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BRADENTON, Fla. — It has been 67 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball and 40 years since Hank Aaron blasted his 715th home run to break the career record long held by Babe Ruth.
There was progress in the 1960s and ’70s at making the game more diverse — 26 percent of players on rosters were black in 1979, five years after Aaron’s record-breaking homer — but a slump since has seen the number drop to percentages about as low as they’ve been since baseball became fully integrated in 1959, and this weekend’s opening day rosters aren’t expected to look much different.
“I think Jackie certainly would be disappointed in the way things are today, especially for African-Americans,” Aaron told USA Today last year. “Let’s face it, baseball was down, and when he came along, he put a big spike into baseball with the way he played, and along came other great black ballplayers.”
Certainly, the 25-man rosters of the 30 major league teams are diverse in other ways. Players of Latin descent made up 28.2 of players on MLB rosters at the start of the 2013 season.
But a sharper, ground level view of diversity in sports may explain the 8.3 percent.
The baseball landscape has changed in America since the days of Robinson, particularly the landscape of the backyard and the sandlot. Onetime baseball towns such as Mobile, Ala., and Atlanta have become football towns. The sandlot is now for throwing around a football, and many kids of color would rather take their chances chasing the 85 scholarships offered per Division I college football program so they can get an education and the adoration of 85,000 fans rather than endure the inglorious bus rides of the minor leagues.
But a more distressing view suggests baseball has priced out a significant portion of potential players.
Baseball for youth is now $85-an-hour hitting and pitching lessons and elite travel teams where the best players flock to pursue dreams of college or professional ball. Those travel teams can cost parents $1,500 to $3,000 each summer.
Socioeconomics at play
Josh Bell, who is black, is a 21-year-old right fielder in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, a top draft pick working his way through the minor league ranks. He points to socioeconomics as an explanation for the relative lack of black players in baseball.
“Think about the demographics of the black population as a whole and how poorly we are doing as a whole as a race,” Bell said. “It is a lot easier to go outside and run some drills with the football rather than paying for hitting lessons or pitching lessons and going to this showcase or that showcase.
“Baseball is one of those sports that is really expensive, and the showcases are starting earlier and earlier. The competition is getting stiffer, so the need for some sort of training outside of the hitting tee in the backyard comes more and more at an earlier age.”
More distressing than the economics is the uneven justice system in America, Bell said. An incarcerated father cannot very well play catch with his son.
“There’s got to be so much time invested to play this game,” said Bell, whose mother is a professor at University of Texas at Arlington, focusing on diversity and social issues in the workplace. “It’s best if there’s some sort of father figure around. I want to say that one-fifth of black men are incarcerated and three-fifths of black women with children are single. So it’s like, without that father, without the initial love for the game, which starts in the backyard playing catch with the dad, it’s hard for you to catch that love of baseball.”
Certainly not all black youths are poor. Bell took the $85-an-hour hitting lessons. He played on the elite teams. And before the lessons and the travel teams, he played catch with his father, Earnest.
Josh Harrison, an infielder for the Pirates who is black, was nurtured in baseball by his mother’s brother, former major leaguer John Shelby. Harrison also played on elite travel teams, which are typically the domain of white players. There are usually some built-in advantages for some kids to adopt the game, Harrison said, and Shelby was his.
“Baseball isn’t taught there [in black communities] because there is nobody to really teach it,” Harrison said. “You have to have those people to reach out. When it’s not a good baseball program to be around in that community, parents aren’t going to waste their time sending their kid to do baseball. It’s just not made as big of a deal as basketball and football. It’s a matter of having somebody there who will do baseball.”
Leveling the field
So where is Major League Baseball in all this?
The league has been laying bats end to end for 26 years with its RBI program, Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities, to try to close the racial divide.
Fifty years ago, racism could have been to blame for so few black players in baseball. Scouts in the past may have avoided hunting for players in certain areas codes or discounted the level of competition and assumed the players were poorly trained. But Major League Baseball has made a push with the RBI program, and its franchises are part of the effort.
In 2013 there were 213,000 children, ages 5 to 18, involved in the RBI program.
David James, RBI director, said the league expects 225,000 children to participate this season. The fastest growing segment is the 5-to-12-year-old group (Junior RBI), an age when kids often make the choice to adopt the game or push it away.
“People make an incorrect assumption when they look at the major league level that these kids are not playing at the youth level, and our numbers show us otherwise,” James said. “We can’t guarantee how many are going to make it to major leagues, but from the standpoint of baseball providing opportunities to underserved kids and generating fans, we are making progress.
All 30 Major League Baseball teams contribute to RBI programs in their respective cities, and 18 clubs directly operate the local RBI program, James said. RBI has pushed into the rural South, where the same socioeconomic barriers that keep city kids out of the game keep out underserved children in smaller towns.
More important, MLB is working on the details, the nitty gritty of getting black prospects the exposure and training they need to compete on a level playing field. James said MLB has also put in place a funding mechanism so low-income kids can get those costly hitting lessons. If a player gets to be 13 years old and has a love of the game, instructors are provided at little or no cost to refine his skills.
He also said showcases are being arranged so scouts can identify high school players as prospects. Showcases today for more affluent players can run $300 to $700. James said the cost of the showcases would be minimal, if any, to RBI participants.
“Over the next four, five, 10 years,” James said, “we will see some of these young men come through.”