Declining Number of African Americans In Baseball

On Wednesday, the Chicago White Sox take on the Houston Astros in game four of the best-of-seven World Series. It's an exciting time for baseball, but some are calling attention to the drastic decline of African Americans in the game. Ed Gordon explores why the numbers have dropped with Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball, and Bill Rhoden, sports columnist for The New York Times.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The Chicago White Sox are one game away from winning the World Series. The first three games of this year's series have all been exciting and have made many heroes on the field. But more and more frequently, those heroes are not African-American. Gone are the days when names like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Reggie Jackson dominated the game. Over the last 30 years, there has been a drastic decline of African-Americans in baseball. A recent analysis by The Seattle Times shows that since 1975, the number of black Americans in the major leagues has dwindled from 27 percent to about 9 percent. Former Negro Leaguer and LA Dodgers outfielder Sweet Lou Johnson told us how disappointed he is in the declining number of African-Americans in the big leagues. He also said the great Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the color barrier in baseball just a half a century ago, would feel the same.

Mr. SWEET LOU JOHNSON: And I know Jackie, today, would be kind of sad to see what he has started, what he went through, for it to diminish like that. Pretty soon, we won't have a legend to carry to the next generation.

GORDON: Joining us now via phone from Houston, Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations for major-league baseball. Also with us, New York Times sports columnist Bill Rhoden. He's in our NPR bureau in New York City.

Gentlemen, welcome to the program. Appreciate it.

Mr. Solomon, let me start with you. We should note that you're baseball's highest-ranking African-American executive. Let me put it to you bluntly: What happened?

Mr. JIMMIE LEE SOLOMON (Executive Vice President, Major-League Baseball): Well, a lot of things happened. I think the popularity of football and basketball, along with the different types of entertainment that we have today, the video games, hundreds of TV, cable channels on television. There are a lot of different modes of entertainment now. So I think that what's starting to happen is is that we're spreading the wealth among other venues.

GORDON: Bill Rhoden, that being said, we have not seen the same kind of decline in the NBA or NFL. We don't see blacks in hockey; we don't see blacks in golf or tennis, NASCAR any real numbers. One might say the historical barriers continue there, but if you look at baseball, others would say this is by choice.

Mr. WILLIAM RHODEN (The New York Times, Sports Columnist): Well, Ed, you know, that's a good point. But I think there are about five reasons for this, and it's interesting that you played the clip of the Negro League player, because, ironically, it was integration of baseball that has led to the point that we're at now, in that, you know, what the Negro League baseball--that was a cultural institution and the Negro League baseball basically served until about, you know, maybe the mid-'50s, as a funnel, as a pipeline, where a lot of young black kids from, you know, the country, the city, whatever, would migrate to Negro League baseball in large numbers. They had teams--you know, the whole set-up.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RHODEN: And then what would happen is that you had a huge pool of talent that would flow into major-league baseball, you know, at various minor-league levels. Once you began to--once you wiped out Negro League baseball--it's like wiping out, you know, like historically black colleges or something, a huge reservoir, a huge magnet of talent was eliminated, a huge pool was eliminated. And so that was--so integration was a big deal in terms of the power structure, in terms of major-league baseball, but in terms of supplying major-league baseball with a steady stream of African-American players, it was--it sort of led us to the place we are now. So that's the--sort of a major historic reason.

GORDON: Mr. Solomon, I know major-league baseball has a number of programs--incentive programs--to get African-Americans, particularly young African-Americans, involved and interested in baseball again. Why do you see the importance to do so?

Mr. SOLOMON: Well, like anything else, we have put our--Bill is correct. We have focused a lot right now on academies we've built in the Dominican Republic and various countries in Latin America. So right now when we sign players, about 40 percent of the players we sign in pro ball tend to be from Latin American countries. So what we've decided to do, to turn the tide of this declining number of black Americans that play our game, are to establish programs here in the United States, mostly in urban areas, in an effort to increase our participation in those communities, and then get more talent and more players into our industry.

GORDON: Bill Rhoden, what's the social implication and the social importance of blacks playing baseball? Obviously, with the historical reference to Jackie Robinson and all that he did, not only in baseball but for major-league sports, in general, we know that. But beyond that, what's the importance today?

Mr. RHODEN: Well, yeah. Unfortunately, Ed, it's beginning to lose importance. You know, what Jackie Robinson meant to major-league baseball and young African-American kids in the '40s, and into the '50s, doesn't mean the same thing now. There are some kids who don't really even know who Jackie Robinson is. But one thing I like to say, Ed, in terms of why this is happening, I think Mr. Solomon is correct in terms of having to, you know, offset that by these great programs. But I think there's some structural things there. First of all, you're not going to cut into the NBA, NFL. The conveyor belt systems in those sports, they're too well-entrenched through colleges, specifically through colleges, to ever really catch up. But also, one of the things that the--that major-league baseball has is its minor-league system.

Minor-league system, I think, plays a tremendous role in putting--keeping things they way they're--maintaining a certain status quo. You know, the NBA, until this year, didn't have a minor-league system. The NFL didn't have a minor-league system, so it was talent-driven. So you would--you could come, in the NBA's case, right from high school, right to the pros, you know, NFL after two years, there was no middle man. There was no minor-league system.

In baseball, you've got this minor-league system, which serves as sort of a filtering sort of, you know, device, you know, if you will. So before you even get to the pros, you've got to go to the A ball, AA, AAA, which sort of could filter out, quote, unquote, "head cases," personality probl--you know, so before you even get to the major leagues, if you're a young African-American player, there are about two, three or four levels of hoops that you've got to pass through to get to the big time. And a lot of things can happen between the time you get in and the time you get out.

GORDON: Mr. Solomon, you buy that?

Mr. SOLOMON: Well, I really don't buy that. What I will tell you is that baseball is more of a collection of skills, I think, than many--the other major sports, therefore, we have found that the average college players needs about three and a half years of continued baseball training before he can make it to the majors. And high school players need about four years, or four and a half years, of that same type of training. I don't think it's a filtering-out process as much as it is a chance for them to hone their skills, to be able to play at the major-league level.

What I will say, though, is if you look at minor-league baseball, we still don't bring in a lot of African-American players at the minor-league level even. I told you, we right now sign--about 40 percent of our signees are from Latin America. And the reason for that is because we put programs--we have 30 baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and another 15 in Venezuela. And so it's not surprising that we have that--we have a large number of Dominicans and Venezuelans coming into our league every year. If we do the same things in urban areas, bring baseball back to the inner city--we have a program called the RBI Program, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, and we serve about 120 communities across the country, and these urban areas serve about 120,000 kids annually. In this last draft, we had 31 RBI graduates that were drafted into professional baseball. Five were in the first round, including the first pick overall in the draft.

GORDON: Bill Rhoden, what about this premise, the idea that baseball does not make the celebrity athlete as quickly as football, and, certainly, in particular, as a basketball? I've heard many athletes say that their love as a kid, first and foremost, and this is changing, obviously, as the generations get younger and younger, but certainly in my age group, and those who are 30, say that they loved baseball more than any other sport, perhaps even played it better than the current sport that they were in as a professional, yet the entertainment value and all the other things--and when you talk big sports today, you talk big money. They saw the ability to become a celebrity, quite frankly, quicker in these other sports.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah. And I think--you know, I think, Jimmie, you know, really hit the nail on the head when he talked about the patience factor. I mean, I still say what I'm saying about the filtering system.

Mr. SOLOMON: I understand.

Mr. RHODEN: But I think you're right. I mean, the patience that it takes, you know, to spend, you know, two, three years in A ball, another three, you know, maybe in AA or AAA and then the going up and the down, the up and the down.

GORDON: But we saw that change in the NBA where kids just stopped going to college, and that was the filtering system, if you will, the honing of skills system, if you will, for the NBA.

Mr. RHODEN: Yeah. But still, Ed, although it was filtering, you still have--college basketball is huge in this country.

GORDON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RHODEN: So you've still got a lot of the glamour, you've still got, if you're in Division I, a lot of the television time. You know, you've still got a lot of re-enforcement and there seems to be immediacy. Even in the NFL, there's more of an immediacy. Baseball is a--more of a patience sport, and I still kind of go back to the political analysis of that is that, you know, I think that a lot of the young Dominican players, unfor--there's a certain openness, kind of like, `Hey, we just want to get there.' I think a lot of young African-American athletes don't necessarily have that type of attitude, that `I'll take kind of anything, any...'

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. RHODEN: `...level just to get to the big leagues,' because of what they see happening to their, you know, friends and colleagues in other sports. So I've seen the RBI Program at work and I think it's really fantastic and, hopefully, you know, maybe in the next 10 years, we're going to see a great influx of young African-American players. I do not think we'll ever get to the point that it was just because of the...

GORDON: All right.

Mr. RHODEN: ...pull of the...

GORDON: Mr. Solomon, are we going to see that upturn? And I going to see, and generations here to come going to see, the likes of a Reggie Jackson, a Willie Mays, a Hank Aaron, just in terms of at least double-digit participation in the major leagues?

Mr. SOLOMON: Well, I certainly hope so. What we're trying to do now is to make an extension from our RBI Program by starting our bricks-and-mortar presences in urban areas and we're building right now our first academy in the United States in Compton, California. It's a $10 million academy that we're building there on the campus of Compton Community College. We plan to bring baseball right there to an urban area and then spread...

GORDON: All right.

Mr. SOLOMON: ...it across the country.

GORDON: All right. Well, hopefully, we'll see it. If nothing else, for the baseball fan, we've seen a lot of exciting baseball in the last week or so. And, Mr. Solomon, I know you're a little bit sleepy, 14, 15 innings, we can't keep staying up on the East Coast with this. Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations for major-league baseball, and Bill Rhoden, New York Times sports columnist and a regular on this program, I thank you both for joining us today. Appreciate it.

Mr. RHODEN: I'm from Chicago, Ed.

GORDON: And from Chi-Town, lest we forget that, Bill Rhoden.

Mr. RHODEN: Let's go, Ed.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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