What Ever Happened to African-American Baseball Players?

June 22, 2011  |  

By Alexis Garrett Stodghill

After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball, African-Americans continued to excel in the field for many years — but are dwindling in numbers today. What was once America’s greatest pastime spawned Hall of Famers like Roy Campanella,  Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, plus many other great African-American legends. But despite this rich history, black youth today are focused more on the glitzy trappings of football and basketball. Their synergies with hip-hop have led young African-Americans away from baseball, known for its more conservative crowd. This decline in interest has contributed to the fact that there are fewer black American baseball players than ever. The Boston Globe reports:

We’re always a bit surprised when a young baseball prospect turns out to be African-American.

“It hurts, it really does, to see the decline of the sport,’’ says San Diego Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson, one of the dwindling number of African-American major league players. “To think that our baseball ancestors put up such great numbers and stood for so much and how much they went through in this great game.’’

Once upon a time, baseball was the city game, for all races. There was always a field or lot somewhere. Playing baseball was a standard way of life. It can easily be argued that, in the first 50 or 60 years of the 20th century, baseball was, by far, the most popular sport for African-Americans.

And now?

“I’ve had kids come up to me and ask why I’m playing that white man’s game,’’ sighs Hudson.

Hudson works to reverse this trend through his program Around the Mound, which promotes baseball to inner city youth. But the competition to gain interest in baseball’s slow-paced game is rough. Training for baseball emphasizes slow growth over the exciting expression of raw talent witnessed in the NBA. African-American kids are enchanted by the prospect of breaking into basketball right out of high school using innate skills. And very few baseball luminaries receive the massive contracts offered to the brightest of the NFL. By comparison the understated life of a baseball player seems unappealing.

But playing baseball over more flashy sports has it’s advantages. According to Hudson, “We make the most money,” and the sport is far less damaging to the body. The overall quality of life for the players is better, as they receive daily perks like better food in their club houses. Ironically, baseball is less glamorous, but is considered the preferred deal both financially and personally by professional athletes. It would be a shame for black American players to miss out.

Worse than African-American athletes turning down a better way of life would be seeing our pioneering legacy in baseball die. Black Americans made inroads into the sport so that players who are Dominican or Asian would not have to face the same racial barriers we did. Following in the footsteps of African-American greats who battled their way to the mound is an opportunity our youth are entitled to enjoy. Baseball is not “the white man’s game.” We paid the price to make it ours, too.

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