Lack of Blacks in Baseball

Hall of Fame San Francisco Giants baseball player Willie McCovey in 1961

left to right: Black hall of fame baseball players Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey
The state of Georgia is in the spotlight these days because neither Senate candidate garnered enough votes to avoid a run-off, which will take place next month. No matter who wins, though, the contest itself has been significant because both candidates are Black. In a sense it is a victory for diversity in the very heart of the Confederacy, but not only there. These days our entire political landscape is awash in candidates of color. And while other pastimes and industries have room for improvement, most of them have also made considerable progress when it comes to racial equity, with one exception: baseball.  

As you know, the World Series recently concluded with Houston beating Philadelphia. But you may not be aware that there were no US-born Black players on either team, and that hasn’t happened since 1950. Soon thereafter, there were plenty of Black ball players that kids like me could idolize. Guys like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Willie McCovey. In fact, I was inspired to play first base because of McCovey, and I even tried to copy his batting stance. I was not alone. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, Black kids flocked to baseball, creating a pipeline of minority talent in a sport that had once been dominated by white players. But as basketball became increasingly more popular, kids of color turned away from our national pastime. Gradually the pipeline was broken. According to CNN, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport recently reported that back in 1991, Black players comprised 18% of MLB teams. Today it’s a startling 7%.

To their credit, Major League Baseball has been trying to fix the problem, with initiatives like their “Dream Series”, which has resulted in four of this year’s top five draft picks being African American. But the pipeline is still in need of repair. Tony Reagins, MLB’s chief diversity officer told CNN’s Jalen Brown that, “The key is getting players from the youth leagues to college where they can be seen by scouts.” But that’s a big challenge for two reasons. First, because Black kids comprise only about 5% of college baseball rosters, and second, because youth leagues themselves are struggling to attract young players of color.

True enough, today’s African American youth are drawn more to basketball than baseball because the former is more popular than the latter. But there’s also a financial component to consider. No special uniform or equipment is required to play in a pick-up game of roundball, but it costs money to play youth baseball. For one thing, baseball equipment is a lot more expensive than it used to be and can be out of reach for struggling families of color. Meanwhile, there’s the problem of access. According to Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sports, baseball fields are not common in urban areas, and those that exist are usually in poor condition. 

The general consensus is that local communities need to make a concerted effort to encourage and support minority participation in youth baseball leagues, not just because a few more kids might make it to the big leagues, but because of what the sport of baseball can teach them about life, both on and off the field. 

It’s hard to believe now, but in 1965, 14 kids from Pacoima, California became the first all-Black team to get to the Little League World Series, and they didn’t get there alone. It took community support. Fifty-seven years later, no one from the US who looks like them played in the Major League World Series. This is one time when we need to look backward for a strategy on how to move forward.


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