Look at that list of notable Phillies. The new team here highlights an old problem: baseball may be intrinsically American. It is also increasingly white. This isn’t breaking news, and we’ll go over the causes – and most importantly – potential solutions. But when there are two World Championship teams that can’t be proud of having one black player in the US, it’s amazing.
Tony Clark, the president of the MLB Players Association and himself a top player for 15 years, said earlier in the season.
Clark knows, because he didn’t choose baseball. Baseball chose him. He played basketball at the University of Arizona, but his hardwood career slowed when he sustained a back injury as a freshman. Even after the Detroit Tigers took him as the second pick in the 1990 MLB draft, “I really looked at him, and even joked, I was a basketball player in a baseball uniform,” Clark told me several years ago.
This is not unique to Clark. When Tim Anderson grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He had a choice of what to watch and whom to worship.
“I loved Ken Grevey, Jr.,” said the Chicago White Sox shorts for this summer’s All-Star Game. “Other than that, I didn’t really watch it. I had some guys I watched, but I was more of a basketball player. I wasn’t really sold into baseball.”
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There is something to that. US-born black kids can’t turn around in this world championship and see one face like theirs contribute to the field. This is the first time since 1950, which is why the issue gained new interest this fall.
But even if, say, the New York Yankees beat the Astros and the San Diego Padres beat the Phillies in the league championship series, the difference would be only nominal. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton could have given the World Championships some Black Star power; Both Yankees players are of mixed race. Josh Bell is the iconic black face of the Padres lineup.
That’s it, though. The playoffs featured some US-born black players – Mookie Bates of the Dodgers, Michael Harris of Atlanta, and Triston Mackenzie of Cleveland. They were dots on the texture, not brush strokes that color it. No similar players fill a seat or table, rotation or court. The NBA and NFL teams have both US-born black players on the roster. MLB teams don’t do that.
What was missed was an opportunity for the kids to see people who looked like them and grew up like them working together to improve a big league team. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports has been charting racial participation in baseball and other sports since 1991. Its annual report said 7.2 percent of the players on this year’s opening-day rosters were black — the lowest percentage in the report’s history.
So this is not a 2022 problem. It is a deeply rooted problem and has been exacerbated over decades. It is cultural. It is economical. It is logistical.
Major League Baseball has explored a variety of ways to make its rosters look more like the residents of the cities they represent. In 1989, the association created the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities Program, which includes in its mission statement the goal of “promoting greater inclusion of young people from diverse backgrounds into the game’s mainstream.”
This is great in intent. In fact, it didn’t work. Why do we continue with a well-intentioned strategy that has not yielded any results? It’s time for MLB to have a comprehensive plan not just in the major league markets, but in the league’s small towns big and small.
In Washington, D.C., there is a living, breathing, still evolving attempt to do something different. It may be working. If so, it must be repeated. The Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy began the YBA Play program for prospective baseball players as young as 6 in 2016, two years after the facility opened east of the Anacostia River.
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“By providing access for children to play baseball in a fun, engaging, and fast-paced environment, we have found that prior access to the game and prior exposure to the game is not necessary for children to enjoy playing the game when you have children who enjoy playing the game,” said Tal Alter, CEO of Washington Nationals Philanthropies. – No matter who they are or where they come from – they stick to it.”
YBA Play hasn’t produced top players – that’s not the point, anyway. But there is mounting evidence that it builds a love for the game by teaching skills with drills that might not even sound like baseball – fast bursts rather than slow. The academy’s most competitive next-level program – Hustle – involves more than 100 players annually. They are provided with facilities, equipment, and training, all for free—eliminating the financial and logistical challenges that prevent many children from disadvantaged communities from participating in baseball.
The first batch of kids in Hustle’s programs are nearing the end of their high school careers—many of them play baseball, and some are on track to play in college.
“I think it’s fair to say that acting is important and that our kids really care about who’s on the big league rosters,” Alter said. “We hear them talking about it all the time.”
There are people working on these issues at all levels of the MLB offices – Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday addressed the clubs’ failure to install diverse faces in front offices and in manager jobs. The league has a slate of programs and events—the Hank Aaron Invitational, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream Weekend Series, and Diversity Development Camps, continually—that aim to provide more opportunities and identify more potential top players. In fact, baseball considered it a victory when four of the top five players in the July draft were American-born black players, and all four participated in some league-sponsored development program.
Still, the director of Astros Dusty Baker is the most prominent black character – really, Just American-born black character – in the series. And he absorbed the idea of not having black players by saying, “I don’t think that’s something you should be proud of in baseball. It looks bad.”
Not only does it look bad. it’s bad. What was once a national pastime is no longer the same as a nation. The World Championships, which is back in Philadelphia, has a new feel to it. Hopefully lists like those contenders here will become a thing of the past. Baseball needs to identify and develop ways to expose and motivate its sport to young athletes of all mediums and communities Choose baseball and not the other way around. Without it, something is lost.