After years of bad publicity and attention regarding the low participation of American-born Blacks in their sport, MLB is starting to make progress. This season, which was delayed for months due to the impact of COVID-19, has seen a slight increase in Black players, though the numbers are nowhere near what they were in the ‘60s or even the early ‘70s. But the 80 players on MLB rosters constitute 7.8 percent of the league, not an impressive total, but still an improvement.
There are some who think that folks who continue to dismiss any desire by MLB for more Black players are being overly impatient and a bit harsh in their analysis. One of those is Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and also part of the group vying to get Nashville an expansion team. He told ESPN’s Bob Nightengale last week he’s optimistic things are starting to change in regards to Black interest and involvement in baseball.
“We live in a microwave society, and we want to see instant change,’’ Kendrick said. “That doesn’t happen in baseball. But I am encouraged. I do think we’re seeing a total shift in interest in this sport, and that’s what gives me hope, that we start seeing a reversal of those numbers.’’
The Negro Leagues are celebrating their 100th anniversary this season, and throughout this week there are celebrations and commemorations about Negro League Baseball. Teams are wearing the vintage uniforms of Negro League clubs in cities that formerly had a team. In addition, Fox Sports on its various regional telecasts are presenting on pregame shows salutes and tributes to key players (locally you can view these on Atlanta Braves telecasts shown on Sports South and Sports Tennessee respectively).
That’s not to say problems don’t remain in MLB regarding Black participation. There remain three teams (Arizona, Kansas City and Tampa Bay) with zero Black players on their current rosters. It’s got to be particularly galling in Kansas City, the home of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and a city with a rich tradition of Black baseball going back decades.
But on the flip side there’s the Seattle Mariners, with 10 Blacks on their roster and 12 overall. Andy McKay, the Mariners director of player development, told USA Today “I don’t have the answer you might be looking for, but we have a core group of Black players because they’re really good baseball players. We’re trying to find the best players we can find.’’
Things are also improving on the college level, thanks to teams like Eastern Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Michigan. Eastern Kentucky has one of the few Black head coaches in major college baseball, Edwin Thompson. He’s had nine players drafted or signed by major league teams during his five years heading their program. The amazing thing is none were MLB draftees out of high school.
“I really feel like there’s more Black players coming now, and I think we’ll see a wave in the next three to five years,’’ Thompson said to USA Today. We look everywhere to find the best players where people may not be looking. You hear people say, ‘Oh, they’re just not out there.’ No, that’s an excuse. They’re out there. These kids are just getting unrecruited. You just have to find them. You go to neighborhoods and places that may not be comfortable. If coaches don’t come from diverse backgrounds, they’re going to recruit the players they’re comfortable with. It’s just a choice of how you want to recruit.’’
Vanderbilt and Michigan met in 2019 for the College World Series title. Each had seven Black players. Vandy coach Tim Corbin, a two-time series champion, has long emphasized diversity as a core value of his program. The same holds true at Michigan. Their head coach Eric Bakich speaks forcefully about the issue of diversity.
“We think our roster should look like the United States of America,’’ Bakich said. “The game of baseball is too white. It needs more opportunities. Look at the cost of travel ball and these showcases. There are nine-year-old kids paying $3,000 a year for travel ball. That’s ridiculous. It prices out all of the lower income families, and that’s a mistake.You look at every college campus, and the best athletes are on the football and basketball teams. We’re losing our best athletes to those sports because we are outpricing them out of baseball, and that’s baseball’s loss.”
The chances of baseball overtaking either basketball or football as the most popular sport among Black youth and athletes is remote at best. But at least now there’s attempts at rekindling the interest that once existed, and the realization that the sport is at its best getting great players from all backgrounds.