August 23, 2004

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Fading into the past

By Neil Lanctot
Originally published August 23, 2004

ON AUG. 13, 1944, over 40,000 fans, the majority of them African-American, jammed Comiskey Park in Chicago to watch the East-West game, the Negro Leagues' version of Major League Baseball's All-Star game.
Not only was the size of the crowd remarkable but the two teams, representing the Negro American and Negro National Leagues, featured an astonishing array of black talent, including future Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Ray Dandridge, "Cool Papa" Bell, Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson.

Sixty years later, the situation has dramatically changed.

Last month's All-Star game in Houston featured only two African-American players in the starting lineups. The African American presence in Major League Baseball has declined to only 10 percent of all roster spots as of July 2003, compared to 27 percent in 1975. Perhaps of most concern, interest in baseball among blacks is negligible. This was confirmed by former Oriole great and current Montreal Expos manager Frank Robinson, who recently told Sports Illustrated that "baseball is now third, maybe fourth in the [inner-city] household."

Mr. Robinson's words would shock African-Americans who lived during the 1930s and 1940s, when contemporary observers marveled at the fanatical black devotion to baseball. In 1934, a black Cleveland sportswriter, Bill Finger, noted that "we have among us still a majority to whom 'sports' is baseball."

New York journalist Dan Burley offered a similar view seven years later, remarking that most black sports fans focused their attention on baseball and boxing and regarded football, tennis and basketball as "Greek." The regular crowds of 5,000 to 10,000 fans at Negro League games during the early 1940s and continued development of top-tier talent further reflects the significance of baseball to African-American life during this era.

Today, it is baseball that is "Greek" to most African-Americans.

There's no simple explanation for this startling shift over the past several decades. Some have cited the short-sighted attitudes of major league clubs, a number of which only grudgingly accepted black players and remained uncomfortable with black patronage in the 1950s and 1960s. As late as 1991, several teams admitted fearing the impact of black fans on white attendance.

Others point to the lack of recreational facilities in the inner city and link the popularity of basketball to its less intensive demands on playing space and equipment. The greater abundance of athletic scholarships and quicker path to professional play in football and basketball have also contributed to the declining interest in baseball. In addition, many elite young athletes are increasingly choosing to specialize in one sport, and the choice for young blacks is seldom baseball.

Black interest in baseball might be sparked by more aggressive marketing by Major League Baseball of its top talent and the active involvement of African-Americans themselves. Despite declining numbers, outstanding young black players continue to perform in the big leagues, such as Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins and Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Yet no African-American baseball player, not even future Hall of Famers Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr., remotely approaches the popularity and star power of a LeBron James in basketball or a Donovan McNabb in football. Without black baseball heroes to connect with and only a marginal presence on the teams and in the crowds, African-Americans have little interest pursuing an athletic career in what increasingly appears to be a white man's game.

Major League officials hope that a cultural shift eventually will occur, returning baseball to the exalted place it once enjoyed in African-American communities.

In an important step in generating new interest and developing talent, Major League Baseball recently began construction of a $3 million youth baseball academy in Los Angeles and plans similar facilities in other cities.

The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program has also exposed numerous black youngsters to the sport (including Mr. Willis and Mr. Rollins), yet a lack of qualified volunteers has undermined their success in some cities .

If these urban-based initiatives fail to bring results, the future of the African-American player may lie in the suburbs. The city game of baseball is now becoming the suburban game, because it's the suburbs where young players benefit from superior coaching, facilities and equipment. As the African-American middle class continues to expand, it may be the suburbs, rather than the inner city, which develop the next generation of black players.

Whether Major League Baseball will ever resonate with African Americans as the Negro Leagues once did remains unclear. If the sacrifices of black players during segregation and struggles of racial pioneers such as Jackie Robinson are to remain meaningful, however, the black presence in baseball must increase.

Neil Lanctot is the author of Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution (University of Pennsylvania).