As reported by the Associated Press at the start of the 2008 season, a study by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports indicated that the percentage of black players on Major League rosters was at a two-decade low:
Among major leaguers, though, just 8.2 percent were black players, down from 8.4 percent in 2006 and the lowest level in at least two decades.
In an article special to espen.com, Richard Lapchick, who runs the annual UCF study, presented some theories about the decline in the number of black ballplayers:
MLB has struggled with an image problem that it hasn't welcomed African-Americans into front office.
Another contributing factor, perhaps, is that Barry Bonds, arguably the biggest African-American baseball star of his generation, is one of the most vilified athletes ever -- deservedly or not -- in spite of the fact that he broke one of the most revered records in the history of Major League Baseball.
If you are a young African-American athlete trying to decide what sport to pursue, you find superstar role models far more often in the NBA and NFL who may inspire your decision. You may also struggle to figure out how and where to play baseball, if you come from an urban area where there are few fields. If your family doesn't have the resources, you might not be able to buy the equipment or pay the fees to join a youth travel team.
While Lapchick noted the efforts of Major League Baseball to include more black youths in programs at a younger age, efforts that include the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, he concluded that:
In spite of those efforts, it appears that baseball will virtually skip a generation of African-Americans. If there are to be increases, they will come in the future and not in the short term.
While the data undoubtedly still support Professor Lapchick's conclusion, I hold empirical evidence that baseball has not skipped a generation of black players: the 2008 postseason
Consider the number of black players on the eight 25-man Division Series rosters:
Chicago White Sox: Jermaine Dye, Ken Griffey Jr., Dewayne Wise, Jerry Owens
Tampa Bay Rays: David Price, Carl Crawford, BJ Upton, Cliff Floyd
Los Angeles Angels Angels of Anaheim: Darren Oliver, Chone Figgins, Howie Kendrick, Garret Anderson, Torii Hunter, Gary Matthews Jr.
Boston Red Sox: Coco Crisp
Milwaukee Brewers: CC Sabathia, Ray Durham, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Mike Cameron, Tony Gwynn Jr.
Chicago Cubs: Derrek Lee, Daryle Ward
Los Angeles Dodgers: James McDonald, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Juan Pierre
Philadelphia Phillies: Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins
There are 29 black players spread over the eight postseason clubs, an average of 3.6 per club, or 14.5 percent of the players participating. This rate is more than double the number of black players in the Major Leagues.
And look at who comprises this list: Should the White Sox reach the World Series, the main storyline will undoubtedly revolve around Ken Griffey trying to win his first title. You would be hard pressed to imagine a scenario in which the Phillies, Brewers, Dodgers, or Angels reach and win the World Series without their black players making significant contributions. This list even includes some of the game's biggest stars -- including the 2007 National League MVP (Rollins) and the probable 2008 NL winner (Howard).
The list also includes several alums of RBI programs, including Crawford, Crisp, Loney, Rollins and Sabathia.
Make no mistake: In no way am I trying to suggest that having black players is a key to winning. The Red Sox have one black player, a relative role player, and they are a fine bet to take the whole tournament. To win, you get the best players, regardless of race, color or creed.
Instead, what I am trying to suggest is that if Major League Baseball is serious about increasing the number of black players who pick up the sport, now is the time to market itself heavily in the black community. Think of the times in which we live -- a black man is almost assuredly going to be our next president. For the first time in American history, people are uniting across racial lines to elect a minority leader to the nation's highest office. MLB would be well served to dovetail on this momentum.
One of the explanations given by Richard Lapchick for the declining number of black Major Leaguers bears revisiting:
If you are a young African-American athlete trying to decide what sport to pursue, you find superstar role models far more often in the NBA and NFL who may inspire your decision.
Not right now. Not with the players in the 2008 postseason. There are superstars. There are marketable players. There are role models.
The iron is red hot. If the league is serious about reviving baseball in the American inner cities, now is the time to strike.