 2009 Oakland A's. He cried when Matt Holliday was traded. Hell, he cried when I told him I couldn't swing a bat with him or put on a glove because of my injured finger.

This is just a guess, but I don't think he developed this unhealthy obsession with baseball from his mom.

So, what's the solution? Sadly, I think the ship has sailed. The "problem" of declining African-Americans in baseball is a bit overdone by the media and the Jackie Robinson tributes every April have become a pandering farce, but Commissioner Bud Selig and baseball are at least trying to reach out Blacks.

It's just 20 years too late.


throwdini said...

There are still some big personalities left.

acctg.sean said...

Gotta take issue with you on the Ken Griffey comment, Cam. Griffey single-handedly made the Mariners relevant and was the freakin' face of the game in the early '90s. What more was baseball supposed to do with him?

That Bootleg Guy said...

I can't lie, throwdini, I've loved me some Ozzie Guillen since his playing days. Dude's a breath of fresh air.

And, Sean, my point on Griffey had more to do with baseball's inability to market him to the African-American community.

Black media and advertising were huge marketing opportunties in the early '90s. Ad dollars were focused on African-American communities like never before (you'll have to trust me on this, but I studied this phenomenon at length in college).

Griffey was gift-wrapped from the baseball gods, but the game pushed him like any other superstar.

SHough610 said...

At least a portion of the issue is that sandlot baseball is harder to get together than sandlot basketball or football. Hell, with basketball you only need one other person. I used to play 3-on-3 football. But baseball? Try playing that without the right number of people.

That Bootleg Guy said...

I've heard that, too. Funny thing is that when I was really young, we'd play "3 on 3" baseball all the time.

We used "ghost runners" on base when necessary and, since I was so morbidly obese as a child, I always made sure I was the pitcher so I didn't have to be the lone OF chasing down every flyball.

mathan said...

I agree with Cam about the personalities angle, but I also think that space and time might be issues too.

You set up a hoop you can play basketball in the street. Football can be played, theoretically, in the street too. But baseball needs the diamond. You need to have that much space to play baseball, and in many Black communities that space ain't in walking distance.

In terms of time, baseball is a time consuming game. I can remember playing football and basketball at school during recess and lunch. You can't really do that with baseball. You could play basketball during a free day in P.E., not the case with baseball.

Baseball is a slave to the "organized sports" paradigm in that you need a degree of organization to get a game going. You can have a touch football game at a picnic. You can play a quick game of 21 or HORSE. What's the the baseball equivalent for those things?