Baseball was once a popular choice among African-American professional athletes who constituted about 27 percent of all major-leaguers in 1975. But the numbers have declined steadily since, down to about 9 percent on last year's Opening Day rosters. That's the point All-Star outfielder Torii Hunter tried to make recently, though his choice of words in USA Today ignited a firestorm of criticism.
"People see dark faces (on the field), and the perception is that they're African-American," Hunter told the paper during a roundtable discussion. "They're not us. They're imposters." He was referring to Major League Baseball's ever-growing number of Latin American players, players such as former teammate Vladimir Guerrero, a native of the Dominican Republic, with skin as dark as Hunter's. "Even people I know come up and say: 'Hey, what color is (Guerrero)? Is he a black player?' I say, 'Come on, he's Dominican. He's not black.'"
After being excoriated by bloggers and Internet sites for his supposedly racist comments, Hunter said his choice of words, specifically "imposters," wasn't the best. But he didn't apologize for the gist of his remarks, and there's no reason he should. He sought to tell the truth about African Americans in baseball, not engage in a silly debate on who fits the sociopolitical definition of "black." Hunter is fully aware that Guerrero faces the same problems hailing a cab, faces the same automatic classification during traffic stops. At least until he opens his mouth to speak.
I covered Hunter for nearly a decade, and there's no doubt he's one of the classiest guys in baseball, liked and respected by players of all races. So the question isn't whether he's a racist. That's absurd. The question is why he finds himself among such a shrinking demographic, and if baseball officials and fans should even care. Sure, young black men prefer football and basketball, but so what? After all, about 80 percent of NBA players and 70 percent of NFL players are black. Is it a problem that so few players in those leagues are white
Good question; the answer is "not really." That's because white children haven't abandoned football and basketball. Plenty play in youth leagues and on high school and college teams. If they're able, the best of them proceed to play for pay. The rest go on with their lives, enriched with memories of fun, teamwork, discipline and sacrifice from their chosen sport. In the end, that's what matters when you talk about representation within a sport: Whether kids of all backgrounds are able to get the most out of it.
However, fewer and fewer black kids play baseball in youth leagues, high school or college. The best of them still become major-leaguers, but the pool of black talent is shallow. A survey of 128 youth "select" teams from nine Midwestern states in 2000 and 2001 found that less than 2 percent of the more than 1,400 players were African-American, according to the National Recreation Park Association Journal of Leisure Research. With so little participation, many would-be players never experience the joys and benefits of baseball in their lives, regardless of their pro potential. That's why Commissioner Bud Selig and other baseball lovers should care. Their beloved sport has lost a generation of black folks, some of whom could've grown into great stars and ambassadors, like Hunter and Ken Griffey Jr.
It's not just black kids turning away, either. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers of America reported that overall youth baseball participation fell 7 percent between 1995 and 2005, while football rose 20.1 percent, soccer rose 18.1 percent and basketball dipped a mere 7 percent. However, black kids have fallen away from baseball at an accelerated rate during the past 30 years. Basketball offered a quicker path to success—no spending several years in the minor leagues—and football grew to become the nation's most popular sport. Besides, baseball is expensive, hard to organize and requires more extensive groundskeeping.
Baseball wins when guys like that forsake the hardwood and the gridiron, just like baseball won when it welcomed Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. It's a logical presumption that with fewer black kids supporting the sport, baseball is missing out on athletes with the potential to become all-stars and Hall-of-Famers, athletes whose ancestors enjoyed a rich history since being allowed to play in 1947. But the descendants are steadily vanishing from the game, all the while demonstrating athleticism in other sports that could carry over to baseball. If you love the sport, you want the best possible players on the field, be they white, black or polka-dot, and they need to start at an early age to reach the majors.
Forget about the potential for pro-contracts and college scholarships, unquestionable perks available to a select few. The benefits of baseball—or any sport—go far beyond possible monetary gain and free tuition, and that should be the focus when adults encourage youth to play. Like other sports, baseball can offer youth fun and experiences in commitment, sacrifice, perseverance and sportsmanship. It's a fine alternative to football and basketball, even though those sports are considered way cooler.
That's one reason advocates of less-popular sports are always on the lookout for potential players. At this very moment, the next great fencers could be waiting for an introduction to the sport. Even if they never win Olympic gold, their lives—and fencing—will be enriched by their participation. Just as baseball—every fan and every player—is enriched when the sport casts it net as wide as possible.
Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer based in Upper Marlboro, Md.