The World Series just ended. Unfortunately for me, the Houston Astros beat my Philadelphia Phillies. Although that wasn’t the outcome I wanted, I was happy to see the manager of the Astros, Dusty Baker, finally win a title. Dusty Baker is one of the few African American coaches remaining in baseball, and he has had a largely successful managerial career.
Dusty Baker was the only African American involved in the Major League Baseball World Series this year. A fact that he wasn’t proud to hear when he was made aware:
“That’s terrible for the state of the game. Wow! Terrible. I’m ashamed of the game” Baker said.
“The game” or Major League Baseball itself might be an easy target. This disparity didn’t happen overnight, and they were not unaware of the trend. However there is another entity that deserves some criticism here. Schools.
Schools have traditionally been the dominant method of introduction for extracurricular activities. We tend to think about those extracurriculars as being a function of what students want. But, in reality, they are a function of what the school is willing to put resources towards. So, it should come as no surprise that when inner-city schools stopped offering baseball, participation by Black kids dwindled.
Football and basketball are the most popular sports in the Black community; that is unquestioned. Football and basketball are also the most popular sports in America, in general, and other schools outside of the inner-city still have baseball teams. Yes, popularity matters, but plenty of schools could still field a baseball team if they tried.
Schools are especially important for baseball development because unlike football and basketball, participation in baseball often needs to be subsidized. It is an expensive sport. In basketball and football, you just need the ball … you can go to any park and find a rim or field. In baseball you need the ball, a bat and gloves for everyone who is going to play. You also need the structure of league play because there is a minimum number of players needed to have something resembling real baseball. Two on two doesn’t really work on a baseball diamond. Practicing by yourself like you can in basketball is a no-go unless you’ve got a bunch of money to spend at a batting cage. Travel-baseball is the alternative to schools, and it is expensive. In some cases, families have to pay thousands of dollars a year for their child to participate.
Places much poorer than the United States are still producing major league baseball talent. As a matter of fact, this is probably a good time to mention that technically there are still plenty of “Black” players in the game today. They just aren’t African American. Countries with much less resources like the Dominican Republic still find ways to keep their youth engaged in baseball.
Schools also don’t do a good job of teaching students about Black participation in baseball. Negro League Baseball should be required curriculum in US history classes that cover that era. It is the perfect vehicle to teach the economics and racial dynamics of the day. But more often than not, what they get is a quick one-liner about how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. That is important, but it is not actually the key point of the topic.
It’s worth noting that intentionally targeting inner-city kids for baseball not only gets results in terms of diversity, but Michigan baseball proved it gets results in terms of victories. Their intentionally diverse roster was a major story line when they went to the college world series. But as nice of a story as that is, they can only recruit the pipeline that is there, and truth be told even HBCUs have trouble finding Black baseball players for their scholarships. Leaving scholarships on the table should be a big enough motivator for schools to increase participation.
Schools are not the only part of the equation when it comes to Black participation in baseball. Little League Baseball, minor league baseball, NCAA Baseball, Major League Baseball, and even ESPN have to look at what they are doing to attract Black participants and fans. But, it would certainly help if a kid could play baseball K through 12 like he does basketball.
My school is one of those old-inner city buildings. Built during a time when our schools still offered baseball. There is a baseball diamond outback. It is unkept, overgrown, but still serviceable. It is actually a perfect visual representation of Black baseball participation. It is still there but hanging on by a thread. The schools simply have to decide that it matters to them.