Zirin on the color of the baseball

At 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 . . .

. . . Each city is also the site of a sparkling new baseball stadium, paid for in part or in full on the taxpayer dime. The irony has become a collective noose: fewer African-Americans play baseball because our cities are being strangled; our children are being fast-tracked to a ravenous prison industry; and no one has the time, money or will to organize a good old-fashioned game of baseball.

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)

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: Let us go then, you and I
Next: Maddux = Zero »


  1. Matt M said...

    Nice job naming the one guy among the 14 Red Sox starters who’s not a white American or Canadian. grin Yeah, yeah, Ellsbury’s Navajo, but if you passed him on the street, you’d assume he’s just another white dude.

    That said, it doesn’t seem to be intentional. For instance, Manny forced his way out of town. And I’m pretty sure Red Sox management wishes they could be starting Julio Lugo over Nick Green.

  2. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Hey, Zirin said that Jeter was “the only” black player on the rosters of the Sox or Yankees. In light of that, I only had to name one.  I could have added Cano, too.  And if we’re counting rotations, Sabathia.

  3. Pete Toms said...

    Just to stir the pot….the Dominican Republic is a REALLY POOR country…..yet baseball is far and away the most popular sport there.  We’ve all seen the photos and read the stories about kids playing without any “real” equipment, why is baseball too expensive in poor African American communities but not in the DR?…..“back in the day” when playing baseball was popular amongst African American youth, wasn’t “stick ball” popular?….didn’t scouts “back in the day” go to urban black communities and sign great African American athletes who probably hadn’t spent a whole lot of time playing on “travelling teams”?…..Diane Grassi has repeatedly criticized (ok, she criticizes MLB for everything under the sun) MLB clubs for making player development investments in poor black countries that they haven’t come close to matching in poor black American communities.

    Less controversially, there is relatively little (and it is diminishing further) scholarship money available for baseball players, siphoning off more elite African American athletes to football and basketball programs.  Also, for all the successful spin that MLB has waged against “buscone ball”, some argue that it is a more efficient system of producing baseball players (don’t be dissuaded by the relatively small number of intl prospects who get stupid big dollars).

    I think Dave Zirin is a smart enough guy and can be clever with a turn of phrase but I would prefer he tone down the sanctimony.

  4. Matt M said...

    Ok, I just re-read Zirin’s wording. He’s sneaky in saying “African-American,” as that wouldn’t include Ortiz or Cano. You have him dead to rights with C.C., though. On that note, it astounds me how many people I know who don’t know Sabathia’s American.

  5. Craig Calcaterra said...

    Ortiz is technically an American too. He was naturalized a U.S. citizen a couple of years ago.

    Probably not relevant though, as Zirin is talking about development, and Ortiz wasn’t a citizen back when he developed as a player.

    I just get tired of people not acknowledging that there are black people from other countries too.  Even Sabathia himself has had issues with this. He was quoted in 2007 as saying “people look at Carlos Delgado and assume he’s black, when he’s not” or words very similar to that.  Um, have you looked at Delgado?

    And this isn’t just about me being cute. Zirin may be talking about the state of basebll in the U.S., but when most other people bring up the subject, they’re couching it in terms of diversity. To that end, baseball is more diverse than ever.  Delgado and Ortiz wouldn’t have been allowed in the game pre-Jackie any more than CC Sabathia would have.

  6. Aaron Moreno said...

    In Zirin’s defense, Sabathia is the only other African-American player that I can think of. The rest of those players are Dominican, not African-American, which is what he’s talking about. There’s no dearth of black players in baseball.

    As for a “bleached” Boston team, that seems to be tapping into the old Boston racism that was true of sports in that city many, many years ago.

  7. Matt said...

    How’d the Yankees and Red Sox get to be the 2 marquee teams in baseball?

    What of the Dodgers—or the Brewers?

    And when did we decide all Hispanics were white—

    And instead of looking at 2 teams, how about a peak at the All Star Game.

  8. APBA Guy said...

    Zirin is right to point out the “country club” aspect of travelling team baseball, but wrong to overgeneralize it as “white only”. It’s finacial. I watched my Orlando based nephew’s team get trounced by a largely Cuban American team from Miami. The game was South of Orlando, so the Miami team had to have money for travel, hotels, food, entry fees, etc..

    On the field across from that game was the rookie league game featuring Houston’s mainly Latin players vs. Detroit’s mixed team. I spoke at length to one of the Miami parents who’d played rookie and A ball. He remarked that Detroit had a few black rookies, and wondered aloud if they were Latin. About half were.

    The feeling from the people I spoke to in Florida was that the absence of black players in a state with large anumbers of black children was due to 2 prevailing factors:

    1) cultural: black American sports heroes today are concentrated in football and basketball. Black Latin sports heroes are concentrated in baseball and soccer.

    2) financial: no question, seeing the amateur teams in their replica jerseys ($ 120), Mizuno shoes and gloves ($ 300+), and name brand bats (they buy their own, also $ 150) plus coaching fees ($ 200/month), travel, etc, you are looking at $ 3000 for summer ball. That excludes a lot of kids, not just blacks.

    MLB realizes it’s competing for young black American interest. The best source for new players is joint outreach by players and MLB jointly to knock down the financial and interest hurdles and reach out into the communities by promoting star players like Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, etc.

    But the goal should not be to create subsidized travelling teams per se, with their pricey fees, but to get kids playing locally with good coaching. That’s much less expensive and a more realistic first step.

  9. Matt M said...

    Yeah, Ortiz is naturalized, but I’m not sure he fits the whole “African-American” description most people think of. How about we compromise and call him Afro-Carib-American?

    Luis Tiant Sr. proves your point about Ortiz and Delgado (and any other non-white Latin player).

    Bottom line, the Red Sox have more white guys than you’d expect, but it appears to be chance, not part of some grand plan. And I totally agree with your view that the “not enough blacks in baseball” is more of a societal issue than a MLB issue.

    As far as defining blackness, well, I’m not touching that one.

  10. Aaron Moreno said...

    We may not be able to define blackness, but we sure can define whiteness. Jason Bay, a Canadian who became a naturalized American? That guy’s white.

  11. Craig Calcaterra said...

    I submit that Dale Murphy is the whitest player in the history of baseball.  I could be persuaded otherwise, but Jason Bay is going to have to move to Utah before I’ll place him above Murphy.

  12. lar said...

    Well, I used to get upset at the distinction between “African-American” and “black Dominican/etc”, but there is a legitimate distinction there. I haven’t read the piece yet, so I don’t know if Zirin is arguing for the proper distinction, but it does exist: if I’m an inner-city African-American youth growing up in poverty, who matters more to me: Jimmy Rollins/Mike Cameron/Ryan Howard or Vlad Guerrero/David Ortiz/Carlos Delgado? Who will I be able to look up to and say “hey, they followed this path, and so can I!”? Guerrero/Ortiz/Delgado may have the same skin color as I do, but they share no other life experiences with me. Howard/Rollins/Cameron just might, though.

    If that’s the distinction that’s being made – America’s African-American children living in poverty are being underrepresented in MLB – then it’s a fair one to make. The larger issue of cultural diversity in MLB may be being ignored to make that point, but it’s still valid.

    In my opinion, there are lots of issues involved in that, from the cost of the game and the lack of facilities to better paying scholarships in other sports to a quicker road to riches in other sports (minor league baseball takes a long time and weeds out a very high percentage of people) to a lack of heroes to emulate to a shorter playing season in well-populated cities due to weather and so on. Like Craig said, these things are not mutually exclusive. It’s impossible to lay the fault on one particular excuse.

  13. Aaron Moreno said...

    I just looked at some pictures of Dale Murphy. My God. He looks like he’s about to leap out at me, shake my hand, and ask me how I’m doing.

  14. kendynamo said...

    i agree with you craig, there are many factors that are not mutually exclusive but access is in my opinion the biggest factor. 

    but in the end i honestly couldnt give a crap.  baseball is a pure meritocracy, and its also in MLB’s obvious best interests to pick the best athletes from the largest talent pool possible.  im sure they are doing everything thing they can to get the best atheletse EVERYWHERE IN THE WORLD, including american ghettos and every other country on earth to play ball.

    anyone who is looking raise issue of not enough black people in MLB is more interesting in promoting themsleves than any notion of social justice.

  15. Bob Tufts said...

    July 21st is the 50th anniversary of the integration of the red Sox, as Pumpise Green played his first game. I am sure that there will be some comments directed at Red Sox management, but they are invalid. Previous Red Sox management was atrocious in its actions towards A/A players, but Henry, Lucchino and Werner have changed the impression of the Red Sox in baseball and the community.

    One of the biggest factor affecting the advancement of African-American players is “Moneyball”.

    The desire to analyze statistics against tougher competition biases the draft towards college players over high school players. And college baseball only offers a limited amount of scholarships (a maximum of 11.7) which are usually parsed out in fractions, so the players’ parents have to pay a significant portion of the cost of education.

  16. Nick Whitman said...

    You missing the point there, kendynamo.  Baseball being a meritocracy is irrelevant.  If underprivileged African-American kids aren’t in a position to learn and excel at baseball, they will never become professional baseball players.  It’s not a question of talent or athleticism, it’s a question of access.

  17. Ron said...

    Why is it that the lack of white players in the NBA is considered a ‘talent’ issue, but the lack of black players in baseball is considered ‘racist’?

    Just curious if anyone can answer that. I’m not being a smartass, I just don’t know the answer.

  18. kendynamo said...

    nick – i get the point of access.  and i agree that is a major barrier to getting african american youths to play baseball.  in fact that’s what i say in the first sentence of my comment.  but then i start a new paragraph and talk about a related topic.  specifically that after we recognize this cause and affect, my response is: so what?  these participation study results usually come with an implication of organizational racism or de facto discriminatory practices, and thats crap.  baseball is trying everything it can to get black youths to play baseball, but there is only so much within thier power to control.

  19. chuck said...

    i have taught in and coached both girls softball and varstiy boys baseball in an urban school district.  the difference, by far, is access. by access i mean to quality coaching at a young age. without strong fundamentals and ahving been taught the basic skills, these kids just dont want to play.  they are fearful of failure. why be embarrassed on a baseball field when there are a thousand other things to do. 

    i have coached 7th grade inner city girls softball. many of them did not even know how to put on a mitt! they thought that if they write with their right hand, the mitt went on the right hand so they would catch it with the strong hand.  where are the parents and other adults who should be teaching these kids even that basic function of base/softball?  there are fields in the cities. there are companies ready and willing to donate money for equipment.  what is missing is the adults to lead these kids.

    my varsity baseball teams made it to the conference championship both years i coached it. my staff and i put in hours and hours of extra time teaching and coaching (had to leave cuz i got transfered to another school in the district due to enrollment). that extra time evened out the playing field and made our kids able to compete with the travel team-led teams in the conference.

    without someone to teach them, there will always be that difference.

  20. lar said...

    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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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,
    Dave Z

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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’.

  26. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>