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Baseball continues to deal with its own ‘race issue’
But unlike the NFL, the problem with our ‘national pastime’ is lack of Black players in the game
Major League Baseball will celebrate the annual Jackie Robinson Day on Saturday, honoring its first Black player.
It’s a great time to reflect not only on a great player who broke MLB’s color barrier in 1947, but someone who opened the game for others.
But MLB — and baseball in general — continues to have a race problem in 2023.
Unlike its big brother, the NFL, it’s not an issue of diversity among its coaching staffs or front offices. It’s an issue of Black players at all levels.
Last year, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport reported MLB had “a smaller percentage of Black players now than it has had in any year since the early 1990s,” Newsweek reported.
According to the report, only 38 percent of “all players as of Opening Day 2022 were players of color, a 0.4 percent increase over 2021's numbers. About 28.5 percent of those players were Hispanic or Latino, 1.9 percent were Asian players, and less than 1 percent were Hawaiian/Pacific Islander or Native American.”
Do that math. That means about 8 percent were Black American-born players.
It’s a problem folks like Bob Kendrick, in conjunction with MLB, the Major League Baseball Players Association and The Players Alliance, are well aware of — and trying to do something about.
Kendrick is president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., and is very interested in seeing the game reach a more diverse talent pool.
“We feel like we have a historical, social, civic responsibility to promote this game,” Kendrick said during a stop in Cedar Rapids at Coe College in February. “That’s part of what we do.
“We have a vested interest in seeing the game grow and grow within the urban community.”
He thinks his museum is the perfect place to start.
“Part of that solution is our history, our place in the game,” he said. “We have a tremendous legacy in this game.
“In our sport in particular, I think you have to see yourself to believe you can do it. That’s what we do at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.”
That is key to drawing a new audience to anything or, in this case, reintroducing the game to Black youth in the United States. That’s where The Players Alliance comes in.
It’s not an MLB problem as much as it is a grassroots problem.
The mission of the Alliance is to “address baseball’s systemic barriers to equity & inclusion by creating pathways to opportunities on and off the field for an undeniable pipeline of Black talent,” according to its website.
The vision is “where we as Black professional players commit to owning and supporting solutions to increase the participation of our beloved community in baseball. We do this because our representation is important to both the community and the game.”
The future of the game starts with learning and understanding the history of Black players in MLB — and before they were allowed to play in the league. The Negro Baseball League ran from 1920 to 1951 when MLB integration ate away at its talent.
But the NBL was more than just a group of outstanding players finding a home. It also had Black owners, managers and coaches.
“They fulfilled every role that could be fulfilled,” Kendrick said.
That’s the story he wants to share — at the museum and when making public appearances — with young Black athletes who are thinking about the game.
“I want them to dream about the possibility of working hard at this game and getting to ‘The Show,’” he said. “But I also want them to know where the other opportunities lie as part of this game off the field.
“We are developing fans of this game, as well.”
He thinks he — as well as others in MLB, the players association and in the Alliance — have identified one of the major problems and are trying to “turn the tide.”
“A game that used to be blue collar has essentially turned into a country club sport,” Kendrick said, noting things like specialization within the game, travel teams and private coaches has “priced so many kids out of this game.”
“Now it’s about dealing with the solution,” he said.
Making the game more appealing to a young audience — something MLB is doing with this year’s rules changes — and making it more accessible to all is part of that deal. Kendrick is optimistic and said he’s already seeing positive signs.
“I think we’re going to get this thing resolved,” he said. “But it’s going to take time. The one thing we are as a society is not patient.
“There are a lot of Black kids playing this game now.”
The road is starting to open and the game is eager to appeal to a young fan base seemingly more interested in staring at their devices than practicing a skill. But that road needs to be equitably paved.
“I am tremendously optimistic about this collaboration and our ability to be successful and swing that pendulum the other way,” Kendrick said.
Let’s hope he’s right.
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