Black Youth In Baseball – Death of a Love Story

black-kid

I grew up loving the game of baseball.

This started with my father who used to take me to the St. Louis Cardinal games back in the 70s.  On summer evenings when he returned from work, we took the old Martin Luther King Bridge from East St. Louis and got cheap parking on the south side of the stadium.

Tickets were cheap too.  The bleacher seats were $2 and they went on sale 90 minutes prior to every home game.  (Trust me it ain’t like that anymore!)

We stood in line and got our spots in left or right field.  We’d get peanuts and watch the game while listening to Jack Buck broadcast it on KMOX radio.

Our company was great too.  Usually it was other older black men who loved baseball as well.  They would make jokes and have “old man talk.’ 

This always excited me as I sucked all of that up.  I loved my dad and enjoyed those old men as they told their stories and evaluated the players, the managers and the strategies.

My father’s favorite team was The Dodgers.  This was common for black men as the Dodgers was the team who signed Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella.  There was a loyalty built-in the minority community because the Dodgers were the first to be inclusive and let us in.

I didn’t get it at that age of course.  I was routing for the Cardinals.  That is unless the Cincinnati Reds were in town.  I loved the Big Red Machine and can still name all of their players.

This prompted my love for the game of baseball.  I played it from an early age all the way through high school.  As a child I watched the weekly games on NBC.  And when I moved to South Bend, Indiana watched the Cubs and White Sox as much as I could.

Often I was the best player on my own teams and  I wanted to be in the big leagues.  I had some great teammates and competed against some awesome baseball players.

There were also plenty of black professional baseball players for me to admire too.  Its not like I didn’t love me some Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt and Johnny Bench.  I loved watching a lot of baseball players.  It wasn’t so much about the color.  The point was that without even knowing it I was able to see black men that I could aspire to be like while playing a game I loved.

My guys were cats like Reggie Smith, Lou Brock, Bake McBride , Joe Morgan and Dave Winfield .  My favorite baseball player of all time is probably Ricky Henderson.  He had everything.. speed, power, and a helluva lot of swagger!  This man played till the wheels fell off even if it meant playing for some semi-pro team after having a hall of fame major league career.

Nowadays there aren’t many black pro baseball players to look to.  It seems like the last great generation consisted of the Barry Bonds’, Frank Thomas’ Kirby Pucketts’, Andre Dawsons’ and Ken Griffey Jrs of the world.  That time is about up.  We have a few guys left like Tori Hunter and Milton Bradley.  But for the most part most minorities are from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba.  There are many reasons for this and plenty of opinions out there to explain.  I won’t get into those.

But I will speak on something I noticed when I umpired a varsity baseball game the other day.

The game was between two predominately African-American teams.  One was a public high school and the other was  a private. 

I arrived at the game and wondered whether it was JV or not.  This was because the players were for the most part pretty small.  After speaking with some of them I found they were varsity players though the teams consisted of players who ranged from freshman to seniors.  Most of the players played for the JV and varsity teams because they didn’t have enough players to carry both programs.

The next thing I observed was that the quality of the baseball game was horrible.  The kids didn’t really know what they were doing out there.  Most of the baseball I umpire are either little league, teen tournaments or adult.  Those teams consist of mostly white players who seem to overall have a much better fundamental base than these older black players I saw.

During the game I talked to both coaches a bit.  They talked about the struggles they have with the fact that most of these kids don’t play summer ball and they are so far behind in terms of the fundamentals.  They are happy as I am that they are out there trying to learn the game.  But it’s very difficult at that age when you haven’t learned the basics.  When they play any team with any amount of training, an embarrassing loss is sure to come.

What I have heard for years on TV finally became a sobering reality to me.

The game of baseball… the game I love… the game I grew up with is not a game beloved by black boys and girls anymore.

Now it’s all about basketball and football.

There is no longer the infrastructure for little leagues within the black community.  The fields are run over and neglected.  It’s as if baseball doesn’t exist.

I can understand in a way.  I mean since the age of Jordan kids have wanted to be like Mike.  Not to mention one can be broke as a joke and as long as one guy has a basketball 10 guys can all play with it at once.

Baseball requires every kid to have his own glove.  There has to be at least enough bats to go around so a player can use one he believes he can succeed with.  It’s tough.  But it’s also very sad to me.

Baseball is a beautiful game.  An exciting game when played with skill and passion.  And for all the reasons that apply, I am sorry that our kids are not playing and enjoying this national pastime.

I always said when I stopped being a sports official the next step was to coach.  Initially I thought I would coach basketball because I have been around that game so much. 

I want to do something to bring the game back to the black community.

I have a lot of work to do however.  I attended an umpire’s meeting last night and learned that two local colleges with predominately black students are shutting down their baseball programs after this year.

Sigh..

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3 thoughts on “Black Youth In Baseball – Death of a Love Story

  1. Mike says:

    I coached high school baseball in New York City and Philadelphia. In Philadelphia there were many all-black teams and for the most part they wouldn’t pass for varsity teams anywhere but a major metropolis. Almost all of the games between the predominantly black schools were football scores, as the pitchers were either wild or threw lobs down the middle. The fielding wasn’t much better and every time someone got on base, it was an automatic double or triple because the catchers weren’t strong enough to throw out the runners. Every coach said they were working with kids who were playing baseball in an organized manner for the first time in 9th grade. A far cry from the suburbs which had “school” teams starting in the seventh grade.

    A game I witness stands out in my mind. It was in Philadelphia and it was the local Catholic League championship game. They were playing at the same field where my semi-pro team had the next game. One of the teams had a stud black center fielder. He might have been the only black on both teams. A ball was hit to center and the runner tagged up. He unleashed a monster throw that was so strong, it sailed over the backstop. I believe it was a crucial run that scored and all you heard was racially charged comments from the fans and that he didn’t care because he was going to be playing football in college. I just looked at the kid and saw a player that “baseball” shouldn’t lose and that he might with four years of college made a good prospect (you can’t teach that arm!).

    New York is more of a mixed bag in terms of diversity than Philadelphia, but the “all black” schools are usually the lesser teams in the city as well for the same reason. There are RBI programs in both cities but they seem to be populated by more of the Latin players than blacks.

    A good friend of mine played for Howard University and they struggled to get quality Division 1 players, as did a lot of teams in the MEAC. Howard eventually dropped their team in the early part of the 2000’s.

    Blacks have a rich place in baseball’s history and this current generation aren’t actively engaged. Do you think it also has something to do with the lack of fathers involved? If you look at most of the talents black MLB players, their fathers were strongly involved (Jason Heyward, The Upton Family, The Young Family, etc.).

  2. bbgcmac says:

    Mike,

    Thanks for commenting on this subject. I think there are several reasons for the lack of interest in baseball for black kids. The lack of father involvement is definitely one of them.

    The stories I told about my dad taking me to the games were all by the age of 8. I moved to Indiana after that age and we no longer went to the games. But by then the fire had been started already. It was a wrap. Man when I couldn’t play I used to even roll up aluminum foil for a ball, make out two lineup cards, go in my back yard and imagine i was each player throwing the ball up and hitting it. The distance said whether it was a single, double, etc. Of course the Reds always won. But Garvey and Cey would hit bullets ya dig? LOL But Rose would hit singles and doubles, Foster would slam one over the fence! I would imitate the batting stances and the whole nine.

    The story you told about the center fielder was very sad too. Cause if he heard those comments that’s the kinda thing that can surely turn him off the game.

    The talent disparity between the white kids who play all the time and the blacks who don’t is just flat out staggering. And I umpire well over a hundred games a season so I see an awful lot.

    Man, thanks for sharing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have to tell you. The reason I found your article is because I was so upset after I my wife informed me about the information that was passed on to the parents tonight from the Baseball Legion meeting. It forced me to jump on the internet and search to see if anyone else has been dealing with my same issues. I also love baseball and was raised by a grandfather who had a huge relationship with the Negro Baseball League. As I grew up playing the sport I too was one of three kids who played for a town that had enough blacks to make up three teams easily. Just as the last writer described the black player who over threw from centerfield I too played that position. The other two black kids were on different teams and as well they played centerfield. What I’m plagued with is the stereotypic idea that if a black kid has speed, centerfield is where he plays. Unfortunately, if he doesn’t, well, his home becomes first base. I’ve been blessed with a son who loves baseball and plays very well. He has always played up for his age. As my son plays on various teams he has always had an interest in catcher and has played this position for travel teams which has travel up and down the east coast. What upset me this evening is that my wife told me tonight that this legion team moved my son up with the older kids and was looking for a catcher. No problem right? Wrong! You guessed it, Mom was told the reason he’s on the team is that they need him in centerfield. With speed like that, that’s where he belongs. I flipped! Why one might ask? For the obvious; they need a catcher however my son wasn’t even a consideration. With that, he is the “only” black in the Southern Legion Division. I sometimes feel that another reason why blacks don’t play the sport as much is because of stereotype positions. I mean what black kid wants to be forced to play one of two positions. Yes, you might ask, how did your son end up playing catcher for several travel teams? Simply because most of these travel teams had kids (pitchers) who could easily throw 75/80. My son was the fearless one and ended sticking with it.
    This is a major problem because most folks aren’t aware of the D1 or D2 scholarship matrix for baseball. The facts are a D1 schools will only give out up to 50%. Of course those are occupied by pitchers and shortstops then the infield excluding first base (Hmmm). Next is centerfield which is a max of 25% generally rationed between the rest of the bench with the remainder of the 100%. For a D2 school somewhat the same however the difference is the D2 schools most likely will ration money up to about 3500 per semester per player. What is sad about this is that it doesn’t apply to first base or centerfield.
    I bring this up because, is this part of the problem? Is this a design? I look at baseball today and wonder what has more diversity. Is Baseball, Ice Hockey or for that matter if a poll were taken Lacrosse? What saddens me is my son may be caught in this web of perception and then the fear of him quitting the game he plays so well. I’m just another two cent wonderer.
    Yours to ponder,
    Poppa Bell

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