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Race and Sports

What explains the lack of African Americans in baseball?

By 6.15.07

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When South Korean Ladies' Professional Golf Association champ Se Ri Pak finished her first round in last week's McDonald's LPGA tournament, one of the women's majors, she became eligible for the Hall of Fame. She had put in 10 years, had won 23 tournaments, including five majors. She was the first Korean to play golf on the LPGA Tour.

There are now 45 South Korean golfers on that tour.

This transformation has been wrought without much fanfare, and in a spirit of general amity, admiration, and cooperation.

I can remember only one incident in the sport which might have had a racial overtone of a negative sort. In the 2006 women's U.S. Open, Jeong Jang hit a sand wedge from a nasty lie in thick rough on the bank of a steep berm. As shown clearly on video replay, she took an enormous divot trying to hack the ball out. The divot stuck to the face of her club, and the divot, still stuck to the club, hit the ball a second time as it flew out from that terrible lie.

A "double hit" requires a one-shot penalty. Golfers are supposed to call penalties on themselves. Jeong Jang, barely more than a girl, was so upset that she could not bring herself to admit she had done anything wrong. Tournament officials eventually assessed a one-shot penalty, but only after the round was over, and only after Jeong Jang had signed a scorecard for a score one shot lower than it should have been -- ordinarily a disqualification.

But it didn't blow up. It was a conflict between Anglo golf honor and Oriental "face." Tournament officials solved it, and that was that.

As I say, amity, admiration, and cooperation.

CONTRAST THAT SPIRIT WITH the feeling in a recent spate of articles and television and radio reports about "the lack of African Americans in baseball."

A casual glance at the sport would seem to belie that assertion; there appears to be lots of blacks. Depending on your source, you will find that African-American participation in Major League baseball hit a high of 27 percent in 1974, and has declined since, to about nine percent today.

All those black faces tend to come from Latin American countries, and that seems to have gotten the goat of certain commentators. You can easily find articles of a predictable type: That American blacks shun baseball because the sport costs too much money (all those gloves and balls), and that "poverty" means black kids can't find ball fields.

But for the nitty-gritty feelings, you have to go to blogs like "Black America," where you will find comments like this:

"On a local level where I live, there is an aggressive effort to get black males between the ages of 9-14 involved in little league. Free equipment, rides to the practices and other efforts are made -- but with little success. When I have asked a few of these kids who decline to participate their reasons, I usually hear something like, 'man, that's a pu**y game,' or 'that's boring as h*ll.'"

OR YOU CAN SAVOR THE COMMENTS OF GARY SHEFFIELD, from an upcoming article in GQ, as quoted at a local ABC TV website website. Headlined "Sheffield Has Theory Why Fewer Blacks Play MLB," the ABC report quotes the Detroit Tigers designated hitter as saying:

"You're going to see more black faces, but there ain't no English going to be coming out. [It's about] being able to tell [Latin players] what to do -- being able to control them…Where I'm from, you can't control us. You might get a guy to do it that way for a while because he wants to benefit, but in the end, he is going to go back to being who he is. And that's a person that you're going to talk to with respect, you're going to talk to like a man. These are the things my race demands."

ABC calls Sheffield "typically outspoken." I would call Sheffield, and the black kids quoted in the blog, something else. I would call them desperately poor in spirit.

THERE MAY BE SIMPLE PHYSICAL reasons why basketball and football are more popular than baseball among blacks in America. You can play basketball one-on-one, or two-on-two, or in any combination up to full team strength (five). Football is so organized, it can be played (really) only in institutions of one kind of another.

By contrast, among boys, baseball is the gentlest, most sociable of pickup games. You have to choose up sides. That requires captains, by acclamation. If you have fewer than nine players to a side, you have to distribute positions equitably. You have to come up with local and per-game rules suitable to the occasion: Hitting a nearby building may be an automatic foul ball; "one base on an overthrow;" a batting order; medium-soft pitching so as to allow maximum hits (hard pitching being reserved for organized games at Little League and the like).

And somebody is going to get stuck in right field, where, in childhood baseball, nobody ever hits anything.

It does not allow for macho posturing, beating other people up, or, in the classic loser's ploy, taking your ball and going home.

Yep. That's a "pu**y game," all right. It does not provide "the things my race demands."

You can blame a lot of things: A soaring rate of illegitimacy among American blacks, broken homes, absent fathers, a diminishing influence of large, positive social institutions like churches and good schools -- those latter two words being a nearly automatic oxymoron in today's public education. You can blame video games, I-pods, television, advertising, and music.

WHATEVER DOES IT, IT'S PITIFUL. I pity black culture in America today. It is a long, long fall from Duke Ellington to Snoop Doggy Dog. In a shorter time, it is a long, long fall from Willie Mays to Barry Bonds -- or Gary Sheffield. We are all much poorer for it.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.