Off Base: Baseball’s Black Out is Real


♠ If you build it…  ♠

Baseball is a lot like life. It’s a day-to-day existence, full of ups and downs. You make the most of your opportunities in baseball as you do in life.
— Ernie Harwell
LAKEWOOD, N.J. (JSC) — The first major sporting event I can recall attending was in 1983. It was a game between the Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. You might wonder how the hell can I remember this so clearly, considering that I was just 3 years old in the Summer of ’83. Easily. My mother was leading me up the winding concourses and ramps in Tiger Stadium. As I’d figure out a few years later, we were sitting up in the upper deck along the left field line. After what seemed like an eternity of walking those ramps, it all opened up and it was the most beautiful sight my young eyes had ever seen. It was the field of Tiger Stadium. I remember it being a perfect, well-manicured green field; the infield dirt was perfect; the smell of pretzels and hot dogs was in the air; and the sounds of the game were everywhere. What should’ve been sensory overload for a little black toddler was nothing but excitement for me. I knew right then that this new game which, according to my mom, was called “baseball” would be it for me. The following year, the Tigers would win their (to date) only World Series of my lifetime and it was ON! What made baseball so easy for me to get behind back in the 1980s was the fact that there were so many big time stars in the game that looked like me. It was cool to be black and be into baseball. Now, more than 30 years later, I still love the game, but it’s a lot tougher to see that love coming back my way. Let’s Go.

This is me checking my swing in 1989. I still keep 2 gloves in my car to this day.
This is me checking my swing in 1989. I still keep 2 gloves in my car to this day.

From that day in 1983, I was enamored with the game. The 1984 Tigers were my first great sports memory. At just 5 years old, I can remember the celebration in the city when they beat San Diego. On that cool Sunday afternoon in October 1987, I remember running down the street wearing my Tigers hat screaming after they won the American League Eastern Division title on the season’s last day. Watching random games on Saturday and Sunday afternoons was the move. I started playing games in friend’s yards and at school and eventually in Little League. Back then, baseball was just as much apart of the rotation (see what I did there…) as basketball was. It was nothing to be all in on the Pistons in the winter then the Tigers in the Spring and Summer. You weren’t looked at as a square or a weirdo for being a baseball fan. Now? If I say I’m a baseball fan in a room full of Black people, I might as well had said I was a Republican. Cats look at you like you grew a horn out of your forehead. So when Chris Rock, a noted fan of the New York Mets, did a hilariously on-point assessment of the state of Blacks and Baseball for Tuesday night’s Real Sports on HBO, it immediately struck a chord with cats like me who love the game, watch the game, enjoy the game (mostly), and want to see it become more inclusive.

In case you haven’t seen it, here it goes:

After watching that, and getting a kick out of seeing Miguel Cabrera make a cameo in it, it made me think back to the summer of 2012 while I was still writing for the Grio. You see, I wrote about the stark drop in black MLB players in April 2012. As I noted at the time:

A recent USA Today study found that just 8.05 percent of MLB players are black. It is a stark contrast to the nearly 20 percent during the 1980s and 90s, when Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tony Gwynn, Frank Thomas, and Dwight Gooden were some of the sport’s biggest stars.

It is less than half of the 17.25 percent from 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate. A far cry from the peak of 27 percent in 1975, when Hall of Famers Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, Lou Brock, Frank Robinson, and Willie Stargell were household names.

“Baseball likes to say things are getting better,” former MLB pitcher and executive Dave Stewart told USA Today. Stewart, who won 168 games in 16 Major League seasons, including four consecutive 20-win seasons in Oakland from 1987 to 1990.

“It’s not getting better. It’s only getting worse. We’ve been in a downward spiral for a long time, and the numbers keep declining.”

Of the 30 MLB teams, 10 of them began the season with no more than one African-American player on the roster.

I was able to interview said Bob Kendrick, the President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and he said that the trend actually started toward the tail end of the 1970s when people were heading out of city centers and into the burbs and they took baseball with them.

”(Baseball) went from being everybody’s sport,” Kendrick said. “It didn’t matter what sport you played, everybody played baseball back in the day. During the era of the Negro Leagues, it was the only sport (blacks) could play and get paid for. All the great athletes gravitated to the game of baseball. Those dynamics changed.”

“The days of sandlot baseball are over,” he added. “If it’s not organized, kids are not playing it. We’re talking about a sport that was once a blue collar sport that has now become almost a country club sport (in the United States).”

Bob talked about other obvious things that Chris brought up in the video, including the often mentioned costs that are associated with equipment and the speed of the game. Those things are all true and it sucks to admit it. For Chris, it was the 1986 Mets that did it for him; for me, it was the 1984 Tigers.

Lou spent his entire career with the Tigers, won a world title, yet his number isn't retired. Ok.
Lou spent his entire career with the Tigers, won a world title, should be in the HOF, yet his number isn’t retired.

There were three Tigers that immediately jumped out to me. There was center fielder Chester “Chet” Lemon — I remember thinking his name was funny, and it turned out that he was a really good player. There was left fielder Larry Herndon. Larry caught the final out of the 1984 World Series (off the bat of the legendary late Tony Gwynn) as well as hit the home run that would clinch the American League East for the Tigers in 1987. Plus, he was a minor league teammate of “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the 1970s!

But, by far, my favorite Tiger as a kid was All-Star second baseman Lou Whitaker. He was the man to me back then. Seeing him, and shortstop Alan Trammell, make magic happen in that infield was awesome. Plus, Lou could hit and he rocked a mean Jheri Curl. As much as I appreciate Jose Iglesias, there is no reason why Whitaker’s No. 1 — or Trammell’s No. 3 —  should still be in the rotation. They should’ve been retired at least 15 years ago.

Other players I grew up idolizing were Rickey Henderson, Dwight Gooden, Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey Jr., and pre-Balco Barry Bonds. Did basketball have a special place with me as a kid? Of course it did. The NBA was just as dope in the 80s as baseball was. It took Barry Sanders to get me into football in 1989. But you couldn’t tell me a damn thing about baseball as a kid. It was during the 90s, when the Tigers went into the toilet for 15 years, that I started to see the shift. Yes, you had Griffey, Bonds, Gwynn, Albert Belle, Cecil Fielder, and a few other notable players, but the energy was gone. Baseball was becoming passe. It wasn’t — and isn’t — as cool as the NBA or as violent as the NFL.

Taking in Batting Practice in July 2012. Living the friggin' dream.
Taking in Batting Practice in July 2012. Living the friggin’ dream.

During that 2012 season, I was privileged enough to follow the Tigers. They started the season with the rarest of anomalies: more than one black player in their regular lineup. By the time they got to the summer, they were the only team in MLB with more than two black starters: Prince Fielder, Delmon Young, Austin Jackson, and Quintin Berry. Those Tigers ended up winning the American League Pennant (the franchise’s 11th and the second in six years) and it was one of the best experiences ever seeing them make that run — let’s not talk about that World Series.

But Chris Rock is right. I’m not gonna sit here and act like baseball is what’s poppin’ in these streets. It’s tough for me to watch games that don’t involve the Tigers. The speed of the game is not as much the issue (a lot of you clowns will watch a 2-hour soccer match that ends in a 0-0 tie and act like it was Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals), but it’s what happens during the game. I’m a baseball junkie. I still keep score at games with a pencil. I pay attention to pitch location and shifts and geeky shit like On-Base Percentage and strikeout-to-walk ratios. Most people of any race don’t have time for that.

But one thing Chris said made a lot of sense: Stop acting like the game is THAT expensive to play. If you’ll spend $250 for some damn sneakers that you don’t wear or spend hundreds of dollars on football equipment, you can spend less on a pair of gloves, a bat, a cup, and some cleats. Now, as for the availability of facilities, that’s a different point altogether. Living out here on the East Coast, I see more well manicured and playable baseball diamonds in a 10 mile radius than I’ve ever seen in Detroit. Seriously, have you seen what a baseball “diamond” looks like in Detroit? You’re taking your life in your hands trying to slide into second. The grass in the outfield looks like a field of weeds and the infield is almost pure gravel. The city parks have been so poorly maintained the last 35 years that you can’t blame anyone for not wanting to go through hell to play baseball.

In closing, I would love nothing more than to see just as many black faces in baseball as my mother did during the 1960s and 1970s. While there are still a number of high profile Black MLB Players today including David Price, Andrew McCutchen, Torii Hunter, Ryan Howard, Curtis Granderson, C.C. Sabathia, Matt Kemp, Jimmy Rollins, Justin Upton, and Giancarlo Stanton, more work needs to be done. The game ain’t changed, only the players. It needs an image upgrade because just like Chris Rock said, Black America is what moves the “cool” needle in this country. If we ain’t feeling it, it’s gonna turn into a niche sport. Thankfully, baseball is not soccer, or hockey, or the WNBA. But if they don’t start appealing to a much more racially diverse country, the game that I grew up loving is culturally gonna go the way of the dodo bird. Do better, baseball.JasonTigersPoseUntil Next Time, That’s The Way It Is. Thursday, April 23, 2015.

Take Care, God Bless, Always Dare to Be Different, and G.O.M.A.B. Σ

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