Here’s another reason besides the return of baseball to cheer February: it’s the month of David Price, discount Matt Kemp, Michael Bourn, B.J. and Justin Upton, Carl Crawford, Jason Heyward, etc. – the national pastime’s collective gift to the annual Black History observance. African-American players are becoming historically significant as their numbers make them rarer and rarer. The percentage of blacks in the sport projects to be the lowest this season than it was a decade after Jackie Robinson reached the Dodgers in 1947.
When rosters are in place at the end of spring training, roughly eight percent of major league players figure to be African-Americans. That compares to 17 percent in 1959, 27 percent in 1975 and 19 percent in 1995. The visible reasons for the continuing numerical slump are the widespread dropping of baseball as an urban high school sport and the paucity of playing space in the cities. The basic reason, however, is well known but seldom seen close-up: poverty. Kids from poor families – and the African-American poverty rate is among the highest in our society – have many more obstacles to playing ball in an organized way than do their better-off fellow players.
The frequency of poor black children dropping out of school reinforces the unlikelihood of urban African-Americans playing baseball in a sustained way. Then there is the incarceration factor: even if a young black somehow gets to display ball-playing skill, he has to avoid run-ins with the law. The stats indicate that, in what has become a strict law-enforcement society, avoiding trouble with the police is not easy for African-Americans. Roughly a third of young black dropouts – some of whom could be playing pro ball – find themselves in prison instead. All of this underlines why there are more than three times as many (cheaper-to-recruit) foreign players, mostly Latinos, than American blacks.
The inequality that Team USA has allowed to rally for so long is a big part of the problem. But Baseball has done little to try to reverse the trend. It does give some support to Harlem RBI, an NYC-based program that gives young blacks and other inner-city boys and girls a chance to play the game, and receive schooling help as they do. It’s been around for 20 years, but the idea has not taken off. It may be unfair to say that Bud Selig and his people could do more, but that’s what the record book shows.
The political scorecard in the Congressional league shows African-American numbers to be about the same – eight percent – as in the MLB. Pending a special election in Chicago in April to fill the seat vacated by Jesse Jackson, Jr., there are 41 black players on the House team, only one in the Senate.
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Why Fans, if not MLB Teams, Should Like the WBC: Former All-Star closer Brad Lidge (quoted by SF Chronicle’s Bruce Jenkins) on what playing the World Baseball Classic is like: “It feels like a bunch of playoff games. You’re rearing back and throwing with everything you have…”
Work Wanted: Among unsigned players who will be auditioning for contracts in the WBC are two familiar members of the Venezuelan team, both pitchers: Carlos Zambrano, late of the Marlins, and Francisco (K-Rod) Rodriguez, untendered by the Brewers. The three-week tournament begins this Saturday.
Houston, We (May) Have a Problem: On SNY last Saturday, Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling were talking about the likelihood the Astros would lose 105 games this season: They’ll be in the AL West, they noted, having to play intra-division games with the touted Angels, Athletics and Rangers. The frequency of those possibly one-sided games, said Hernandez, “means there’s a good chance that a wild card spot will come from that division.”
The Bright Side: Yankees GM Brian Cashman on Curtis Granderson’s fractured right forearm that will sideline him for 10 weeks: “If Curtis is going to miss two months, you’d rather have one of the two not count.”
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