Commentary

Fewer blacks on ball field no big deal

Baseball, however, can do more to involve African-Americans and women off the field

Updated: May 1, 2010, 11:06 PM ET
By Roy S. Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Once again, there's more hand-wringing over the so-called Disappearing Black Baseball Player. Earlier this month USA Today reported that the number of African-Americans on 2010 opening day major league rosters fell to 9.5 percent (71 players), down from 10.2 percent in 2009, which had produced baseball's first increase in 15 years. In 1975, that figure was 27 percent.

Predictably, a slew of baseball folks moaned. Hank Aaron has called the DBBP "what ails baseball." Former pitcher Dave Stewart adds, "[MLB] will have you think things are better. It's not better."

Active players have weighed in, too, some more awkwardly (see: Torii Hunter) than others. Minnesota Twins second baseman Orlando Hudson said the fact Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield, two veteran black players who had reasonably productive seasons in 2009, were still unsigned free agents "makes you wonder."

Then he added: Jackie Robinson would "turn over in his grave" at the number of black Americans playing baseball these days.

No, he wouldn't.

[+] EnlargeTorii Hunter
James Snook/Icon SMITorii Hunter has done more than honor Jackie Robinson by wearing No. 42, even if his words sometimes cause controversy.

Not at all. The first black major leaguer of baseball's modern era was bigger than that. The essence of Robinson's signing and debut (and the much overlooked debuts of numerous black players in the weeks, months and years following Robinson's) was opportunity. His arrival cracked the insidious barrier preventing some of the best players of that era -- guys who happened to be black -- from playing in baseball's major leagues.

There remain no such barriers, which is why I don't really care about the DBBP.

The attrition of black players wasn't caused by any diabolical plot. It happened because young black athletes have choices today about which game they play, and most choose football or basketball.

Jackie Robinson and his baseball peers were icons to young blacks with few choices, young blacks who aspired to be like them. The Be Like Mike era shot that to hell, and baseball hasn't recovered.

The last black baseball icon -- as in someone who stirred the community and inspired young players to emulate him -- was, uh, Barry Bonds? (Derek Jeter doesn't count because most black kids still may not even know he's black.) OK, maybe Ken Griffey Jr., though his lack of postseason heroics means his light never shined as brightly as it might have had he reached a World Series.

I'm more concerned with whether baseball is providing opportunity beyond the foul lines: in the dugout, in the front offices and among minority- and female-owned businesses.

And I think Robinson would be concerned about the same thing.

Robinson was an intelligent man who not only broke the color barrier and weathered the indignations that came with being a "first," but also fought to shatter barriers throughout his life. After retiring from baseball he became one of the nation's first black corporate execs when he joined Chock Full o'Nuts coffee as a vice president, and he helped found and manage the Freedom National Bank in Harlem.

If he were alive, he would understand the factors behind the decline in the number of African-American baseball players -- from the NFL's and NBA's higher "cool," to the time required to reach the "bigs" relative to other sports, to the dearth of quality programs in America's urban areas where many African-Americans live.

He'd also know baseball has amped its efforts to address those factors with its investment in RBI (Rebuilding Baseball in Inner Cities) and baseball academies in Compton, Calif., and Houston (with Miami and Atlanta next in line).

He'd be more concerned with the game's hiring record for managers and front-office personnel, and its efforts to share baseball's great wealth with the nation's minority- and female-owned businesses. For a second consecutive year, baseball received an A for its racial hiring record (which counts personnel of Latin and Asian descent, as well) from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. For gender it received a B.

These grades are applaudable. They reflect the growing number of people of color and women throughout almost all levels of baseball. But there remains work to be done. Sure there are a few black, Latino and Asian managers and general managers, but no person of color is a team president or CEO (true power hitters). Few are team physicians (13 percent last season) or head trainers (15 percent).

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesAs Ryan Howard demonstrated in recent weeks, African-American players don't have to worry about being shut out of the top of the market.

Why am I focused on these positions? Because more young men and women of color have the skills to aspire to those jobs than can ever aspire to be the next Jeter. And even if they never land a major league job, they'll have opportunities outside of baseball.

Robinson would understand.

Through MLB's Diverse Business Partners initiative, Robinson would also know baseball is making gains in working with minority- and female-owned businesses. In 2004, MLB reportedly spent $64.8 million with such firms, and that amount was likely much larger last season when MLB reported record revenues of $6.6 billion. There are undoubtedly other businesses in every major league city that could also share in those spoils.

And just as with off-field jobs, more young men and women could benefit from that spending than will ever benefit from Ryan Howard's $125 million contract extension.

I care more about all these efforts than I do the DBBP, because gains in hiring for decision-making positions and in boosting the plethora of deserving minority- and female-owned business ventures ultimately helps and inspires our community more than if baseball looks like the Negro Leagues.

Besides, as I write this, I am glancing at last night's box scores and see that:

• Yankees ace CC Sabathia went 7 2/3 innings to beat Baltimore 8-3;

• Howard, the Phillies' first baseman and 2006 MVP, went 2-for-4 to lead Philadelphia over San Francisco 7-6;

Prince Fielder, the Brewers' prodigious first baseman, struggled (0-for-5) in a 6-5 loss to Pittsburgh;

Jason Heyward, baseball's next "Natural," was on the Atlanta Braves' bench coping with a 1-for-20 slump, but the sculptured 20-year-old remains the game's most talked-about rookie in ages.

I'm not worried about the DBBP because these and many other African-American players remind me every night that blacks will never disappear from the game America calls its own.

And because the "game" that matters most -- the one involving jobs and the millions of dollars baseball generates each season -- has yet to be won.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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Roy S. Johnson

Contributing writer, ESPN.com

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