Have Black Americans Left Baseball?

Hall of Famer Dave Winfield and others weigh in on what has happened since the days of Jackie Robinson.

Charles Clark with son Ethan (Courtesy of Charles Clark)
Charles Clark with son Ethan (Courtesy of Charles Clark)

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Charles Clark is the only African-American manager of a Little League team in North Tampa, Fla. In an interview with The Root, he discussed his firsthand experience with the costs. “A typical quality baseball bat for a child is $300.” Clark has three sons, all of whom participate in the sport, meaning he spends a minimum of close to $1,000 on bats alone, which pales in comparison to the other potential costs.

Clark explained that while there is Little League, in which nonprofit teams are sponsored by local businesses, and all kids have an opportunity to play, travel ball has become big business. Travel ball teams are where Little League’s best and brightest compete. The fees to participate in such a team can cost between $500 and $1,200, not including uniforms and other miscellaneous expenses.

Though Little League exists as a lower-cost option for those who can’t afford the expense of travel ball, Clark explained that for kids hoping to go pro, “they would need the exposure of being in travel ball.” That’s where scouts, coaches and professional baseball players and others connected to the MLB discover future stars. The class divide in baseball, however, extends far beyond childhood.

According to Ruck, “Very few black kids go to college to play baseball. Last decade it was, like, under 5 percent of all NCAA baseball players on scholarship were black, versus 10 to 15 times higher in basketball and football. The reason is twofold. If you play college football or basketball, you get a full scholarship. If you play college baseball, you might be one of 25 to 35 kids who are splitting 11.7 scholarships, so you don’t get a full scholarship. You might get a quarter scholarship or half scholarship. If you can’t afford the rest of that, you’re not going to play baseball but a sport that can give you a full ride.” 

Fathers Play a Significant Role

Clark’s involvement in the sport at the Little League level highlights another reason cited by Ruck for the decline in baseball in the African-American community: fathers. Ruck explained that baseball is a sport defined in part by the bond between fathers and sons. Boys learn to play catch at an early age, usually with a father. (This is such a defining cultural image that it is currently being parodied in a popular car commercial.)

Ruck explained, “When we start to see the collapse of the two-headed household — which I think hits black families because of class reasons more than white families — you no longer have boys who grow up in homes with fathers who teach them the love and the lore of the game.” Clark agreed that baseball is a sport in which the role of fathers is particularly important.

“Cultural cachet” is also cited as a reason for the sport’s decline in popularity, with certain sports carrying a level of prestige on various continents and within communities. For instance, soccer is a much more popular sport in Brazil, making it more likely that a young Brazilian will grow up wanting to be a professional soccer player, just as a young Canadian is more likely to grow up wanting to be a professional hockey player.

“Everybody wants to be like Mike,” Ruck said, referring to Michael Jordan, the African-American basketball icon who influenced an entire generation of aspiring black athletes.