'Oil Can,' others, look to reverse exodus of black ballplayers
Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd looks more like a well-traveled jazz-band leader than an apostle of African-American baseball. Resplendent in a green jump suit, his upper shirt unbuttoned to expose his chest, he could be pulling into another town for another one-night stand. Instead, on this late afternoon in June, the 47-year-old former big league pitcher is rolling into the parking lot of 88-year-old Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, Mass.Head south now to Richmond, Va., and consider an unknown face in an even more remote province of the national pastime. It belongs to William Forrester Jr., who is giving a postgame pep talk to a team of 16- to 18-year-olds. They will soon represent their mostly black Richmond youth league in a tournament.
The efforts of Boyd and Forrester might not prove, in the end, to be the most effective way to reverse what over the years has become a mass exodus of blacks from baseball. But working largely outside the sphere of Major League Baseball, as they both are, they offer a different sort of non-institutional approach to the issue. Only 8.4 percent of players on Opening Day big league rosters were African-American this season -- according to U.S. Census estimates as of July 1, 2005, African-Americans make up 12.25 percent of the U.S. population -- compared to a high of 27 percent in 1975. And only 6.5 percent of Division I college baseball players were black in the 2005 season, according to the numbers in the most recent study by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
William Forrester Jr. knows well that there are different kinds of segregation. The clearer, crueler one, he learned at age 8, in 1966. He was the only black kid at tryouts for a youth baseball league in Richmond. His parents thought he'd surely be on a team. Then they received a letter from the league secretary, which the family has saved to this day. Young Bill couldn't be accepted, the secretary explained, because teams they played from other towns would have problems with his participation. "If we have no one to play," she wrote, "none of the boys will have the benefit of the [league]." William Forrester Sr., a Richmond physician, promptly founded the Metropolitan Junior Baseball League (MJBL), where William Forrester Jr. -- and any other black kid in the city who so desired -- could play the game. Forrester Sr., along with some other early stalwarts, grew MJBL into a league of 45 teams and 800 players. Young Bill Forrester easily recalls those numbers; but even more clearly, he remembers something else: He had a marvelous time playing shortstop. Now, running the MJBL 41 years later, he sees a more subtle, yet still startling, kind of segregation: White kids in greater Richmond play baseball and black kids, by and large, don't. Nowadays, it isn't a snippy letter that keeps them out -- it's simple economics. Teens have very few options to keep playing competitive baseball if they don't join traveling teams. Those teams require big financial and time commitments, as well as proximity to the well-groomed suburban baseball complexes where they usually practice and play. For many low-income, single-parent, inner-city kids, that's three strikes and they're out. The growing perception of baseball as a "white" game has only added to the difficulty of retaining teens in the MJBL, which accommodates players through age 18. MJBL alum Rasheed Lewis, who stuck with the league to its age limit, recalls peer pressure in high school not to play. "My friends said, 'Baseball, what's that?'" Lewis recalls.
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