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Baseball's Representation Problem: Where are the Black baseball heroes?

Jaclyn Allen talks with CPR's Vic Vela about his recent reporting
Posted at 2:20 PM, Jul 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-13 16:20:33-04

DENVER — With the All-Star game happening in Denver, some athletes are noticing the dearth of Black players. CPR's Vic Vela has been reporting on the issue, and spoke with Denver7's Jaclyn Allen about what he discovered.

Vela’s story looks at the decreasing number of Black baseball players and coaches, and he spoke with several Black coaches and players from Colorado who are trying to change that trend.

MLB held a diversity, equity and inclusion event in Denver on Monday, where several Black former major leaguers spoke about the need for more diversity within baseball and pushed for another generation of Black players. The league is also recognizing some of the best players of the Negro Leagues.

Below, hear more from Vela about his reporting:

Vic, You found a precipitous drop in the number of black players, not just at the professional level, but at all levels of the sport, and this has been in just the last few decades.
"When we think about the history of baseball, it's a game of giants, and many of them were African American. Names that you don't even need to be a big baseball fan to even know: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron. These were household names who contributed to the incredible history of baseball. In the mid 90s, for a couple decades leading up to it, you know, the percentage of Black players in the majors was anywhere from 17% to 19%, on average, probably about 18%, on average. But over the years, their numbers have declined. And so Opening Day of this year, only 7.6% of players on major league rosters were Black.

Why that is so concerning for the future of the sport?
"There's fewer Blacks playing baseball at all levels, from t-ball through college, and that's a big deal, because when kids don't see themselves represented in a sport, they're less inclined to play it. One of the kids I spoke with for my story, he talked about sometimes when he's out on the field here in Colorado, he's usually just seeing mostly white players. There's a lot of Latino players to be sure, and Latinos contribute mightily to the diversity of this game, but in terms of African Americans, those numbers have steadily dropped for a long time now."

Why are we seeing this drop in representation?
"One of the big things right at the top of the list is cost. Baseball has just become a more expensive sport to play. Compare it to basketball. If you're a kid on a summer day, you can just pick up a basketball. That's literally one piece of equipment and you can go to any park and you can play with a buddy and play one-on-one. That's pretty low maintenance. With baseball, you had to buy cleats and you had to buy the glove and you had to buy a good bat. So, the equipment itself is more expensive just to get started."

You found cost is also a barrier to getting to the top levels of baseball.
"If you're really good and you want to be seen by people like college recruits or major league recruits, you largely have to play in club sports. Club sports offer these kids a chance to showcase their talents in front of these scouts, and playing with a lot of players who are also good. But the problem with club sports is they can cost thousands of dollars. One of the coaches said he's seen it as high as $15,000 for a season. So when you are a parent, you want to support your child, but at the same time there's the reality of life. So when you're having to make decisions about how to how to use your money for a lot of folks it's just not even a decision at all."

And other sports may not just be cheaper, but more popular for young black kids.
"The popularity of the NFL and the NBA these days really outshines baseball. Look at the the superstars in the NBA. The NBA is a sport with great representation from African American athletes. Again, those names you remember I mentioned at the top: Willie, Hank. Well, in the NBA, there's LeBron. The Joker, right? You know, they're household names. If a kid's grown up playing sports, and he sees that these guys are you who look like him are dominating the sport, and it's a sport that's logistically easier to play for some of the reasons I talked about with cost, it's kind of a no-brainer."

So what's being done to address this?
"Major League Baseball, to their credit, has tried. And you can argue whether they've tried enough. We saw it play out just this week with the All Star game. Commissioner Rob Manfred announced just Monday, that baseball was going to give at least $100 million over the next 10 years to the Players Alliance. The Players Alliance is a nonprofit made up of current and former Black baseball players who dedicate time and money to under-served communities. There's the RBI reviving the baseball in inner cities program, which does something similar trying to get younger kids in under-served communities playing. Baseball is not unaware. They are very aware that this is an issue, and so they're trying to address it at those early stages where kids are trying to find their favorite sport."

So there is some hope that this downward spiral could reverse.
"Well, I hope so. And I think baseball certainly hopes so. And I hope so for our country. There are some good signs. I think it is important to know that for the last nine years of the MLB Draft, a significant number of black players have been drafted in the first round. Now, whether a lot of those players end up becoming major league players is another story. But there are those numbers that seem to be on the upswing, and a lot of those players benefited from programs like RBI. So, you can only hope. It can't get any worse. But then again, maybe it can."