Friday, August 22, 2014

For the Good of the Game

Last night in the United State Elimination Bracket Final of the Little League World Series, two predominantly African-American teams squared off in Williamsport, PA.  The team from the appropriately-named Jackie Robinson Little League of Chicago eliminated Mo'ne Davis (the break-out star of the tournament) and her team from Philadelphia 6-5.

For those of us who love the game, it was both refreshing and encouraging to not only see Black kids playing baseball--at the highest level for their ages--but to see African-American parents and older siblings and people from those metropolitan areas excited about the game.  In case you haven't noticed (and based on TV ratings, you likely haven't) the number of Black players in Major League Baseball--and at all levels of the sport--is dwindling. 

Of course, baseball was once completely devoid of African-American players--and then the aforementioned Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers and the sport--along with American culture--was forever changed.  Baseball of the 1950's, 60's and even the 70's became a much better sport--thanks in large part to the influx of Black and Latino ballplayers.  There was more speed, more power, more athleticism at every position and the game blossomed.  At one point, half of all Major League players were African-American. 

But somewhere in the mid-80's, Blacks lost interest in baseball.  Fewer top prospects came out of the cities--and urban Little League programs had to shut down from lack of interest.  Milwaukee Public Schools don't even offer baseball as a varsity sport anymore.  Now, only about 8% of MLB players are black--and the percentages in the Minors are even lower.  Some think that the Hip Hop culture's embrace of basketball (which had always been the "city game") drove more Black kids to play that sport.  Others think the long-shot dream of going right from high school to the NBA like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James has given inner-city kids a false dream to chase that baseball (with its Minor League development system) does not provide.  And there are a lot more college football scholarships to get than there are baseball scholarships to college.

But hopefully, we can look back someday at last night's game in Williamsport and point to it as the night where African-Americans returned to baseball.  That it was the night that other kids and parents in cities across the country saw that they too could be part of a sport and a championship that perhaps they thought was "too white" or "too rich" to play.  It will be good for baseball on all levels--from the Majors down to Little League.

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