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 card issued 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 MLB.com. “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 Sunarticlebluntly 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.”
Rock is wrong on one point though: that, as he says, “blacks don’t care about history” in baseball. They most certainly do, and part of African American alienation from the game stems from being cut off from that history. What has been largely forgotten is that black Americans have a long and rich history in baseball. For more than 70 years, the Negro Leagues flourished all across the country, from New York, where Mays played as a teenager, to Alabama, where he played his first professional ball for the Birmingham Black Barons, to the midwest and west coast. The vast majority of those teams were owned by African Americans, including Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles from 1935-1948, who was the first woman inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In comparison with other major sports, African American players have also suffered from the lack of attention by colleges. Professional football and basketball have a cost-free minor league system in America’s colleges, but college baseball is not organized to serve MLB, with many young athletes coming into the big leagues from high school. As the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andrew McCutcheon, one of MLB’s premier black stars, put it: “No matter how good a baseball player you are, you don’t get a full ride in college. Kids from low-income families don’t have the same chance of going to college to play baseball and get an education as kids who play football and basketball.”
And that’s a huge shame, because professional baseball has huge advantages for any young athlete. The average salary of a MLB player is $4.4m compared to $2.1m in the NFL. (Average NBA salaries are higher, at $6.2m, but pro basketball teams carry about half the number of roster spots.) Careers in baseball are longer than in any other professional American sport, and MLB has by far the best post-career pension plan.
And baseball is also relatively easy on the body compared to football, with its alarming record of brain trauma. Bo Jackson, winner of the 1985 Heisman trophy as the best college football player in the country, played football for the Oakland Raiders and baseball for the Kansas City Royals. “People often ask me the biggest difference between the two sports,” Jackson once told me. “I’d say it like this: you playbaseball every day: that’s fun. You practice football every day: that’s hell.”
So how can baseball win back young African Americans?
One way might be through MLB’s support of urban youth academies through their Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program. Academies have now been established in a dozen major US cities across, providing young players with coaching, equipment, uniforms and transportation to playing fields. Says Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who grew up in Oakland: “We need the same kind of programs that have produced so many great players in the Dominican Republic, where all 30 major league teams have set up academies. It makes no sense that we don’t put the same resources into mining talent here as we do in other countries.”
The program provides programs for both boys and girls and is thriving due to support not only from MLB but individual teams and even corporate sponsors. Progress seems to be on the way: from 2012-2017, 41 of 204 first-round draft selections were African American. This year’s draft was just the fourth time the first two picks were African American and was the third year in a row that two of the first five picks were graduates of the RBI program.
And, says Kevin Baker, there are other ways for baseball to promote itself in urban areas. “Change the All-Star break into a series of promotional events in different cities, inviting kids to come for free to celebrity baseball and softball games with rappers, movie stars, comics, and former greats from other sports. The greatest player basketball ever produced was Michael Jordan, and what did he want the most? To play baseball.”