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In 'Raceball', A Look At Players And Race

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In 'Raceball', A Look At Players And Race

Author Interviews

In 'Raceball', A Look At Players And Race

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(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Announcer: Well, just a spectacular afternoon at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Florida.

GUY RAZ, host:

Ah, the sounds of spring training earlier today, where the Boston Red Sox faced off against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Baseball, apple pie, mom, what could be more American? How about the players?

Unidentified Announcer: The defense today for the Pirates, they'll have Pedro Alvarez at third base.

RAZ: He is from the Dominican Republic.

Unidentified Announcer: Ronnie Cedeno, the shortstop.

RAZ: He is from Venezuela.

Unidentified Announcer: Jose Tabata in centerfield.

RAZ: And he is also from Venezuela. More than a quarter of the players in Major League Baseball are from Latin America or the Caribbean. And they're among the league's best.

But not too long ago, African-Americans played a much bigger role in baseball. And in the mid-1970s, a quarter of all players were black Americans. Today, it's about one in 10.

Baseball historian Rob Ruck writes about how that happened in his new book. It's called "Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game."

And Rob Ruck joins me now. Welcome.

ROB RUCK (Author, "Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game"): Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: The involvement of Latinos and Latin Caribbeans in baseball is a huge part of your book, which we'll get to in a moment. But I want to ask you about the year 1947 because that year is a major turning point in the major leagues here in the U.S., the year that the league began to integrate and allow black players.

You call it a mixed blessing. This - it was a great change, but of course an end to the Negro Leagues, and, you say, an end to the black owners of those teams...

Mr. RUCK: Right.

RAZ: something that the major leagues have never really recovered from.

Mr. RUCK: We should have never had to integrate baseball. And it was long overdue when it happened, but it came at a cost. It meant the end of this autonomous black sporting life in the Negro Leagues. And black owners, black general managers, managers, coaches and a lot of players exited the game.

We're still waiting for the owners to return, and it took a long time. It took 40 years for baseball to really seriously begin to address the integration of the front office.

And I think what we saw was that Major League Baseball took the best young, black players: Mays, Aaron, Banks and the like, they took the black fan, at least for a few years, but they weren't interested in trying to integrate in a way that was optimal for black America. And I think it cost black America a degree of control.

RAZ: Which leads us to the year 1975 because you point to that year as the kind of the peak of black involvement, at least as players, in the major leagues. Twenty-seven percent of major leaguers in 1975 were African-American. Today, it's just about 10 percent. What explains such a dramatic decline in the number of African-Americans in the major leagues?

Mr. RUCK: I think there are several causes at work here. I think that integration savaged the infrastructure through which a young black player would develop, i.e. the Negro Leagues and the black sandlots. And black players, once that was no longer an option, had to come up through the minors, which were, in the '50s and '60s in the South, fairly hostile to black players.

And in the '50s at the same time, the colleges started to open up to blacks in terms of football and basketball. A scholarship was probably a lot better than a brief career in professional baseball.

In later years, I think we saw the collapse of the black family. We saw growing inequality, which affected black kids who couldn't afford to join the travel teams, the elite clubs that kids now must play on in order to get a college scholarship.

And, you know, one final factor, there are very few blacks playing college baseball on scholarship. And part of that is because those scholarships are only partial scholarships, as opposed to a full ride you get in basketball and football.

So if a kid needs the scholarship, even if he wants to play baseball, he's likely to go to basketball or football instead. Baseball's an afterthought right now in black America.

RAZ: My guest is Rob Ruck. He's the author of "Raceball." It's a new book about race and baseball.

As African-American numbers in the major leagues dropped, you write that Latin numbers soared. And now, about a quarter of the league is of Latin descent, many of them from the Dominican Republic and from Venezuela. What explains that?

Mr. RUCK: When Jackie Robinson made it to the Dodgers, he opened the door for Latin players of color. And then in the 1980s, Major League Baseball began to realize how cheap they could sign players from the Caribbean.

They signed Pedro Martinez and Sammy Sosa to bonuses of $3,500 and $5,000. They were signing hundreds of kids in the hopes that a couple would make it. And by the late '80s, they began to build academies, particularly in the Dominican Republic.

Right now, every major league club has a full-time facility and a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic.

RAZ: Every major league team has an academy or a facility in the Dominican Republic. This is a country of 10 million people.

Mr. RUCK: And several have them in Venezuela.

RAZ: There are major league scouts scattered all over Latin America, including in the Dominican Republic. They're called buscones. Explain what they do.

Mr. RUCK: The buscone is not a major league scout or employee. The buscone is a self-styled agent. There's probably 1,000 to 1,500 in the Dominican alone.

RAZ: These are freelancers, essentially.

Mr. RUCK: They area. They take advantage of two Major League Baseball rules. One is that Latin kids are not eligible to be drafted, which means they can start their career as free agents. The second rule is that after the Toronto Blue Jays signed a 13-year-old boy a number of years ago, greatly embarrassing baseball, teams cannot sign a boy until the year he's going to turn 17.

And what a buscone does is take a boy, as young as 13, move him into his home or put him up in a pension, feed him, train him. In return, that buscone might take up to 30 percent of the salary and signing bonus.

Some of them are thieves. They steal from the kid. They tell the kid they're giving him B12 shots that turn out to be veterinary steroids. They make the kid lie about his age, which has led to some pretty embarrassing incidents for major league clubs.

RAZ: Rob, as a kid growing up, I used to watch Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew and some of the great African-American players. I know you're a baseball fan. What have we lost with the decline in African-American players?

Mr. RUCK: Well, I think baseball has lost its claim to be the national pastime. I think that baseball, for many years, claimed that it was a democratic, egalitarian meritocracy when it was anything but that because of the color line. It belatedly integrated. It eventually integrated the front office, but in the process, it saw black players exit the game.

RAZ: That's Rob Ruck. He's the author of the new book "Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game."

Rob Ruck, thanks.

Mr. RUCK: Thank you very much, Guy.

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