Sherman Johnson was relishing his trip to the College World Series when someone asked if he had noticed an increasingly common trend.
In the sport that gave us Jackie Robinson, where are all the African-American players?
“You don’t really notice until people start talking about it,” said Johnson, a third baseman for the Florida State Seminoles and a rarity in Omaha, Neb., because of his skin color. “Then you’re like, ‘Wow, that team doesn’t have any people of color, and that team doesn’t.’
“It is quite astounding,” he added.
Eight teams made it to the College World Series. Three of them—TCU, Oklahoma and Florida—do not have any Black players. Three others—UCLA, Arizona State and South Carolina—have only one. Florida State (three) and Clemson (two) were the only squads that had more than one African-American on the roster.
That’s a total of eight Black players out of 269.
Those numbers are disturbing to those who believe African-Americans have largely turned away from the sport, whether it’s because of financial limitations, cultural issues or simply because they find football and basketball to be more exciting.
“I kind of see the reason behind it,” said Jackie Bradley Jr., a South Carolina outfielder who joined Johnson as the most prominent African-American at the College World Series. “In the other sports, like football and basketball, you can get to the top a lot quicker than you do with baseball. It’s that thing of instant gratification.”
When baseball was the undisputed national pastime, it also stood as one of the most chilling examples of a nation divided. The major leagues were Whites only. Blacks were confined to the Negro leagues.
Then Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Soon, there were African-American stars all over the field, led by Hall of Famers-to-be such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson. In a sense, baseball greased the path of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, showing there was no reason for Blacks to accept second-class status in any walk of life.
But somewhere along the way, the community began to lose interest. Their heroes began turning up in the NBA and NFL, which only led to more and more African-American kids seeing those sports as more viable career paths than baseball.
While there are all sorts of theories for this change of priorities, baseball’s dwindling popularity in African-American neighborhoods could very well be a microcosm of larger social issues.
When Whites fled to the suburbs, they took along their bats and gloves, and many of the best youth baseball programs went with them. In the largely Black inner cities, a kid could usually find a local hoops game or throw around a football, but baseball programs were often located beyond their reach financially and socially.
Once again, baseball began to be viewed as Whites only — a slow-paced, elitist sport that was out of touch with the Black community.
“Everybody I talk to is like, ‘How do you play baseball? It’s so boring,’” Johnson said. “I’m like, ‘No, it’s not boring if you just play it.’ But they never seem to play it. They just think about how boring it is to watch on TV. If you’re not into baseball, and you’re watching it on TV, I could see how it could be boring.”
Even historically Black schools such as Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., have struggled to lure African-Americans to the baseball diamond. This season, the Jaguars had about a dozen White players on their roster, including slugger Frazier Hall, the Southwestern Athletic Conference player of the year, and pitcher Cody Hall (no relation), who was drafted by the Detroit Tigers.
Longtime Southern coach Roger Cador said a lack of proper instruction has caused many African-American kids to whiff on baseball before they ever get a chance to step in the batter’s box.
“We don’t have Black coaches in the neighborhoods and communities anymore, that guy who put us in a station wagon and our mothers trusted he was going to do right by us,” Cador said. “That guy just doesn’t exist anymore. When things don’t exist, things have to change. A lot of Black kids never even play baseball.”
But there are Blacks on the front line, people such as C.J. Stewart, an African-American who grew up in an Atlanta housing project but went on to play in the Chicago Cubs organization. He’s now a respected hitting instructor whose clients have included Braves rookie sensation Jason Heyward, the sort of player who might just persuade more African-Americans to get interested in baseball.
Stewart runs a private hitting business in the Atlanta suburbs, working with kids of all colors who dream of playing in the majors. He’s also launched a nonprofit group known as L.E.A.D. (Launch, Expose, Advise & Direct), which aims to get more African-American teenagers playing the game.
“You’ve got two categories when it comes to playing baseball,” Stewart said. “You have participation, and you have competition. To participate, you just have to show up and play. To compete requires professional instruction. Jason is who he is because of the resources his family was able to tap into. They looked at it as an investment.”
Heyward grew up south of Atlanta, but his parents knew one of the best youth programs in the country was East Cobb, located in the suburbs north of the city. So they willingly endured 45-minute drives each way and often longer, given the city’s brutal traffic to shuttle their talented son to practices and games. They also hired Stewart to provide private hitting lessons, doling out tens of thousands of dollars to ensure Heyward had the best of everything.
Their son had to be willing to sacrifice, as well.
“He was doing homework in the back seat of the car,” Stewart said. “By the time they picked him up at school and had to fight traffic to get him to practice on time or to get him to a game and then you had two hours to play the game, they were getting back to their house at 11 o’clock, sometimes midnight. And that was on a school night. They were doing that at least five days a week.”
Stewart estimates that it costs at least $15,000 a year for a promising youngster to get the sort of top-level instruction needed to have a shot at the majors.
“That’s the reason why inner-city kids are falling behind,” he said. “They don’t have the resources to make that happen.”
And the African-American families that do have the resources apparently are spending them elsewhere, including AAU basketball programs.
Stewart hopes to address some of the issues with L.E.A.D., which is mainly focused on getting African-American youngsters to look at baseball. That’s also the mission of the Junior Braves Baseball Academy, a four-field complex in a largely Black neighborhood not far from Turner Field.
Tory Joyner, who runs the program, said there are nearly 200 kids ages 4 to 6 playing tee-ball. The challenge is to keep them around for the long haul.
“It’s kind of overpowering with football and basketball,” he said. “In this area, that’s what they tend to fall into. They love to take a ball and go shoot around. It’s not that easy to play baseball. There (are) not really enough fields around to do that stuff. There’s more access to basketball goals and being able to go out in an open field and play football.”
Stewart believes that trend is changing, however.
After once paying little attention to the issue, which was perhaps obscured by the rise of Latin American players, Major League Baseball is now devoting more resources to the inner city. Just this month, it announced the creation of a new department to oversee player development, including an academy in Compton, Calif.
“We’re going to transform communities with baseball so we don’t ever have this problem again,” Stewart said. “We want everyone to know that African-Americans have been involved in baseball since day one.”
AP Sports Writer Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., contributed to this report.
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