Baseball's racial divide grows

Curtis Granderson of the Yankees signed autographs before a game against the Cubs. The number of African-Americans in Major League Baseball has declined steadily over the years.
Curtis Granderson of the Yankees signed autographs before a game against the Cubs. The number of African-Americans in Major League Baseball has declined steadily over the years. ASSOCIATED PRESS

ARLINGTON, Texas — Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson moved to the top dugout step, looked into the stands of Rangers Ballpark and challenged his teammates: "Count the number of African-American people here at the stadium who aren't working at the stadium and see if you can get to 10," Granderson said. A teammate would point at a black man only to hear Granderson reject him because, "He's Latin."

Or, "You already counted him."

"At first, it starts off as a joke," Granderson said. "And then, as the game moves on, you'll get to 10, or maybe 15. Depends on where you are, too. Places like Chicago or New York, other places, it's easy. Here, it's hard. So after a while it becomes, 'Told you so.' "

When Jackie Robinson broke baseball's racial barrier in 1947, it was a watershed moment for American-born blacks, America and baseball. Sixty-four years later, the numbers suggest African-Americans don't care much about playing the sport anymore.

"Twenty years ago, I had three or four black teammates," veteran Rangers pitcher Darren Oliver said. "Now, it's one or two."

For a variety of reasons, from societal to financial, the sport can't seem to reverse the trend of fewer black Americans playing baseball.

The University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports reported this year that the number of American-born blacks in baseball is down to 8.5 percent. The percentage of Latinos is 27 percent.

The percentage of African-Americans in MLB is at its lowest level since 2007. When the institute began to track the figure in 1990, 17 percent of all MLB players were African-American. Beginning in 1997, the number has steadily decreased for a variety of reasons.

When Corey Patterson walks into the Toronto Blue Jays' clubhouse before a game, he sees his teammates and his friends. People with whom he enjoys playing the game. What he doesn't see are very many people who look like him. He is one of three black American players on his roster.

"It does bother me. It does," Patterson said. "I'm not saying the whole stadium needs to be brown or black, it's not that. ... It's hard for me to explain. Someone might say it's fine and we're all cool, but it's easier said if you're the majority."

American-born blacks have never been close to the majority in baseball. But in the NBA, the number of African-American players is more than 80 percent. In the NFL, it's more than 60 percent.

"If you poll a lot of African-American guys that are between 20 and 40 years old (about) what NBA player did you watch and want to be, they're all going to say Jordan," Granderson said. "He was the best player, and he looked like us. Baseball, you have a group of players that are playing right now who could say Ken Griffey Jr., but he's no longer in the game, and there hasn't been anybody to replace him."

Texas Christian baseball coach Jim Schlossnagle said a good baseball bat costs between $300 and $400.

"That's just the bat, a good one — the one you would want to swing," he said. "Then there is the other equipment, too. And now that youth baseball has become all about traveling teams, select teams, and those are expensive for whites or African-Americans. Obviously, not every African-American is without financial resources but, in my opinion, at the amateur level, our sport has become a white-collar sport," Schlossnagle said. "Doesn't mean it's a white sport, but it does mean that it's expensive to play."

The median income of African-American households was $32,584 in 2009, according to the Census Bureau, below the U.S. median of $49,777.

As far as Granderson is concerned, the price tag on baseball is helping drive the number of African-Americans away as much as anything else.

Paul Friedman of Burleson, Texas, has been involved with select baseball for the past six years and serves as the secretary for Pony Elite Baseball. He and his friends tried to come up with a youth league for something far less than what is normally charged. He estimates that most select youth baseball teams charge about $3,000 per player.

"Cost has definitely eroded the sport," Friedman said. "Most teams are predominately white. It's sort of like hockey — most people who get involved in that sport, they know it's expensive. Baseball is not that far off."

It's not the cost of playing today, but the cost of down the road as well.

Some youngsters might pick a sport based on the potential college scholarship if they're good enough. Twenty years ago, NCAA rules allowed for 20 baseball scholarships in Division I. Then the number was reduced to 13, and then it was chopped again to 11.7.

Seldom does a college baseball player receive anything more than 50 percent, and scholarships usually go to pitchers.

A football or basketball scholarship is a full ride in Division I.

"When Dontrelle Willis was coming out of high school, he had a 90 percent offer from Pepperdine, and he still couldn't do it," Granderson said. "That happens all over the place."

Because of this, Granderson said, he had people leaning on him to just drop baseball and focus on basketball.

When Granderson was a kid playing baseball, he would often hear that he was "playing the white man's sport."

Granderson, Patterson, Oliver and others say one of the problems is the lack of marketing toward the African-American community, which creates an image that baseball is still the white man's game.

Granderson, who played six seasons for Detroit, specifically mentioned Tigers billboards in black communities that featured the white players on the team. And this was a roster that, at the time, had Granderson, Gary Sheffield, Jacque Jones and other African-Americans.

"Of all the places, Detroit, you'd think that would be the one place where you could market toward African-Americans," he said.

Patterson said he sees a limited effort to spread the word about the African-American players who are playing today. Besides Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder or Carl Crawford, there are several All-Star-caliber African-American players who are not necessarily household names.

"I think they promote football and basketball better than baseball, especially with the black folks," Oliver said.

Major League Baseball has tried, for years, to build a grassroots campaign among young African-Americans with its RBI program. It has been around for 22 years, and it has 300 leagues nationwide, with roughly 200,000 kids ages 5 to 18 playing. That's an increase from 171,000 last season, which was its highest figure to date.

The program has produced 185 players selected in the MLB Draft, among them Crawford, CC Sabathia and Jimmy Rollins.

But for some reason, those numbers aren't translating to the highest level the sport offers.

Granderson said there is only so much that can be done. Even the best programs can't force a preteen to play ball if he really doesn't want to.

"I know it's expensive, but I've gone to places, and there are fields," he said. "You can easily get equipment donated. I don't know how you fight this one. I've heard a lot of kids just say, 'I don't want to.' That's not a black/white thing, that's a kid thing. So they play on their computer, and they say, 'I want to just stay right where I am. I'm not getting into any trouble so you can't force me.' "

TCU wide receiver Skye Dawson said he played baseball as a fourth-grader. Even though his father played for the Oakland A's organization, he gave up the sport.

"I just didn't find it interesting at all," Dawson said. "I don't watch it now, either. Maybe except for a couple of highlights."

As a result, when Granderson walks to the top of the dugout in Arlington or one in any number of major-league cities, he can easily count how few faces look like his.