The Nation's Pulse

The Race-Ball Game

A seventh-inning stretch from the subject of baseball and race.

By 9.13.07

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We can't seem to catch a break from those poor souls who are obsessed by race, even on the sports pages, where our games are supposed to offer a little time-out from the political and cultural battles of the day.

I'm hardly the only one beyond weary of the officious and sanctimonious nose-counters, under a spell that they know the proper proportions of various racial, ethnic, or sexual categories that ought to be involved in any kind of human activity you can name, and who are willing to use try to force the "proper" outcome.

Comes now a spate of media stories about the "shortage" of African-Americans playing baseball at all levels, from the sandlots to The Show. Sportscasters natter on during the game about the "serious problem" of not enough black baseball players. (It gives a whole new meaning to the expression "color" commentator.)

Racial and ethnic categories are apparently growth industry, as the folks whose absence from baseball is now being bemoaned are only American-born blacks. Latino blacks, another category to the demographically obsessed, apparently don't count.

I asked Jimmy Lee Solomon, executive vice president of operations for Major League Baseball, what all this was about. Why, I wanted to know, but none of the articles answered, was the percentage of black baseball players important? Attendance at baseball games, both at the major and minor league levels, is at record levels. The game on the field is solid. And baseball is finally doing something about the problem of performance-enhancing drugs, even as it gives Barry Bonds the anemic recognition he deserves for what may turn out to be the biggest asterisk in sports history. (How many baseball purists would pay big money for the privilege of kicking the abominable Barry square in his fat asterisk?)

What difference does it make that, as the articles tell us, 27 percent of Major League Baseball players in 1975 were African American, but "only" 8.4 percent are now? Who cares if a major fraction of Major Leaguers are from Latin America (sometimes it seems the Dominican town of San Pedro de Macoris could supply MLB by itself), or that more and more Asian players are showing up in the Bigs? My hometown team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (go ahead and laugh, but the Rays have a good lineup and seem to have their bullpen straightened out, so next year if...but, I digress) has three talented African-American outfielders -- Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Delmon Young -- who are a ton of fun to watch. But they would be as much fun to watch if they were white, Latino, Asian, or, for that matter, Martian.

I asked Solomon of Major League Baseball has some "correct" percentage of African American players that it will try to achieve? Will there be affirmative action on the diamond? He says the answers these last two questions are no and no.

Solomon said MLB is running programs in the inner city, and putting on contests such as the Civil Rights Game and the Urban Classic in order to preserve opportunities for black youngsters who want to take up the game, and to try to stimulate interest in the grand old game among young black Americans.

Solomon can talk about America's opportunities; he knows a bit about them. He's an African American from rural Texas who went on to graduate from Harvard Law and to achieve a high position in the sport that, when you talk to him, it's clear he loves.

Solomon argues that a key reason for trying to re-kindle interest in baseball among African Americans, which has been on the wane for three decades, is to preserve what has been a rich tradition of blacks and baseball.

"We're growing the game globally," Solomon said. "I'm proud of the fact that baseball is 40 percent minority. But we need to ensure that blacks continue to be included in this mosaic.

"Baseball was in the forefront of the civil rights movement. African Americans and baseball were together long before the civil rights movement and integration. We don't want to lose sight of this past and this tradition."

True enough. There was a time in America when blacks were keenly interested baseball. They played it, watched it, talked about it, had fun with it. The history of the Negro Leagues is a sad story of separation and discrimination. But it's also a joyful story of a high-spirited brand of quality baseball played by guys who knew about the game, played it hard, and knew how to have fun.

"Don't feel sorry for us," Buck O'Neil, probably baseball's best spokesman ever, often said of his Negro Leagues experience. "We had a great time." (By the way, you'll have a great time too if you read The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America, by Joe Posnanski.)

But blacks in baseball is no longer a civil rights issue. Everyone knows what brave and talented ballplayers like Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby had to endure -- far more than any dozen men should have had to put up with in a lifetime -- to ensure that blacks could play in the Major Leagues. But that battle was fought, at great price, and won long ago. That door is open, and it will never be closed again. The country is at a different place. Bull Connor is no longer police chief in Birmingham. Jim Crow ain't coming back. No one would let him in the door if he tried. And no one now is preventing blacks from playing baseball. If they're playing other sports, it's by their own choice.

When blacks began to show up on Major League rosters in the early 1950s, I was part of that throng of pre-teen boys who spent paper-route and lawn-mowing money on bubble- gum baseball cards. We keenly wanted to have cards picturing Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams and Stan Musial. But we also wanted to have the cards of Roy Campanella and Ernie Banks and a young Henry Aaron. In a world in which the races were effectively separated, Major League baseball players were about the first black Americans we paid attention to and took seriously.

My pals in post-war Tampa and I loved baseball. It took up more of the attention and psychic energy of young American males then than it has since, or likely ever will again. If any boy at my junior high school had any dream other than becoming a Major League baseball player, he kept it to himself. Thanks to our sandlot exertions, we knew even then how difficult baseball is to play well. How long it takes to acquire baseball skills. So we admired those who could play our game at the very highest level, whether that person was named Mantle or Aaron, Williams or Doby. It was the first step in the right direction for many of us.

But the times have changed. There are more sports, and more diversions, to take up the time and energy of Americans, black or otherwise. And baseball, which has many subtleties and requires a real attention span to fully appreciate, may be a bit out of step with the hyperkinetic, quick-cut, thrill-a-second, information-overload age we live in.

Many black youngsters consider that basketball and football have more flash and dash than baseball, and are the cool sports to be involved in. (It's cool to wear expensive basketball sneakers to class -- try wearing a pair of baseball cleats and see what happens to you.) While I see baseball as a luxuriously paced work of art, endlessly fascinating and full delights and surprises, lots of young Americans consider baseball to be too slow. Downright boring. This is the nub of Solomon's and MLB's challenge.

But baseball has been counted out before. There have been articles for decades about how baseball was losing popularity, especially to football. Baseball's demographics, we've been told, trend older than other sports. So where will the new baseball fans come from?

I'm not sure where they came from. But when I was in Fenway for a game last month, there was a focused, raucous baseball fan in every seat. They were there for the first pitch, and whooped and yelled or groaned on every pitch for the entire nine. No one left before the game was over. No one was bored. Similar experiences are going on at less febrile baseball venues than Fenway.

If Jimmy Lee Solomon can help keep this kind of enthusiasm going, then there will be enough baseball left, as the Brits say, to see me out. And baseball for the next generation as well. If this happens, Solomon and his colleagues will have my thanks. But it would be nice if we could get back to talking about the game, rather than about the color of the guys in uniform playing it.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.