Is There an African-American Comeback in Baseball?

Young starters like Ryan Howard and Jason Heyward could signal a resurgence of black players to the game.


With the dramatic emergence of Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Jason Heyward and the new contract extension signed by Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, the news about African Americans in baseball has turned positive, and the shift may be sustainable.

Earlier this week, Howard signed a five-year $125-million-dollar contract extension, which underscores the riches that are available in baseball. He has been the leading run producer on a Phillies team that has won three straight National League East flags, the 2009 National League pennant, and the 2008 World Series. He has led the league in runs batted in three of the last four seasons. That doesn't give him the street cred of Kobe Bryant, but they are in the same tax bracket now.  Howard will have a longer career than most basketball or football players.

Heyward has established himself as the early front-runner for this year's National League Rookie of the Year award, and his performance has been the thing of legend. In the very first at-bat of his major league career, Heyward stepped up to the plate against the Chicago Cubs' Carlos Zambrano with two men on base and a rally that had tied the game at 3-3. He showed his savvy by taking two pitches that were out of the strike zone. Then, Heyward, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 240 pounds, took a big swing at the third pitch, and the ball rocketed off his bat. It was a 476-foot home run. Later in the game, he singled home another run. Heyward caught the ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron before the start of the game, and by that evening, baseball fans across the country knew of the rookie's nickname, The J-Hey Kid, a reference to the great Willie Mays.

Baseball lore is full of opening day flashes in the pan. For instance Karl ''Tuffy'' Rhodes hit three home runs on opening day in 1994, but it was a fluke. He couldn't hit well enough the rest of the season to maintain his spot in the starting lineup, and within three years he was salvaging his career by playing in Japan. By contrast, Heyward looks like the real deal. Through 19 games, his statistics range from admirable to remarkable. His .364 on base percentage is rare for a 20-year-old in the big leagues. (At that age, most professional baseball players are still learning the rigors of the game in the minor leagues.) He has hit four home runs and has 16 runs batted in. Clips for his highlight reel didn't stop on opening day; two weeks ago, Heyward came to bat in the ninth inning of a game where his Braves trailed 3-2 against the Phillies. Heyward homered to tie the game, and the Braves won in extra innings.

Heyward still has a few holes in his game; he has struck out 24 times in his first 77 plate appearances, a high ratio which holds his batting average down. But his overall performance has been extraordinary, especially for a player so young. He is on track to be one of the game's next superstars.

Will these developments reverse the decades-long decline of African-American participation in baseball? They could be a big step, and other steps are already in place. There are nearly a dozen other African-American baseball players under the age of 30 that are coming to a video game ad, if not yet to an all-star game. In addition to Fielder, outfielders Andrew McCutchen (Pittsburgh Pirates), Michael Bourn (Houston Astros), Carl Crawford (Tampa Bay Rays), the Upton brothers, B.J. and Justin, (the Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively and pitcher David Price are all current or future stars. Baseball's marketing failed to make Ryan Howard a big star outside Philadelphia, but the machinery is in higher gear now. Many of the aforementioned players will be mainstream stars soon.

An equally big factor in reversing the trend in African-American participation in baseball will be a potential declines in youth football. As chilling statistics come to light about the frequency of concussions--35 percent of the 1.5 million high school football players have suffered multiple concussions--and their long-term effects, which include dementia and other mental illness, make it likely that more parents will begin to steer their children toward other sports. Baseball would stand to benefit from any traffic moving away from football, especially since it boasts a glorious past via figures like Aaron and Mays, a bright present with Howard and a promising future with Heyward, the Uptons, McCutchen, Fielder et al. Play ball, bro!

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

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