Where Are The Young Blacks in Baseball?

Rube Foster, Founder of the Negro National League in 1920.- How many people remember who he was and all he did for baseball? It got him into the Hall of Fame.

In an article entitled, “Relief Pitch,” Didier Morais does an outstanding job of looking at local attempts by the Houston Astros and black community baseball coaches and leaders to revive interest among young people of the inner city. I could not find a link to the same piece at ChronCom online, but the story simply jumps out at you from the front page of the Sports Section in today’s Sunday, July 24, 2011, Houston, Chronicle. For those who care anything about the future of baseball and the opportunities that exist in the sport for gifted young athletes who give themselves a chance at the game, the article alone is worth the price of today’s newspaper.

Morais talks with black coaches, community leaders, and successful players like Michael Bourn – and he comes back with some pretty chilling conclusions. Before the current effort of clubs like the Astros to revitalize inner city playing fields, young people were turned off by the poor condition of baseball fields and the general disinterest in the game among those who comprise the inner city community.

How did we go in a single half century from a nation that celebrated Jackie Robinson breaking the color line to one in which growing numbers of young people hardly, if at all, remember Jackie Robinson, what he did, what segregation was about, and how the Negro Leagues once rose up as a defense against racial hatred and spite. Young blacks once wanted to play baseball in great numbers, but they were ignorantly barred from organized baseball since the 1880s because of their skin color. So, people like Rube Foster and others got behind a movement to build the Negro Leagues – a place where qualified black athletes who loved the game could also play the sport on a professional basis.

When Jackie Robinson stepped on the turf at Ebbets Field in 1947, he opened the door for all young blacks with the skills and fighting desire for baseball success to do the same. And for a while, `young blacks responded accordingly.  Their appearance on major league rosters was only held back by the white owner belief that they could control the flow of talent as though it were water from a faucet.

Cream rises. It will not be held down by artificial boundaries or quotas. Within five to ten years of the 1947 Robinson Year, the Negro Leagues were effectively dead. No longer tied to segregated baseball, any black player worth his professional salt was now playing in the formerly all-white ranks of organize baseball.

Then things changed.

Somewhere in the late 1960s and early 1970s, professional football took over as the favorite media sport of American sports fans. Right the success of the NFL came the appeal of the NBA to inner city fans. In effect, football and basketball were both embraced as faster, more exciting, modern, and not boring. Baseball was pretty much written off as too long, too boring, and too complicated for people with short attention spans.

Houston produced a couple of fine young black prospects for the 21st century in Carl Crawford and Michael Bourn, but not much else since that time – as has been the case in most urban areas.

The Astros are doing a wonderful job through their Astros in Action Foundation of building or refurbishing a field per off-season that will then be out in service the following year in inner city neighborhoods. They are also working with governmental and community groups to provide qualified mentors and teachers and equipment to the effort. The June 2011 of the Jimmy Wynn Baseball Training Center at Sylvester Park on Victory Lane in the near north side is a shining example of that effort. The rest is up to the coaches, parents, and caretakers of the Jackie Robinson message to support and try to get across the full message of the Civil Rights Movement and what it means to be free and equal members of this place we call America.

Baseball is not just a great sport. It is a torch of all those old times, for better and worse. When baseball was denied to some of the people because of racism, like water finding its own level, baseball found a way in to the basin of every open heart and community. And it didn’t simply show up as a “right” that we got with no further service to effort. We played the game with a “responsibility” to make the most of every play on our hopeful ways to becoming all we could be.

If I were a black grandfather today, and my sweet little grandchildren had never felt the direct sting of outright racial hatred, I might want to leave that old bone buried in the backyard too, except for one thing. A larger part of me would hope to pass on some awareness to my grandchildren of how fragile things are in this crazy world. We need to trust others, but we need to trust ourselves too. And trusting ourselves hinges upon an open and honest memory of where we each came from – and a commitment of action to where we are going in life on our own steam.

Baseball is a game that teaches both trust in others and trust in yourself. If you don’t trust others, you cannot win the long haul of the long season that baseball requires. And, if you cannot trust yourself, you cannot hope to ever become all the player you might otherwise grow to be.

There’s another Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Satchel Paige, or Josh Gibson out there somewhere, but we’ll never know it unless more young blacks become motivated enough to see the advantages of  baseball over football or basketball. Unlike football or basketball, there are few places to hide your mistakes in baseball. They are right out there for the whole world to see.

Let’s hope that efforts like the Houston program will make some dent of progress on the national level of attracting more young black athletes to the game of baseball.

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4 Responses to “Where Are The Young Blacks in Baseball?”

  1. larry joe miggns Says:

    Many MLB teams are looking elsewhere for talent and it is exactly what Joe Morgan predicted would happen when he tried to help RBI here is Houston. ESPN sports magazine has had quite a few articles about the new academies being opened up outside the USA. MLB seem to forget at Baseball was ,” Made in America”.
    “”Brazil has been good at producing athletes,” said Andres Reiner,
    ( former Astros scout) special director of development for the Rays. “Brazil has a lot of people, millions of young people and not everyone can play soccer. If they aren’t good soccer players they can be good baseball players.”
    “Reiner said that in the long term, when the Rays’ Brazilian academy proves to be successful, other teams will start scouting in Brazil and even set up their own academies. The Rays already have two academies in Latin America, in Venezuela and in the Dominican Republic”
    Many intercity Little League’s are gone or are life support with free City of Houston Parks and Rec.leagues and Select Leagues taking good talent away from the Little League staple of years in the past. Let’s hope, like our economy, baseball in America will survive.

  2. D. Stewart Says:

    Hopefully Kendrick Perkins of LaPorte http://www.minorleaguebaseball.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?pos=OF&sid=milb&t=p_pbp&pid=592636
    and just drafted and signed C.J. McElroy out Clear Creek can inspire some young black Houston metro youth to love baseball.

    I know from a co-worker that CJ’s Father Chuck McElroy and Archie Corbin both give great baseball instructions to youth in the area.

  3. Marsha Franty Says:

    Another excellent essay, Bill, to follow up on the great article in this morning’s Chronicle. What can SABR members, or other interested adults in our community, do to raise awareness among today’s young people of both the contributions of blacks to baseball history and the opportunities for themselves?

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