By Julissa Catalan
Only 8.3 percent of Major League Baseball players on Opening Day rosters identified themselves as Black, according to a newly released report by the MLB association, marking a steep decline in the number of Black baseball players since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier 67 years ago.
The MLB Diversity Task Force has narrowed down the possible reasons that result in the underrepresentation of Blacks on the field.
For one, baseball is expensive. In order to transition from Little League to high school, college and minor league programs, many players are forced to register with expensive travel teams. Some coaches who front the costs require players to sign agreements that will pay them back if they get drafted in the majors. This creates problems for players in low-income communities.
The lack of training facilities and camps in these communities also alienates Black players from the sport—especially since most training camps are in more affluent areas and are for-profit.
Secondly, Division I college baseball programs only offer the total value of 11.7 scholarships, which are typically then divided among many players. This makes it unrealistic for students from low-income families to get funding necessary to cover tuition and expenses.
“Take me, for example,” New York Yankees’ pitcher C. C. Sabathia said. “If I had a choice, I would have had to go to college to play football, because my mom couldn’t afford to pay whatever the percent was of my baseball scholarship. So if I hadn’t been a first-round pick, I would have gone to college to play football, because I had a full ride.
“All that factors in. How are you going to tell a kid from the hood that I can give you a 15-percent scholarship to go play baseball, or a full ride to go to Florida State for football What are you going to pick It’s not even an option.”
Sabathia believes the disconnect happens right around that age.
“Little League is not a problem,” he said. “Kids love to play Little League from 5 to 12, and they’ve got a great program. It’s from 12 to 15. It’s getting them from Little League to high school baseball is where we lose them — to football, to the streets, to basketball, to everything.”
Sabathia went on to identify another contributing factor, one that could be out of the league’s control.
“Baseball’s a sport where you learn how to play catch with your dad,” he said. “There’s a lot of single-parent homes in the inner city, so it’s hard to get kids to play. “
In an effort to remedy this, the Diversity Task force has enlisted former New York Mets and Chicago White Socks manager Jerry Manuel to tackle the issue on a daily basis through an expanded lead role in the On-Field Diversity Task Force.
Manuel believes the key to changing the demographics in baseball is to make the sport more attainable and visible to prospective players.
“You might see me at places where you see John Calipari,” Manuel said, referring to the University of Kentucky basketball coach. “That’s what we have to do. We’ve got to keep the pulse of the culture and be able to say to that culture, ‘Hey, baseball is an option.’ “
The task force is currently focusing on three initiatives:
- Expanding MLB’s reach and involvement with existing urban baseball initiatives, such as Jr. RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), the MLB Urban Youth Academies and various grassroots programs around the country;
- Implementing programs focused on improving the quality of coaching as a way to make the game more engaging, including the use of new initiatives and mobile coaching tools being developed; and
- Focusing MLB’s marketing reach on urban communities by using a variety of resources, including raising the profile of current and former Major Leaguers. These players would not only engage youth, families and their communities, but could also serve as coaches, program leaders or inspiring figures for youth in urban communities.
“We’re going to have a place to play, keep them interested, keep them excited and stay with them until they get through,” Manuel, who is Black, said in reference to young Black players. “Baseball is a beautiful, healthy game, and it’s a game that, historically, we have been a big, big part of. We’re trying to connect back with that.” He went on to say, “You want to give as many quality athletes the opportunity to choose to participate in the sport and eliminate as many barriers as you can.”
Sabathia, who made history in 2009 when he became the leagues highest-paid pitcher, is doing his part as well. Along with Curtis Granderson of the New York Mets, he plans to sponsor New York-based teams through a partnership with the Boys and Girls Club. He is also contributing to a program for 13- to 15-year-olds in Vallejo, Calif., his hometown.
According to MLB stats, thirteen Black players were selected in the first rounds of the 2012 and 2013 First-Year Player Drafts, and the selection of seven in 2012 was the most by total and percentage (7-of-31, 22.6%) since 1992. Approximately 60 alumni of both the RBI program and MLB Urban Youth Academies have been drafted the last two years.