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Friday, July 17, 2009
Zirin on the color of the baseballAt the risk of stirring up crap again, I link to Dave Zirin, who this week opines on relative dearth of blacks in baseball. After quoting some guys who have their opinions (e.g. basketball and football are more exciting, baseball isn't hip, kids have more options), Zirin gets to the nut of why he thinks the demographics look the way they do:
All well-meaning commentaries; all wrong. It's not a question of action. It's a question of access. Baseball players now tend to come in two groups. There are Latino players, scouted before they are 10, signed into baseball academies before their sweet 16 and imported along a global pipeline until they are cast aside or make the majors. Then there are white players, who largely come from suburban backgrounds and college programs. Baseball--in the US context--has gone country club. Like golf and tennis, or their hemp-addled cousins in the X Games, they are sports that require serious bank for admission. In addition, you need parents with the leisure time to be involved. These sports just don't fit the reality for today's working families, black or white . . .
I actually think Zirin is generally right about this (though I think he's wrong to call the other explanations "wrong;" they aren't mutually exclusive and all of these factors contribute). Baseball, at its highest levels anyway, is an expensive proposition, both for the players and families themselves, and for any organization trying to put a league together. There's a sense now that if you aren't playing in some advanced context by the time you're 12 or 13, you're toast as far as being a prospect goes. That's just not the case with football and basketball, where athleticism can often make up for a lack of experience once someone gets to high school, and where it's way easier to play informal pickup games.
But even if you disagree with the specific factors at play here, the point is that baseball's decline among blacks is a pretty deep-rooted thing, which makes those annual reports taking Major League Baseball to task for its alleged lack of diversity rather silly. The pool of players has been drained before it gets to the point where Major League Baseball can really do anything about it. Sure, they're trying with RBI and whatever, but ultimately, MLB is a relatively small business and can only do so much. If there are to be more American black kids playing baseball at older ages, it's going to be because youth leagues are promoted and advanced on a much larger scale.
But crap, this is a Zirin article, and I feel like I'd be letting my would-be nemesis down a bit if I didn't find something to get snarky about. So how about this:
Jeter is also the only African-American player in the starting lineups of the two marquee teams in Major League Baseball, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox in particular have become so bleached in recent years, you wonder if Red Sox Nation has a Whites Only sign on the front door. This is particularly notable considering that the Red Sox were the last team to integrate in Major League Baseball.
Yes, because when I think of David Ortiz, I think "bleached."
There. Now I feel better.
(Thanks to Pete Toms for the link)
Posted by Craig Calcaterra at 2:42pm
I think, Ron, it’s because the access for whites and blacks to basketball facilities is assumed to be on a much more level playing field. If that’s the assumption, it would follow then that the difference in representation is a product of the talent levels, and not something else.
In baseball, though, where the facilities and money between the two populations is so disparate, it seems unwise to call it a talent dearth. Until the playing field is more even, that type of conclusion can’t be reached.
Posted 07/17 at 05:20 PM
David Zirin said...
No need to be a nemesis. You make a good point about the other explanations not being entirely incorrect. My wife teaches in DCPS (high school) and I taught for four years back in my early/mid 20s. There is no question - none - that baseball is less cool than basketball or football. Kids want to be like Lebron not Ryan Howard. But I contend that this is the result of the absence of access, not the cause. If kids could play baseball as easily as they can organize a game of 21 or 3-on-3 then the results would be different.
I wrote this a year ago and I stand by it:
“To make this an argument about whether or not baseball is “cool” is like saying there aren’t any prominent African American harpsichord players because the harpsichord just isn’t funky fresh. While it’s true that if you poll an inner city classroom, and ask how many young people want to be baseball players you may get the same number that want to play the harpsichord. But is this a question of what is “cool” or is this about actual access, choices, and opportunity? Baseball requires equipment, investment, and infrastructure. But baseball owners have chosen to make this investment beyond the border where players can be developed signed and discarded on the cheap. This game of baseball that was so closely associated with the black freedom struggle in the days of Jackie Robinson has been removed physically from our cities, and is now as culturally alien in many areas as the steeplechase.”
And as for Ortiz, the article deals with people raised in the cities of the US of African descent. Ortiz is of course from the DR. The fact that the Bosox (like the Yankees) have all the resources in the world, yet don’t aim to develop talent in their backyard, is disturbing.
In struggle and sports,
Posted 07/17 at 10:12 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Thanks for posting, Dave. The nemesis comment wasn’t directed at you, by the way. There’s a guy—big fan of yours and former reader of mine—who got really angry at me because I made some critical comments about some of your previous pieces in the past. I was being immature and trying to tweak him into posting again to see if he was truly boycotting me like he said he was. Alas, I think his will is stronger than mine.
Point taken on Ortiz. I think the biggest reason I wanted to post this is that I get a little miffed at Richard Lapchick and the annual study put out by the Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. It’s aim is always so very narrow in my mind: “MLB isn’t doing enough!” As if MLB is the root cause of American blacks not playing baseball in the numbers they used to.
As you note, it’s so much larger an issue than that and thus blame, at least as it relates to the professional leagues themselves, is rather beside point. As is the praise when the percentage ticks up a tad like it did this year. None of those variations change the fact that, on the ground, the white kids who live in my relatively well-to-do suburb have a way better shot at playing ball at a high level than do the kids down in Whitehall, Ohio, and basic athletic talent has nothing to do with it.
Posted 07/17 at 10:20 PM
Craig Calcaterra said...
Also—I’d argue that the decision to develop talent or not in our own backyard is a function of the draft more than anything else. If the Red Sox do anything to develop African American talent in the Boston area, for example, that talent stands to be drafted by the Nationals or the Padres due to the nature of the draft. In essence, the investment is wasted from the Red Sox’ perspective, whereas in the DR, they can be assured of getting the talent they cultivate.
If there was no draft, teams would be falling all over themselves to establish training academies in inner city Los Angeles, the West Virginia coal fields, and anywhere else there could conceivably be talent, and that would cure a lot of the access issues we’re seeing today.
Posted 07/17 at 10:26 PM
Pete Toms said...
@ Dave Zirin.
Dave, “This game of baseball that was so closely associated with the black freedom struggle in the days of Jackie Robinson has been removed physically from our cities, and is now as culturally alien in many areas as the steeplechase.” That is interesting. Some associate the disassociation of African Americans from MLB with the integration of the game and subsequent demise of the Negro Leagues. This is a quote from Professor David Ogden on the same subject. “The Negro Leagues and other all-black baseball organizations became part of the core of African American culture during the first half of the 20th century and embodied African Americans’ cultural ownership of a game whose major national organization banned black participation (Peterson, 1970; Rader, 1994; Ribowsky, 1995). With the demise of the Negro Leagues and the absorption of some of its star players by the major leagues, baseball’s drift from African American culture began.”
If you’re interested in more http://www.bizofbaseball.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3354:lwib-civil-rights-game-highlights-the-demise-of-the-negro-leagues&catid=67:pete-toms&Itemid=155
@ Craig. I see the same problems with the draft. I’m in the camp who wonder what will happen to baseball in the DR when (I don’t think it is a matter of if any longer) the draft is introduced there. Will clubs invest in “academies” knowing that talent they develop can be acquired by competitors? Many think that the introduction of the draft to Puerto Rico is directly responsible for the greatly diminished number of pro players coming from there.
Posted 07/18 at 09:18 AM
Dennis Koziel said...
All of this concern about skin color ( Dr. King, call your office !!)sounds like a solution in search of a problem. And why are black, urban kids invariably referred to as youths? Even if access to baseball is a cultural thing, so what? I thought the different uniforms would take care of the color thing. This is the kind of nonsense that happens when everyone gets their panties in a twist over “Diversity,” which really means “Do we have enough blacks around so Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton don’t suck their thumbs and threaten to hold their breaths until they get paid by someone white.” I don’t hear anyone crying about the dearth of Chinese players. Seventy percent of black children are born out of wedlock in this country. And , folks, ain’t that many dads available to throw on the old baseball cap, grab a few bats and gloves and haul the little kiddies to the sandlot to play a little ball.” Just sayin’.
Posted 07/20 at 09:07 AM
Sara K said...
Terribly sorry if someone already said this (I’m a bit rushed at the moment) -
Part of the problem has to be the relative lack of popularity at the college level. Most of baseball’s season occurs out of the regular school year, and the games are not the social gathering, “school-spirit” events that BB and FB are. This means less revenue, which in turn means fewer scholarships and, in many cases, fewer programs. The end result is fewer opportunities for lower income players to continue to develop their skills and status in the game. If college baseball were a bigger-money venture, it would have an impact on the faces we see on the pro field.
Posted 07/20 at 02:52 PM