"Where are black ballplayers?" asked the headline in Bob Nightengale's USA TODAY story of June 2.
It's a damn interesting question, and the story, while pointing out that African Americans constitute only 8% of the Major League Baseball workforce—down from the 27% of 1975—doesn't really provide a satisfactory answer. Apparent reasons are cited in a swirl of vague conjecture by baseball brass, but the bulk of the story concerns efforts by pro baseball players to begin pooling money to start inner-city programs that will rekindle black interest in the game.
This sounds like a worthy cause, and Hall of Famer and announcer Joe Morgan has already been spied on television giving a similar pitch. The Nightengale story also covers a corollary to the main issue, namely, that African Americans don't attend baseball games much either.
Now, when I was a kid, and my dad took me to see the Washington Senators play, I do remember black faces in the crowd, though D.C. has a high black population. Yet when I moved to Chicago—a city split almost in half racially—I don't recall being struck by the presence of too many blacks in the crowd at Wrigley Field or old (and newer) Comiskey Park. Since then, other sports like basketball and football have increasingly been the pursuit of choice of young black men. Don't ask me why this is exactly. Both football and basketball are physically stressing occupations. Even superstars in these games are lucky if they can play more than 10 years. In football, especially, a career can vanish in the blink of an eye. We all remember world-class athlete Bo Jackson, a simply fabulous multi-sport star who was just attaining greatness as an NFL running back when his career with the then-Los Angeles Raiders ended suddenly in a playoff game following the 1990 season. Jackson, incredibly gifted as he was, managed to get a hip replacement and then went on to continue his baseball career with the White Sox and Angels.
Jackson was never the same at anything after the injury, but the fact that he was able to continue in baseball says something definitely good about the game as an alternative for gifted black athletes. Let's see...play football for maybe five years, earning maybe $5-$10 million while getting the hell knocked out of you and risking concussions and bone injuries that'll make it hard to walk when you're 45...or... play baseball for maybe 10, or 15, maybe even 20 years, earning maybe $50-$75 million, and still have most every working body part intact? Seems like a no-brainer.
According to Baseball Almanac's Barry Bonds page, the temperamental Giants slugger had earned approximately $160 million in lifetime salary prior to the 2006 season. This figure does not include money from endorsements or any other possible off-the-field income Bonds might derive. He'll be 42 on July 24, and he continues to play, remaining a serious threat to surpass Hank Aaron as baseball's all-time home-run champ. Yes, injuries happen in baseball—pitchers are particularly susceptible to sudden arm trouble—but as a career option it's a ton more secure a profession than football or basketball, two games that require intense and fairly constant exertion not to mention huge stresses on limbs and torso.
Football collisions have been computed to have the impact of car crashes. Football may be our American pastime—clearly it surpassed baseball a good while ago—but it's a dangerous game, definitely a big part of its allure for fans, but also definitely the reason why running backs, on average, don't last five years in the game, and why quarterbacks like Joe Theismann can't retire from the game on their own terms when they have to endure traumatic, career-ending (and quite grizzly) injuries at the hands of deadly linebackers like Lawrence Taylor. (If you've got the stomach for it, you can view Taylor's bone-crunching 1985 hit here.)
For whatever reasons, the baseball culture isn't attracting African American males, though it would be interesting to see some attendance statistics for black fans at basketball and football games as well. The black middle class has been on the rise for years; surely they are more able to afford sporting events now than they could, say, in 1959. Or are they? Have the wages of middle- and working- and lower-class Americans increased proportionately to the price of a sporting event?
Case in point: In August 2005, I returned to Washington, D.C., for a family get-together and also to celebrate the return of baseball to the Nation's Capital. Myself, my three brothers, a brother-in-law, and three nephews all attended a Saturday afternoon baseball game at RFK Stadium, Nationals vs. the St. Louis Cardinals. Eldest brother Peter had gotten the tickets, and it wasn't until I sat in my seat and looked at my stub that I noticed the damn thing had cost $40. That's $320 my brother had shelled out. (Never mind that the Nats were shut out by Jason Marquis on a two-hitter.) Are inner-city families expected to be able to pay those kinds of prices in order to expose their children to baseball? I hardly think so. Not on any regular basis anyway. And don't get me started on what hot dogs and beer cost at the ol' ballpark. (In contrast, when I attend a Nashville Sounds Triple A baseball game, I spend $10 on a great box seat, but if I wanted to, I could spend only $6 for a lesser, but really not so different, grandstand seat.)
If baseball wants to know why black males aren't interested in the game, maybe they should start right there—with ticket prices that prohibit poor people from ever experiencing the game live. The focus of this new player-endorsed initiative is supposedly the large inner cities, where presumably all kinds of hungry young baseball talent might lie. Well, it might be there, all right, but if those kids' parents can't afford to take them to a game very much, if at all, then their only recourse is to catch the game on TV. With all due respect, baseball on TV doesn't really get interesting until the playoffs and World Series, and by then football has started. Granted, these same inner-city youths probably can't afford a football ticket, either, but football on television is practically an American sacrament. Everyone watches football. Everyone's got a TV. Even in the ghetto.
Maybe baseball is just too subtle an endeavor to grab the interest of young black athletes, who readily know the easy availability, allure and joy of basketball and also the aggressiveness, vaingloriousness and high profile of football. The recent baseball re-programming efforts, spearheaded by Minnesota Twins outfielder Torii Hunter, sound like a good idea, and over time it might bear some fruit. But maybe a significant portion of the resources should be spent taking the targeted youngsters to some baseball games on a regular basis.
Once again, baseball can possibly trace an aspect of its sociological demise back to its unfettered greed, which, since the '70s, has made millionaires of .234 hitters and middle relievers with mediocre ERAs; has managed to alienate thousands of fans, black and white; and has marginalized the game as a spectator sport for the lower classes, who used to attend in droves because it was eminently affordable.
It's probably no coincidence that baseball is being taken over by Latin ballplayers, many of whom, ironically, hail from poor countries with plenty of sun, where they can play the game all year round and become the best at what they do. You don't need $40 either to catch a baseball game in Puerto Rico or Venezuela. The culture is established there, and the poor folk embrace it in a big way. Those kids want to play. Why don't American blacks?
The exact answer to that question isn't crystal clear as yet. Maybe a think tank should study the situation. In the meantime, Hunter & Co. might take a few kids to the ballpark and, while there, tell them about the merits of job security, career longevity, enough money to sustain an entire extended family over several generations, and a painless old age.
You can't beat fun at the old ballpark—if you can afford it, that is.