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There’s Only One Black MLB Player In Chicago—Does It Matter?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Orlando Hudson isn’t getting much playing time for the White Sox, but he nonetheless holds an important distinction. He is the only black MLB player in the city of Chicago, where about 33 percent of the population is black. Why have African-American players and fans drifted away from baseball? And does it matter? This is the first piece in a four-part series of stories asking those questions.

In 1968, before the fourth game of the World Series, Jack Roosevelt Robinson stood beside the vice-president and Democratic nominee for president Hubert H. Humphrey at Tiger Stadium, listening to the national anthem, sang by Marvin Gaye. As Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow, told me earlier this year about her husband, “Well, he sure didn’t go for the game.”

The game he’d transformed was past him now and other things—civil rights, the prospect of a Nixon presidency, a son wrestling with drug addiction—weighed on him more heavily than the outcome of the series itself.

Robinson had, and would continue to press for changes outside of baseball until his death in 1972. But standing there, having watched the gushing influx of Negroes into baseball, it’s hard to imagine him seeing what we look at 40 years later in Chicago: two teams, one player. In other words, the sum total of African-American ballplayers playing major-league baseball in Chicago is one. That number is stark, perhaps sobering. But not surprising.

Even those who follow baseball marginally have taken note of baseball’s lack of African-American stars.

Yet writing today, which seems more fantastic: the fact that until 1947 major-league baseball did its very best to keep black players off its fields, or that in 2012 the game seems to be begging them to choose the sport?

Today, only about 8 percent of all major-league baseball players are African-American, down from 19 percent in 1995. A 2012 Harris Poll found that only 6 percent of African-Americans considered baseball their favorite sport.

How this came to be is not important. In my discussion with the preeminent cultural historian and Phillies fan Gerald Early last fall, he waved off the common, if not terribly misguided explanations for the lack of interest in baseball among African-Americans—namely the scarcity of equipment and space needed to play baseball in our “urban” centers. Rather, I would argue, television and its inherent inability to capture and promote baseball’s greatness, its inner movements, its nuance, and even its best players has had far more of an effect than the lack of playground equipment. Even those who incessantly follow baseball must admit this: Football and basketball are simply much more fun to watch on the tube.

The question then becomes: How much does this declining involvement matter? As evidenced with the $2 billion sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers—the franchise that raised Robinson to the majors—the racial gap hasn’t hurt the coffers. Moreover, there is a plethora of talent coming into baseball from quite literally across the world.

But not long ago, a friend who lives in the South explained to me the Braves’ attendance woes. It wasn’t because of the weather or the city’s general indifference to professional sports. No, he said, the Braves can’t draw because, “Atlanta’s a black city and baseball’s a white sport.”

Truth be told, I’d never thought of baseball like that, much less heard anyone say it. For someone who came to love the game through players like Dwight Gooden and Eric Davis, I’d never thought of the game as black or white.

But in my friend’s statement lies the problem. The lack of black ballplayers puts our national game at the risk of being shoved to the margins, a regional sport staffed primarily with white and international stars. What do we lose with this? We lose Dick Allen willing the White Sox back to baseball relevancy on his way to the American League Most Valuable Player Award in 1972. We lose Billy Williams and Frank Thomas, Fergie Jenkins, and Harold Baines. We lose Jack Brickhouse screaming, “That’s it! That’s it! Hey, hey! He did it!” when Ernie Banks hit his 500th Home Run.

No one could argue that baseball would have been just fine had Willie Mays never roamed centerfield for the Giants, had Henry Aaron not relentlessly hammered away at the all-time home run record, had Bob Gibson chosen basketball over baseball. Indeed, as late as 1994, with a debilitating strike looming, Sports Illustrated featured Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr. with their backs against one another, the cover-line touting them as: “Top Guns…Two Powerful Reasons to Keep Playing Ball.” Baseball, we can all agree, should have listened.

Of course the question is how to stem the loss of black players. Major League Baseball has, in recent years, publicly pushed programs encouraging the city game. But one program and a lot of goodwill won’t make youth play a game they don’t like.

To bring African Americans back into the game, those who control baseball must look beyond balance sheets and last night’s attendance numbers to come up with a wide-ranging systemic plan of how to shape baseball’s domestic future.

On a recent Sunday, the Cincinnati Enquirer featured African-American Billy Hamilton, the young, daring, Reds prospect who’s already stolen 100 bases this year in minor-league ball. It wasn’t on the front page of the sports section or whatever passes for a features page on a Gannett paper. It was the cover, with a nearly full-page photo, calling him “The Man of Steal.” Such cross-racial, universal excitement over a player has been wonderful for Cincinnati. Just think what it would mean to Chicago.

In 1972, just nine days before his death, Jackie Robinson stood on the Astroturf of Riverfront Stadium, addressing those assembled to watch the second game of the 1972 World Series. He said he was pleased to be there that afternoon but said he would be “tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”

He won that battle. Baseball has black managers, black general managers, even the first black owner, in Magic Johnson, who has a share in Robinson’s old team. But on the way to that important achievement, something’s been lost—the love for the game once felt by many black fans and players.

Baseball needs that, too…especially in Chicago.

>> Read Part II of ChicagoSide’s “The 8 Percent” Series, here.

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SRIDHAR PAPPU began his career as a staff writer for the Chicago Reader in 1997. He has written for The Atlantic, The New York Observer and Washington Post, as well as other publications. His book on the 1968 World Series is set for publication in Spring 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He lives in Brooklyn.

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