Thursday, April 14, 2005
Where's the next D-Train?
By Richard Lapchick
Special to Page 2
It has been pointed out before. But as the Nationals first take the field Thursday night for their home-opening series, it's worth mentioning again that they are playing in Washington, D.C., which is home to one of the highest concentrations of African-Americans of any major American city. That stands in stark contrast to the persistent decline of African-American players in major-league baseball.
The Racial and Gender Report Card on Major League Baseball which covers the 2004 season was issued last week to coincide with the opening of the '05 baseball season. And there was much good news on the issue of race in the game. Baseball received an A or better for opportunities for players, managers and coaches as well as for MLB's central office. Among the major men's professional leagues, MLB had the second-best grade for race, with a B+.
Some of the highlights:
• Arturo Moreno, who purchased the Angels last year, became the first Latino team owner in a major pro sports league.
• MLB currently has seven managers of color (four African-Americans and three Latinos), second only to the NBA.
• In 2004, 29 percent of the professional staff in MLB's central office were people of color, a close second to the NBA's 30 percent.
• In another close second to the NBA, 11 percent of team vice presidents were people of color. MLB had the most Latino and Asian vice presidents of any of the professional sports covered in the report.
• Among the men's leagues, MLB had the best record for people of color in the ranks of senior administrators (17 percent).
• Thirty-seven percent of MLB players were people of color: Latino (26 percent), African-American (9 percent) or Asian (2 percent).
Baseball has done any number of things to increase racial balance in the game. Yet as the new era begins in Washington, much of the focus on race and baseball is on the declining numbers of African-American players.
Only two members of the Nationals are African-American. Of the 25 players on the Nationals' roster, four are from Mexico, three are from the Dominican Republic, two are from Puerto Rico and one each is from Cuba and Japan.
Overall, less than 10 percent of the players in the league are African-American. These are the things that seem to be getting the most attention.
What has happened to African-American players?
The answer is layered. Since the 1970s, the sports of basketball and football have taken off in popularity in the African-American community. Basketball doesn't require a lot of equipment or space. Hoops can be found on garages in rural America and parks in urban America, all over the country.
Baseball fields, meanwhile, aren't nearly as available in cities across the land.
Another factor: There are fewer African-American stars in MLB to serve as role models for young people. In the 1980s, African-American stars statistically dominated the game. In 1983, roughly one in five players was African-American. In that season, half of the top 20 hitters in the National and American leagues were African-American. Among home run leaders, five of the top 11 were African-American, as were six of the 10 leaders in RBI and runs scored. Eight of the 10 hits leaders were African-American.
In the 2004 season, only two of the top 20 hitters were African-American. Two of the 10 leading home run hitters were African-American, and only one of the top 10 leaders in RBI and hits was African-American.
Obviously, African-Americans are no longer as dominant. Stars from the Caribbean have emerged in huge numbers, with dramatic impact. Therefore, if you are a young African-American looking for an athletic role model, the chances are much greater that you'll gravitate to an NBA or an NFL player.
In the 1980s, African-American parents in a position to direct their children into a sport might have seen the lack of opportunity for African-Americans once they finished playing the game. When Los Angeles Dodgers vice president Al Campanis made his infamous statement on ABC's "Nightline" in 1987 that African-Americans might not have "the necessities" to be big-league managers, there were no African-American managers in MLB.
In contrast, by 1987, the NBA had 12 African-American head coaches.
Ironically, current Nationals manager Frank Robinson was the first African-American to lead a team when he became the Cleveland manager (1975-77). He then managed San Francisco (1981-84) and Baltimore (1988-91) before becoming manager for the Expos' franchise (now the Nationals) in 2002.
But during the '70s and '80s, major-league baseball's only African-American managers besides Robinson were Larry Doby for one year with the White Sox (1978) and Maury Wills for parts of 1980 and '81 with Seattle. That was it.
Now the Nationals take the field in D.C. with Robinson as their manager. When Robinson was hired in 1975, I was often asked whether I thought it would "open the floodgates" for other African-American managers. Obviously, it didn't. Now, commissioner Bud Selig has mandated that every team interview people of color for openings at the manager and general manager level, and report the candidates and interview lists to his office. Since the implementation of that rule, the results have been dramatic for major-league baseball. The league went from three to a high of 10 managers of color in the 2002 season.
For baseball to attract more African-American youth to the game, improved opportunities for people of color need to continue. So does MLB's investment in the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) program in urban America, which is designed to increase interest in the game among inner-city youngsters. That program is managed with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. In 2004, RBI programs reportedly gave nearly 95,000 girls and boys between the ages of 13 and 18 the opportunity to play the game. More than 75 percent of them were children of color.
MLB also needs to increase its marketing efforts in the African-American community, tied to promotion of the great African-American ballplayers still in the game. Will the African-American population in the Nationals' new home area turn out to cheer the team? I certainly hope so. Part of the answer will come from how well the Nationals play, as in any city. A second part of the answer will reflect how well the Nationals market themselves to those African-Americans residents. A third part will reflect how well the team secures African-American star players.
Robinson's presence as manager is a certainly a huge plus in the early going. So is the excitement of having our nation's pastime back in our nation's capital.
I think it is important that we not lose sight of the fact that baseball has made significant progress across the board for people of color. Diversity is no longer defined solely in terms of black and white in America. Now we have African-American, white, Latino, Asian, Native American and, perhaps someday, Arab-American ballplayers in our sport, our national pastime. Will they have the same opportunities to lead our teams? Recent years tell us that those chances are improving.
So, in terms of real diversity in baseball, we have made meaningful progress. But as a nation for which the issue of blacks and whites is still important, we will pay attention to how many African-Americans are playing baseball in the major leagues as well as at the game's other levels.
The story is still unfolding.
Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 10 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.