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Game's black interest wanes

By Alan Schwarz
January 8, 1992

Though baseball wouldn't like to admit it, Joe DiMaggio is alive and well, playing for the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan, with his enchanting, boyish smile and mystifying athletic ability, has come to embody the sporting and personal grace with which Joe D. captivated America 50 years ago. Many consider Jordan the next great American sports hero.

For 11. 2 percent of the United States, though, Jordan carries an extra degree of importance because of the color of his skin. As a black man, he becomes even more influential to that community by demonstrating just how far one of its own can go, just how successful and revered one can become in what is perceived as a white-dominated society. In this age of black awareness and identity, Jordan is becoming a chapter not just in American history, but in black history as well.

In doing so on the basketball court, he has contributed mightily to a trend that has gradually diverted blacks' eyes away from baseball, which calls itself the national pastime. Over the past generation or so, several circumstances have combined to erode black allegiance to the game:

•The glamour of college basketball and football, the educational opportunities those sports offer and the relative obscurity of baseball's minor leagues.

•The resulting increase in blacks playing professional basketball and football, making those arenas appear more comfortable and welcoming.

•Baseball's seeming inability to do anything about it.

The situation has evolved to the point where many blacks consider baseball a white man's sport, while football and basketball provide safer havens. Those two sports have boomed in terms of black participation, while baseball has begun to lose some of its already startingly low population. The 1991 totals: 17 percent of Major League Baseball players are black, while the National Football League features 62 percent, the National Basketball Association a whopping 75.

It's not as if all blacks suddenly hate baseball, or that their individual opinions by definition combine to form truth. But enough blacks apparently have become so turned off to baseball, what with the incessant squabbling over minority front-office hiring and other related tension, that the sport suddenly has a serious marketing problem. One popular theory says that if baseball wants so obviously to remain dominated by whites, then let those people keep it. Baseball, many blacks say, can frankly go to hell.

"It's not that we can't play it," says Darryl Wilson, 27, while attending a Charlotte Hornets game against the Boston Celtics. "You just see a lot of white people doing it, and you say it's a white man's sport. So I don't want to be involved in that. You want to do something with your own skin color. You can't fit in too well with so many white people."

Two sections over, Frank Weldon describes his distaste for baseball, a feverish resentment that was borne over the last two decades.

"Blacks in general aren't accepted in baseball," says Welson, 51, adding that he never would attend a major league game even if his Charlotte hometown had a team. "Jackie Robinson was just there to fill in the numbers. In basketball, it's different because of sheer numbers. It's more like our sport. I'd feel out of place at a baseball game, and I'm not alone. Most blacks feel that way.

Onlookers might dismiss Weldon's comments as merely isolated resentment. But he has a son whom he steered away from baseball and toward football and basketball. Weldon is even more emphatic with his son's son, now eight years old.

It might sound like heresy, but in many of these cases, children are listening to their elders. Fathers playing catch with sons has become primarily a white ideal. And many of those kids who do play lose interest by the time they reach high school and college, when the glamour of other sports takes over.

The result is a decreased talent pool of black athletes entering the game, a trend that concerns many baseball people who throw up their arms, simply not knowing how, or wanting to, combat it.

"I don't think there's a general concern in the ownership and leadership of baseball with the game per se and the future of baseball." One major league general manager says. "There's not a lot of thought to where the game is going. Everyone carries around buckets of money, and the good of the game--from the little kids to senior citizens with hats on in their rocking chairs--is ignored.

"I think that when the black issue is brought up, and it has been over the past 20 years, only lip service is given to it. There's no real effort, so nothing gets done year in and year out."

Not every facet of the situation concerns race on the surface. Much of it involves other sports' overall rise in popularity, combined with blacks' relative inability to enjoy what few visible benefits of baseball remain.

The factor most often cited is the lack of baseball facilities in inner cities, where blacks are especially concentrated. They represent 35.6 percent of the population in the United States' eight most populous cities, as compared to 11.2 percent of the nation overall. So that group is more likely to suffer from the deteriorating presence of urban baseball, and more susceptible to basketball's increasing lure.

Inner cities are far more conducive to basketball. All you need is a ball, a rim, a couple of friends and some blacktop. It's almost impo9ssible to find an open field and a dozen people with mitts to play baseball.

Tattered hoops in inner cities now get that way through use, not vandalism. Basketball, with its faster pace, has tapped into the pulse of these communities. You can't slam dunk a baseball.

"Basketball is by far the most prominent sport around here," says Ray Korn, athletic director at Elizabeth (N.J.) High, 20 miles from New York. "You get immediate satisfaction: You shoot the ball, it goes in, you feel good. Baseball's boring except when you get to hit. It takes a special kind of kid to go out and play. They have to love it."

High school football and basketball are much more attractive venues for any scholastic athlete. They feature prominent national polls, and players subject to massive college recruiting efforts and hype. Fans actually show up to football and basketball games. Girls want to wear the players' varsity jackets.

At Elizabeth High, which in the past several years has boasted No. 1-ranked teams in all three major sports, the city's major sometimes boots the ceremonial first football kick. The basketball team draws 6,000 in an arena built for 4,000, with some tickets scalped for $50.

Meanwhile, the baseball team plays in virtual obscurity, often in 30-40 degree weather.

"There's always a festive atmosphere here for the other two sports before game time," Korn says. "The band's playing, you have the homecoming queen, the cheerleaders. The football players run through the papier-mâché banners. In baseball, that doesn't happen. I take infield, you take infield, and then we play. It's boring to the people who don't know it."

"They've had budget problems everywhere, and baseball is the first sport to get cut," says Jerry Miles, former executive director of the American Baseball Coaches Association. "Another real concern is with the coaches. We have to instill in the coach that he holds an important role to produce a quality program. I don't think baseball's popularity has declined, it just hasn't kept up."

High school football and basketball have ridden the coattails of college sports' boom in popularity, among blacks and whites. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1984 allowed colleges to negotiate their own television contracts, dramatically increasing football's exposure. The Larry Bird-Magic Johnson clash in the finals of the 1979 NCAA basketball tournament ushered in a new era of run-and-shoot, high-flying college hoops on television every winter night. One level up, the NBA has flourished to a level few thought possible.

But baseball has remained basically status quo, despite attendance records. More games are on cable, but free-TV games have gone out of style, distancing lower-income groups from a sport once the most accessible.

By nature, athletes want to imitate their heroes. And with other sports' unprecedented growth and their athletes' exposure, baseball players' hero reputations have slipped behind Johnson, Jordan and Bird. Advertisers quickly recognized this: The top active athletes to appear in 1990 television spots were Jordan, Bo Jackson (who is more of a phenomenon than either baseball or football player), Johnson and Joe Montana.

Next comes Nolan Ryan, then Hulk Hogan. This can't be the company that baseball wishes to keep.

Athletes in general might be lured away from baseball, but an overwhelming number of blacks look at the sport, and the path they have to take to succeed, and simply dismiss the notion of pursuing it.

Often subconsciously, they see three and four times the percentage of black faces in the NBA and NFL than in the major leagues, and figure they must have a better chance of making it in basketball and football.

"That's the image a black child gets by watching basketball and baseball," says John Bagley, 31, a point guard for the Boston Celtics who grew up in the projects of Bridgeport, Conn. "they see where blacks are at, and see more opportunities. I thought I was a pretty good baseball player before high school, but you migrate to where you see more of your own."

Seeing more blacks in coaching and management positions also appears more inviting. Baseball's controversy over minority hiring has been a hot topic for years, but little publicized evidence indicates much progress. Of the 13 major league managers hired in 1991, only Hal McRea of the Kansas City Royals was black. Only one black man ever has been a general manager, Bill Lucas of the Atlanta Braves, who died suddenly in 1979.

Problems exist in football, too. Despite the number of blacks in the NFL, just one has become a head coach: Art Shell of the Los Angeles Raiders.

But basketball is far more integrated with respect to management: minorities see black GMs such as Willis Reed and Elgin Baylor making crucial NBA draft picks, and watching K.C. Jones and Lenny Wilkens coach successful franchises for years.

"There definitely is strength in numbers, whether it's players or coaches," says one top National League prospect. "The amount of crap you have to take is amazing, when you're on of the only black guys on a baseball team. It's uncomfortable because you just have different backgrounds from everyone, and whether it's intentional or not, you still get the slurs and racial problems.

"It really leaves a bad taste in you mouth. The only reason I kept with it is because I decided that there aren't too many things I'm going to love in life, so I won't give up. I love the game, and once you separate the ignorance from the actual game you can survive. But I know a lot of people who have quit because of it."

The percentage of American black players in the minor leagues is just 13.1, as opposed to the major leagues' 17.2. Granting that promotion to the majors in based on ability, this would indicate that marginal black talents aren't pursuing careers in baseball.

To some extent, baseball isn't pursuing the inner city black. Some scouts are reluctant to go into neighborhoods where they feel threatened.

"Some scouts will go in, some won't. I won't," says an American League scout. "I've had people surround me and say, 'What are you doing here, whitey?' If you go there, you're crazy.

"My bosses know the way I feel, and they wouldn't want me to go in there, either. Sometimes you miss the kid."

Such reluctance is rare, though. The main problem lies in baseball's post-high school options--the minor leagues and colleges--which provide relatively unattractive options for the young black pursuing an athletic career.

Charlie Scott is virtually unknown in baseball circles, but nonetheless has altered the game. Scott, an NBA guard from 1970-80 out of the University of North Carolina, helped pave the way for many blacks to pursue athletic dreams outside dusty diamonds by being the first black scholarship athlete in the South.

Before Scott, Southern black athletes never were recruited by hometown schools. In fact, it was written in some coaches' contracts that they couldn't play a team with a black member.

But when Scott went to Carolina and became an all-American and 1968 Olympian, avenues suddenly opened to an entire class of athletes. Black football and basketball players weren't forced to go to all-black or Big Ten schools.

By being the first, I made it so that others could go without being under the microscope the way I was," says Scott, whose old schoolboy baseball field in Harlem now sits under a prison. "After that, there was more acceptance from alumni and the athletic department, and coaches understand you better. It's a learning process on both sides, and opens doors for the Phil Fords, Walter Davises and Michael Jordans who played after me at Carolina."

Scott and other blacks making inroads into college basketball and football began to erode the resistance to integrate athletics. Gradually, blacks became more comfortable and welcome on college campuses, especially among coaches who suddenly discovered a vast talent pool.

"In the 1980s, everybody was recruiting black athletes full-force," says Denny Crum, the basketball coach at the University of Louisville since 1971. "So everybody just began playing. You'll rarely find a basketball court in black communities that don't have kids on it all the time. They're all out there playing, and it's not baseball. Now even girls are getting basketball scholarships. That in itself creates more interest in families down the line."

Baseball has lagged behind miserably in terms of black participation in top programs: College football in 1991 was about 48 percent black, basketball 66 percent. But baseball remained a miniscule six percent.

Most blame college baseball's scholarship system, which has allowed just 13 scholarships to be split among the whole team. Few baseball players are afforded full rides. Football enjoys 95 scholarships, basketball 15. The most often cited reason for the disparity is that college baseball drains athletic department coffers, while the other two finance entire programs.

NCAA cutbacks in all sports to take place over the next few years will affect baseball by decreasing the allowable number of assistant coaches and cutting scholarships to 11.7. This will seriously hamper coaches' recruiting efforts. Mississippi State coach Ron Polk, an outspoken critic of the NCAA, believes it killed college baseball's chance of growing.

"They did it for cost containment," Polk says. "Baseball is a non-issue for most college presidents. Now, when kids around 14 or 15 years old decide what sport they're going to play, they go to where the attention and scholarships are."

"Baseball is played less and less because there's no future in it in black communities," says Harry Edwards, a sociologist at the University of California who for the past four years advised Major League Baseball on minority issues, primarily those concerning on-field management hiring. "The collegiate link is not there. We don't have access to baseball. When a player looks at where the educational and professional doors are open, he sees college basketball and football. That's why you see blacks dominate those sports so much."

One option a baseball player (black or white) wields exclusively is the chance to turn professional after high school. Pro and college baseball have fought feverishly to attract top athletes over the years: The pros want players raw out of high school so they can be nurtured "properly," while college baseball tries to sell academics.

Unfortunately for both, the war backfired to the extent that athletes, many black, have begun to hold education in such high esteem that they lose interest in baseball and see college football and basketball as greener pastures.

"For me, my decision not to sign out of high school was education," says Shawn Wills, 21, a highly regarded running back and outfielder at UCLA who might have been a first-round baseball pick out of high school without his scholarship plans. He is on full football scholarship. "No one in my family had gone to a four-year college. We have to be an example to young black people. They don't always have good role models."

College basketball and football players are heroes, while minor league life doesn't exactly have a glowing reputation. It's often a choice between glitz and grind. And some believe blacks might be slightly more inclined to pursue the more prominent college sports' limelight.

"That's slightly true," says Rodney Peete, a quarterback for the Detroit Lions who also was a top major league prospect while at the University of Southern California. "When you take a kid who maybe has a low-income background and has had to struggle more, he wants more exposure immediately. And when you're done, you can step into the NBA or the NFL. You don't have to fight the numbers as much."

Anthony Peeler, a senior point guard for the University of Missouri basketball team, couldn't play baseball for his urban Kansas City high school because it had no team. But he played for his local Connie Mack and American Legion teams, well enough to get drafted in the 41st round in 1988 by the Texas Rangers.

Peeler says he has many friends who got lost in the shuffle in the minors, and regretted foregoing an education to turn pro. That affected his decision to turn down the Rangers' offer.

Dell Curry, now a Charlotte Hornets' guard who once was a top Virginia Tech pitching prospect, was turned off to professional baseball after looking at the steps he would have to take to make the majors.

"You want to prove yourself as soon as possible," Curry says. "You don't want to have to do it in a series of stages. That didn't scare me away, but it was a factor in my deciding which way to go."

One National League scout simply said let's face it, the minors are a drag.

"Baseball has to make minor league baseball look more like a real job," says Tom Holliday, assistant baseball coach at Oklahoma State University. "College football and basketball are the minor leagues in those sports, and the players get experience and a degree. They even get help getting jobs in the summer or after they've graduated, because the boosters don't forget you.

"In minor league baseball, there's no pension plan. If you play for seven or eight years, you're not going to have anything put away when you're done. Are you going to start school at 24, and graduate at 28?"

Several baseball people have said that their industry has discussed the deteriorating minor league image. The recently revamped Professional Baseball Agreement between the major and minor leagues mandates improved facilities, so that helps.

High school lefthander Brien Taylor's record $1.55 million contract with the New York Yankees this August might have turned some kids' heads. But a new draft rule, expected to be passed at the Winter Meetings, will eliminate draftees' ability to profit from, and embarrass, the industry like Taylor did. Baseball's arrogance again might come back to haunt it.

"Everyone's running around with agents trying to get there the fastest with the mostest," says a major league general manager. "We've got a new mold of owners. Twenty years ago and before, there was family ownership which had concern for the sport. When was the last time you heard one of the ones today care about the good of the game?"

Baseball does have its ideas about combating the deteriorating black image of the sport.

One major step is Major League Baseball's support of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program founded and headed by John Young, a former scouting director who enjoyed a brief major league career with the Detroit Tigers. In 1989, Young began the program in Los Angeles to provide fields, equipment and instruction to inner city players whose interest never would have been tapped otherwise.

"In the inner cities, the programs are terrible," says Young, 42, who since has helped spread the RBI program to Kansas City, New York and St. Louis. "The overall perception is that baseball is not for blacks. We ask them why don't they play the game, and TV's the thing. Basketball's more exciting.

"When I was growing up, every team had a black star we would idolize: Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, they all were out there. What we're trying to do is show these kids how fun the game is, and how they can have baseball player to look up to."

Major League Baseball donates $1 million annually to amateur baseball, from college summer leagues to Little League. Each team also earmarks money for programs in it's own community.

Major League Baseball, which uses money granted it by the team owners, also recently set up the Rookie League program to supply equipment and pitching machines for games designed for younger kids.

Still, marketing the game to the inner cities and blacks remains a problem, one which prompted the commissioner's office to hire someone to work in-house specifically for those purposes. Leonard Coleman, 42, a New York investment banker and commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs from 1986-88, joined Major League Baseball in late November as director of market and game development.

"This is a problem that baseball is concerned with," says baseball's deputy commissioner, Steve Greenberg, referring specifically to the lack of black players and fans. "We've had studies done and yes, it is a serious issue. And we don't want to do something that's just cosmetic. It's a monumental task, and we're addressing it long-term."

Baseball, Greenberg says, must do whatever it can to keep its current black allegiance and recapture that which it's lost. His ideas on the issue might sound blasphemous.

"My personal view is not necessarily shared by a lot of people," Greenberg says, "but ultimately baseball has to have a relationship with NCAA programs similar to the ones in the NBA and NFL. It's smart, it's good business, it will get the job done, and it will happen over time. The question is when."

When both sides of the issue fight over how or whether the circumstances should be addressed, the black community, in general, will continue to be steered away from a game that brings joy to so many others.

The NBA and college basketball captured their new following by scrapping old styles of play and implementing modern marketing techniques. They adopted shot clocks for faster action, and created a showtime game atmosphere with loud music, spotlights and booming announcers. It's more immediately pleasing, regardless of one's ethnic background.

Baseball, more than any other modern sport, revels in tradition. The game has remained virtually unchanged this century. And fans lament what changes there have been, with the passing of old-time ballparks and heroes of yesteryear, of the grass, the doubleheaders and pitchers hitting.

A huge market for old-timer uniforms lets fans recapture the game's early days. But how many blacks would want to wear jersey of the old Philadelphia A's, which played at a time when baseball was passionately segregated?

There was a period after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier when blacks considered themselves part of the game that integrated first. But other sports have appeared to pass it, making what strides blacks have made in baseball appear to be token gestures.

Right or wrong, this common perception among the black community gradually is eroding what once was sincere interest.

Solutions include a less adversarial stance between pro and college baseball, which would create an attractive link to more academically oriented generation. It also will take far greater enthusiasm, not mere financial support, for helping baseball recapture its fleeting image as a game Willie Mays could play with kids in the streets, not just a sport indigenous to rolling Iowa cornfields.

Dealing with the situation will take a decade or two, because doing so entails letting some of the tradition go. For many, it might mean letting Joe DiMaggio finally retire.

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