About once a year, I get a call from a reporter who's writing a story about the declining number of African-American players in Major League Baseball. They all want to know why so few African-Americans play the national pastime now, compared to in the past. I was reminded of these calls when reading Gary Sheffield's comments in GQ magazine concerning the decreasing number of black participants in the game.
AP Photo/John Bazemore
Were Gary Sheffield's comments on point, or way off? The debate continues ...
Is Sheffield correct? And if so, does that explain why only eight percent of today's major-league players are African-American, compared with 27 percent in the 1970s?
In one sense, Sheffield's comments echo the increasingly divisive comments that are heard more often these days between African-Americans and Latinos. Though it is quite unfortunate, there is currently a certain amount of tension between these two distinct groups, as America's racial and cultural identity is redefined around shifting population demographics. One would hope these two marginalized groups of people actually might find some common ground upon which to identify with each other -- and they often do. But the reality is, any time one group starts to feel displaced by another, comments like these become the rule rather than the exception. Again, this is unfortunate, but it is real.
There might be some baseball people in positions of authority who agree with Sheffield, believe it or not. The thing is, these people know not to voice such thoughts in public. Throughout his career Sheffield has consistently said whatever comes to his mind -- however unedited, controversial and misinformed the thought might be. Yet somewhere deep down in that convoluted thought is a perception, however incorrect it might appear to some, that speaks to why young blacks have turned away from the game. The perception is that baseball is viewed as a sport hostile to the type of cultural expression so many black athletes now regard as a birthright.
Black youths -- particularly those in urban areas -- have no interest in baseball now. None. They don't watch the game, nor do they want to play the game. For these youths, who were raised in an era of hip hop, video games and shoe contracts, baseball is about as boring to them as watching paint dry while listening to Lawrence Welk. This is not because of some dictate from above, or a conspiracy theory about keeping the number of black players down. Instead, it is a reflection of contemporary culture, where the sports of football and especially basketball demand the bulk of young blacks' attention and loyalty. Baseball is very far removed from their reality. It is a sport seen as old, "white," and devoid of any real cultural flair (or what might otherwise be referred to as "flava").
As we continue to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier, it's important to point out that this historical event is just that, history. Robinson came along at a time when it was thought black people needed to prove their worth to American society, and baseball was a highly visible proving ground. With few options in a still-segregated society, many African-Americans felt they had no choice if they ever wanted to integrate, other than to fully comply with such a mandate. Considering chances were few and far between, those who were given the opportunity to integrate -- like Robinson -- went out of their way to show they belonged, knowing all along that one minor slip-up might end such an "experiment" once and for all. This is the main reason Robinson often turned the other cheek when faced with hostile words, dirty play on the part of his opponents, and racism in general. He knew that if he reacted he would not only get booted, but he would also ruin any chance that another black individual might be given a similar opportunity.
For this, history has rewarded Robinson by defining him as someone who remained dignified in the face of such untoward treatment. That same sentiment also came to define Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Figures like Robinson and King are celebrated as American heroes and held in the highest of esteem. As a nation, we celebrate the anniversary of Robinson's breaking of the color barrier this year, the same way we celebrate King's birthday in January every year.
As the mid-'60s turned into the late-'60s though, many African-Americans came to find people like Robinson and King problematic. Advocates of a newer, more militant philosophy saw their actions as too compliant and accommodating of an unjust establishment. Civil rights became Black Power, and a younger generation -- who idolized figures like Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party instead of Dr. King -- began to find their sports role models amongst people like Jim Brown, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and especially Muhammad Ali. This new generation regarded Jackie Robinson as at best misguided. at worst an Uncle Tom. Robinson's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee against the legendary activist, scholar, singer/actor and former athlete Paul Robeson, his support of Richard Nixon, and his public criticism of Malcolm X helped fuel such criticism as well.
These political changes coincided with a change in perspective regarding the games black athletes chose to pursue. Over time the culture of baseball came to be seen as too confining, too conservative. No longer feeling the need to "prove themselves," modern black athletes began turning to sports like basketball -- where they could openly express themselves in a manner that would be impossible in baseball.
One need only look at the example of Julius Erving as evidence of the beginning of this shift. Dr. J's afro became the symbol of basketball's high-flying potential. The '70s were all about black self-expression through culture -- which was evident in the movies, music, fashion and hairstyles of the day. The afro was as much a political statement as it was a hairstyle. As Marvin Gaye said, "Who are they to judge us, simply 'cause our hair is long?" Though there were some exceptions -- Oscar Gamble comes to mind -- most baseball teams required their players to be clean-shaven and to cut their hair short. Even though Dr. J cut his afro down by the time he got to the NBA with the 76ers, his image still suggested a certain freedom of expression that was generally absent in baseball.
Over time, as more and more black players enjoyed success playing basketball, their style of play and personal style came to redefine the game as a "black sport." This was as much cultural as it was athletic. The large amounts of money being made didn't hurt either. But baseball players were also well paid -- so it wasn't just the money, it was also the cultural freedom of expression afforded through basketball. Whereas baseball had come to represent conformity, basketball represented liberation. As a recent front-page New York Times article indicated, even presidential hopeful Barack Obama was captured by the allure of the game, playing basketball as a way to define both his blackness and his manhood while in high school in Hawaii.
By the 1980s, baseball still had its share of black stars -- but practically all the NBA's stars were black, in what had become a predominantly black league. The next generation of black athletes was born and raised in an era when Magic, MJ, Isiah, Dominique and Charles Barkley were ruling the court and doing so in their own unique way. Compare these luminaries with '80s baseball stars like Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden -- look at where they all are now -- and then decide which group had the bigger cultural impact?
Nowadays the game of basketball is the preferred sport amongst African-Americans, and this has been the case for years. Even football has been affected. There's a large number of black football players in the NFL, but even their strongest influences tend to be basketball players. Take for example the jump-shot gesture -- "ballin'" -- that the New York Giants' defensive linemen and other football players used to celebrate great plays this past season, a gesture immortalized in the Jim Jones' song, "We Fly High." Basketball sets the standard, and even though the sport has grappled constantly with such cultural influences itself, it's hard to deny that the sport moves to the beat of a different drummer than the others.
For aspiring young black athletes, baseball's barely a blip on their radar screen. In the past, black youths like Willie Mays played stickball on their way to life as a major leaguer. But the present generation lives for street ball and pickup hoops. The great black baseball players of the past are more like old blues singers compared to this young generation weaned on hip hop.
At the end of the day, the declining number of black baseball players is more about generational and cultural issues, I think, than strictly racial issues. Blacks were at one time largely loyal Republicans thanks to Abraham Lincoln. Jewish players once dominated the game of basketball. Generational and cultural shifts often bring about historical changes that were unthinkable in a previous era. Who would have imagined in the Ali era, for instance, that the heavyweight champion would now be a Russian? Things change, regardless of the nostalgia that some might feel for the past.
Blacks no longer see baseball as their game. Thus they have stopped participating in the large numbers that they used to. Baseball can invest all the money they want into reviving this interest, but it will all go to waste. That ship has already sailed.
And while we're on ship metaphors, '70s afros and Gary Sheffield, I am reminded of Flip Wilson's role as the Reverend in the classic film "Uptown Saturday Night" (1974). Wilson's hilarious sermon in the film revolves around his evocative utterance of the phrase, "Loose lips sink ships." With that phrase in mind, it might be a good idea for Gary Sheffield to concentrate on hitting and playing his position, and leave the intellectual commentary to others.
Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator, and professor of critical studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. His next book, "The Notorious Ph.D.'s Guide to the Super Fly '70s," will be published this month.