Blacks in Baseball: Flow by Numbers

Roberto Clemente (from left) Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are clear examples of the innovation and elevation that could occur in baseball when cultures are bridged together.

Roberto Clemente (from left) Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are clear examples of the innovation and elevation that could occur in baseball when cultures are bridged together.

Regal Radio co-founder Sean Terry hosts The Varsity Show with fellow co-founder Joe Tanksley. Terry boasts decades of baseball experience, including a stint working within the Los Angeles Dodgers’ scouting department. This is an follow-up of a piece Terry published here about Jay-Z and his possible role in helping bring young black sports enthusiasts back into the game. 

This post was originally written in 2013, we re-run it today in honor of Jackie Robinson Day, which will be celebrated throughout Major League Baseball

Baseball is portrayed as the game of numbers, where hits, stolen bases, home runs and strikeouts lead to statistic aggregation and data crunching that is processed, defining success or a lack thereof in a sport that in any rational view can best be described as a game of failure.

Beyond the numbers generated on the field, no numbers may bring more meaning than the numbers on the backs of the players whose feats both on and off the field have transcended the game to what I see today.

In the wake of continued scrutiny around performance enhancing drugs, the ever-dwindling representation of African-American players in the game, and the recent Hollywood release of the movie 42, it is only right that I take an analytical approach to the game today and its influence on the urban culture, the culture that may be farthest from the game as it stands now.

Unique among my peers, I see baseball thru the lenses of a lifelong fan and junkie of what it is and what it’s been. The many roles I’ve played within the game include being a current amateur player, a coach and mentor of local youth programs and a former front office staff member of a Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate. I’ve walked the halls of Dodgertown, where black and white prints of Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella provided the backdrop to my true enlightenment on the accomplishments, challenges and influences of African-Americans in the historically predominantly White Major League Baseball system.

My perspective on the game is as real as it gets, and while the game has taken me many places I remain an urban dweller and a constant survivor of the daily grind offered by my city of Chicago. It’s time to bridge some gaps here, I know I can see from one side to another because I know what both sides have to offer each other.

Reshape the Grid, Reconnect the Dots, Reactivate the Interest

It’s been well documented that African-Americans no longer get down on the diamond as we did in years past. By and large, today’s inner city parks no longer are the breeding grounds for raw baseball talent playing self-directed pick-up games with grass-stained X strikeout rules, free-lance bases, and walk off shots.

Shaped in the mold and culture of the black style of play and stemming from its Negro League roots, previous generations of black baseball players have been some of the most charismatic and intriguing players Major League Baseball has seen. Many of these players displayed the rawest 5-tool skill sets – hitting for power, hitting for average, speed, throwing ability and defense – ever seen in the game.

The slow build up, the anticipation, the focus, the start and stop; then the crack, the pop, the fast-twitch muscle explosion and it’s on… bang…bang. Pure electricity that makes me think of the likes of Rickey Henderson, Devon White, Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry, Andre Dawson and many more…

Along the way, the appeal of the game has been seemed to be lost for the African-American race, the best athletes in our community no longer have the passion for the game nor developed themselves in it to a point where they can seriously consider playing baseball, this despite all the pluses to playing the game professionally.

Many of the great African-American players who have graced the diamond in generations past are still involved in the game as ambassadors, while others involve themselves directly or indirectly by providing support for youth programs like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (R.B.I.), something is still missing in terms of outreach and appeal that continues to draw blacks to the game.

From Business Insider's April 2012 edition

From Business Insider’s April 2012 edition

Baseball: the sport where players have the opportunity to make the most money in an uncapped league, the sport where severe injuries are much less common place than they are in football and basketball. There’s a missing link in this equation but it relates to the black experience in America… give us lemons and we’ll make lemonade.

Pundits tend to take the easy road by suggesting blacks are no longer interested in the game, our kids are focusing more on other sports like football and basketball. Other experts correlate the volatility of crime in certain cities and the lack of general safety in urban ghetto USA with the fact that kids aren’t as invested nor are parents as likely to enable kids the opportunity for self-directing early interest in their early developmental years.

As a resident on Chicago’s South Side and a current frequenter of Jackie Robinson Park in the Morgan Park neighborhood, I don’t completely disagree with these notions; however, I do refute the opinion that kids are not interested in the game at all. As baseball fans, I’m sure you can recall one of the most memorable scenes in the Kevin Costner 1980’s baseball classic Field of Dreams – if you build it, they will come.

Blacks and Baseball Today… Is Roc Nation Sports the Missing Piece?

In a game where little representation of black players on the field is only superceded by even people of color in the front offices, Major League Baseball just is not equipped today with the right artillery to develop savvy marketing campaigns and ancillary programming that catch the eye of today’s African American youth.

Mind you, I do not want to discredit already established efforts like the annual MLB Civil Rights Game and the Business Diversity Summit, but the representation issues go beyond the capacity of what members of the insular fraternity of baseball power brokers can handle on their own. If MLB is serious about re-establishing the diverse face of its game, then in addition of its great initiatives, a continued investment in a systems change model where outside design and support from today’s entertainment moguls will be needed. Unless they hope new Dodgers owner Magic Johnson to do it all himself, I doubt that.

Out of this grim reality, up like two hands connected by the index and thumb, pops the Roc Nation and its sports division. Hip-Hop mogul and Brooklynite Jay-Z, almost coinciding with the blockbuster release of Jackie Robinson’s modern big screen biopic (which has relied on Jay’s music heavily in its marketing), remixed the Roc in a new image: as a new athlete-brand management and representation powerhouse. Along with inking New York Giants wide out Victor Cruz, Roc Nation Sports has made many headlines by signing Yankees top talent Robinson Cano.

The current Robinson is indeed named after the color-line basher, he too is a man of color, and one of the most dynamic players in baseball today. Can the combination of MVP-caliber Cano and the Roc-Nation swagger – so in tune with what’s popular in black culture, headed by one of Hip-Hop’s true titans – reactivate the lure and appeal of baseball to today’s African-American youth?

Time will tell, but the makings are there. How about a few Hip-Hop influenced baseball commercials directed by Spike Lee? Featuring Jay-Z in full Roc Nation “gold is back” regalia, arms crossed in his typical b-boy/boss pose. Just ahead, Cano is tattooing line drives in a park – towering shots with the Brooklyn bridge at the background – a slick yet gritty look.

Turning on the right channel, a youngster who’s never thought to pick up a Louisville Slugger may have his attention held for a quick half a minute and suddenly there’s some interest stimulated – look at these guys, and look at that big black bat connecting with that little white ball.

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