Every year baseball honors Jackie Robinson on April 15, and every year we hear about a generation of black athletes tuning the game out.
A USA Today survey revealed only 7.8 percent of the players on major league rosters opening day were African-American, continuing a longtime trend.
Why have so many young black men gravitated toward other sports?
After listening to a panel discussion on Robinson at U.S. Cellular Field on Tuesday, Simeon senior outfielder Darius Day blamed a “lack of role models” in the sport.
“In basketball you have LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony — some big-time African-American athletes,” Day said. “In football you have Ray Rice, Donovan McNabb, Michael Vick. ... Baseball doesn’t have the big African-American names on ‘SportsCenter’ every night.
“There are some, but people don’t really pay attention. A lot of people in the inner city don’t follow baseball and don’t know about Jackie Bradley Jr., Dee Gordon, Andrew McCutchen ...”
If you don’t watch them on TV, chances are you’re not going to become a fan. Baseball doesn’t market its stars as well as the NBA or NFL, so a perfect ambassador like McCutchen gets overshadowed by Yasiel Puig’s latest antics.
McCutchen believes the sports world simply has changed and young blacks today are more likely to enjoy sports with a higher percentage of African-Americans.
“Years ago, the NBA wasn’t predominantly black,” he said. “Now it is. Look at the NFL, things have changed. Baseball tends to go the other way because I feel more male athletes lean toward sports where the majority is African-American. It’s not just baseball that has changed, but the whole spectrum of sports.”
For his part, White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf invited dozens of high school athletes and coaches from Simeon, Kenwood, King, Leo and Seton Academy to U.S. Cellular Field to celebrate Robinson’s legacy on the anniversary of his game-changing debut when he broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
He was joined on a panel by Sox executive vice president Ken Williams and Carol Adams, CEO of the DuSable Museum of African-American History, with NPR’s Richard Steele serving as moderator.
It was a great history lesson for the kids, before lunch and a ballgame.
Williams told the kids to “develop your mind as vigorously as you’re developing your baseball talents,” while Adams asked them to “find your inner Jackie Robinson,” pointing to his ability to shut out all the racial hate directed toward him without losing his composure.
But one question that never was answered was how to get young black kids as interested in baseball as they are in football and basketball.
“You have to have facilities to play,” Reinsdorf said afterward.” In basketball, you stick a hoop up in the driveway or in the alley and you can play. Kenny is on a committee that is trying to develop a plan to get more kids playing. We have four or five academies we’ve opened up, but we have to do a better job getting people to have facilities. That’s what it’s all about.”
MLB created a task force in April 2013 to study how to increase diversity. Williams said it has reached no conclusions yet. But he’s not worried that other sports, and video games, have dulled kids’ interest in baseball.
“You can’t do anything about video games,” Williams said. “You can’t do anything about kids wanting to play other sports. You can only market your sport to the best of your ability and make it appealing to kids. Some kids will gravitate toward it, and some won’t.”
Seton Academy pitcher Bryson Westbrook said kids tend to do what they see their friends, older brothers and dads doing.
“When you expose a child to baseball, as my mom did ... I fell in love with it immediately and didn’t want to stop,” Westbrook said. “But I see all my friends playing basketball.”
If baseball truly wants to revive interest in young black men, stars like McCutchen need to channel their “inner Jackie” and become magnets, like James and Wade.
McCutchen is up for the task, and wants to be an agent for change in baseball, if given the chance.
“I’m not the typical baseball player guys see,” he said. “I’m an African-American guy with dreads, and I play the game with my own type of spice. I respect the game, but I like to have fun and to show it.
“That’s something I can do, that I can be a part of.”