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The long decline of the African American baseball star

The long decline of the African American baseball star

Posted by PanamericanWorld on August 03, 2017

In 1954, a young black man from Alabama, Willie Mays, took New York and then America by storm. A centerfielder for the New York Giants, he won the 1954 National League MVP and led his team to victory in the World Series, making a catch along the way that became arguably the most famous play in baseball history. But Mays was more than the game’s best player: he became became America’s most popular athlete, especially in the African American community. That popularity was famously captured as he played stick ball with kids on the streets of Harlem.

Fifty years later to the day, artist Thom Ross walked the grass outside an apartment building in upper Manhattan where the Giants’ home, the Polo Grounds, once stood, and calculated the spot where Mays made his phenomenal play. He set up his homage to Willie: a five-sequence life-size panel of “the Catch”. Many passersby stopped to study Ross’s work, but only a few older men could identify the player in those panels. Ross, a lifelong Giants fan, recalled: “I could scarcely find a young black man or teenager who recognized Willie Mays or even knew about the play.”

Ross’s experience demonstrates baseball’s current dilemma. After Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the National League integrated much faster and more thoroughly than the younger American League. Between 1949 and 1979, 19 African American (and two black Latino) players were their leagues’ MVP.

Then baseball changed.

The 1979 World Series winning Pittsburgh Pirates had five African Americans and one black Latino player among their starters. No championship team in either league has had as many since. (In 2014, neither of the World Series teams – the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals – had a single African American player. Last year, the Boston Red Sox led MLB with four black players in their regular starting line-up.)

The decline was gradual at first: the percentage of African American players in the 1980s was still close to 20%. Since then it has fallen rapidly. According to the Racial and Gender Report cardissued annually by Dr Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the percentage of African American players in MLB at the start of the 2016 season had fallen to 7.7%, down from 18% in 1991. In contrast, 69.7% of NFL players are African American; in the NBA, the figure is 74.4%.

There are so many reasons for the remarkable decline of African American players in baseball, it’s hard to know where to start. (It’s important to separate African American players from black players from countries such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic, who continue to thrive in the major leagues.) But the key factor may be summed up by the novelist and historian Kevin Baker, who is currently working on a history of New York City baseball. “Most black people in America live in cities, and there is less and less space in cities – especially New York and other urban areas in the north-east – for baseball to be played,” he says. “A great many New York ballplayers, from Lou Gehrig to Sandy Koufax, learned the game in pick-up games on sand lots. There’s no sand lots any more. If you want to play organized ball, you’re practically forced to get on a bus and head for the suburbs.”

In the suburbs, of course, Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball has become more and more expensive, and parents who want their kids to advance in the game shell out significant sums for private coaching and traveling leagues. That is fueling baseball’s reputation as a rich kid’s sport while a pick-up basketball game in the city requires far less space and equipment: sneakers, a hoop and a basketball.

It’s perhaps little surprise then that just four players on MLB rosters this year are from the New York metropolitan area. “I grew up in an apartment building,” one of those players, TJ Rivera, who is of Puerto Rican descent, told “We played Wiffle ball and football on concrete. We played basketball with a garbage pail. Most of these guys grew up in Florida, where there are parks and fields. It’s hilarious telling them my story.”

And a lack of facilities and training in the cities may be only part of the problem. A 2015 Baltimore Sun article bluntly addressed the lack of role models for young black players: there are simply far fewer African American baseball stars to look up to these days (this may be a wider problem for baseball: ESPN’s 2017 list of the world’s most famous athletes didn’t contain any baseball players; there were 38 soccer players and 13 athletes from the NBA). Perhaps the most eloquent summary of baseball’s shift towards an older and whiter base came from the comedian Chris Rock, himself a New York Mets fan. He perceptively pointed out wider problems for baseball’s future, saying: “If you lose black America, you lose young America.”

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