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Without Blacks, Baseball Isn’t America’s Pastime

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 final piece in our four-part series of stories asking those questions.

Should I care if there is only one black player—or even no black players—on the Chicago Cubs or White Sox?

Tough question.

As the publisher of a 40-year-old investigative magazine that reports on race and poverty, my first instinct was, yes, I have to care. How could I not object to such inequity? But is it inequity? If we were talking about the city’s minority contracts program, or diversity among city employees, I’d be the first one grabbing the bullhorn and crying foul.

But this is different, right? This isn’t equal-opportunity employment, or public service, this is entertainment. This is a game. Besides, baseball isn’t discriminating. Anyone can play.

So it doesn’t matter, right?

Or maybe it does. It’s America’s game, right? Everyone should be playing.

I felt like a base runner caught between second and third, unsure which direction to go. So I thought I’d reach out to others for help.

I started on Facebook, where I sent a message to my distant cousin, New York Yankee center fielder Curtis Granderson. (My maiden name is Kimbriell Granderson).

The Yankees’ Curtis Granderon takes a cut (Keith Allison/cc)

As a native Chicagoan, with family still here, and a student of the game’s history, he’d certainly have an opinion about this, I figured. I asked him: Does it matter that there are no black players with the Cubs or Sox?

He corrected me: “Currently, there is one black player with the White Sox (Orlando Hudson).” But he didn’t comment beyond that. Strike one.

So I picked up the phone and called FOX Sports Florida commentator and former Chicago Cub Cliff Floyd, who was in my algebra class at Thornwood High School.

“Yeah, you should definitely care about it,” said Floyd, 39, who retired from baseball in 2009. When Floyd joined the Cubs in 2007, there were four black players on the team, he said. There may not be bias involved in the absence of black players today, he said, but it’s certainly bad for the game.

Black representation in the majors has been on the decline for years, according to a study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida. In 1995, nearly one in five players was black. Ten years later, that number had dropped to less than one in ten, and was still falling. Here’s an analysis of those losses.

Floyd believes fundamental problems are keeping black people out of the game. For one thing, the game is too expensive, especially for single moms. The game requires a lot of pricey equipment, unlike basketball, which calls for little more than a hoop and ball. Basketball can be played indoors, too, day and night, rain or shine. Baseball requires an elaborate setup and lots of space.

Nevertheless, Floyd said children might be overlooking some of the benefits of baseball. Baseball players enjoy longer careers and suffer fewer injuries than many other athletes, and they can make more money over lengthier careers.

“We have to take a stand and say, What can we do to take make this a wow, a fireworks event, for kids in the urban community?” Floyd said.

Chicago Cubs’ Lester Strode, from left, Derrek Lee, Cliff Floyd, Cincinnati Reds’ Ken Griffey Jr. and Cubs’ Jacque Jones, line up Sunday, April 15, 2007 in Chicago, before the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs baseball game.They wore No. 42 in honor of the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s major league debut (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Floyd’s comments were echoed by a Chicagoan who never made it to the major leagues.

South Sider M.C. Johnson, 74, played for the Negro American League’s Kansas City Monarchs from 1963 to 1964—the same team Ernie Banks played with before breaking into the majors. After playing for the Monarchs, Johnson moved to Chicago to begin a career with Chicago Public Schools. He spent 39 years with the board of education, retiring in 2001. But in his spare time he umpired baseball for high schools throughout the city.

Johnson has been monitoring the slow decline of black players with puzzlement. He remembered in the ‘70s when the Cubs’ entire infield was black. He decided to conduct research on the cultural shift. He began carrying a pencil and notepad with him to games where he umpired and began interviewing players.

“How far is it from the pitching mound to home plate?” he’d ask pitchers, scrawling their answers into his notepad.

From Farragut Career Academy, to Westinghouse High School to Lake View High School, he’d conduct his poll, and a pattern formed. Most black players didn’t know the answers, while most white players did.

It wasn’t because the black players weren’t smart, he said, but because they didn’t have good coaches. He began asking principals why, and found that they were hard-pressed to convince teachers to coach baseball. Basketball and football were more prestigious at predominantly black schools, Johnson said.

He recalled asking one coach: “What’s a designated hitter?” The man didn’t know.

Johnson told the principal, and it turned out the man was a math teacher who knew little about the game but was the only one who volunteered to coach. “And you’ll find this all over in our community,” Johnson said.

Johnson agrees with Floyd that the cost of the game makes it unaffordable for many inner-city youth.

Does it matter that black athletes are not choosing baseball?

It certainly does to Johnson and to Floyd, because they love the game, they’ve been shaped by it, and they’d like to see more young men experience it the way they have.

But for me, it’s different. I don’t think there’s any discrimination or any conspiracy involved in the sport’s declining popularity. I’m just a fan. Yet it does matter, even to me, and here’s why:

One in every three Chicagoans is black. Baseball used to be a game that permeated the culture of the city and the nation. It was something that brought people together, northerners and southerners, blacks and whites (at least after 1947), city kids and country kids, poor folk and rich folk. It was something we all had in common.

If the game continues to lose black players, it will no longer feel like it belongs to everyone.

And that matters.

*     *     *     *     *

KIMBRIELL KELLY is the Editor & Publisher of The Chicago Reporter magazine and hosts a weekly public affairs show, The Barbershop Show, on Chicago Public Radio’s Vocalo 89.5 FM and a weekly public affairs show Perspective on My50.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house.

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