Paul Lehman, Race and baseball in America

December 30, 2009 at 4:45 pm | Posted in Race in America | Leave a comment
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     About ten years or so ago, I wrote an article describing my concern for what I saw was a  lack of African Americans playing baseball. Their absence could be discerned from Little League to the professional ranks. My article was based on personal experience, observation, and experience. I conducted a survey via sending questionnaires to both NCAA Division I and Division II Baseball programs. The results of that survey I included in the article. The references to players and their respective experiences were witnessed by this writer. Comments from coaches were the result of interviews. Other information, namely statistics relative to employment were obtained directly from NCAA publications and its office. Additional information relative to African Americans players recognized in high school baseball was acquired directly from the newspapers from the cities referenced in the article.

            Finally, having coached Little League Baseball for a number of years in the 1990’s, I had a prime opportunity to observe and experience many of the areas of concern addressed in the article. The point of the article was to register concern for the lack of African American males playing baseball and some of the reasons, in my opinion, why that situation existed. My hope was that a positive change would occur eliminating the problem. Unfortunately, that change did not happen as witnessed by the  reactions of   C.C. Sabathia when reporting to training camp in Florida in 2007. The Associated Press  characterized the reaction in the headlines: “Sabathia pitches for more African-Americans in game.” What Sabathia wanted to know was “There aren’t very many African-American players, and it’s not just in here, it’s everywhere. It’s not just a problem — it’s a crisis.”

            This article was not meant to be a research project where care was taken to show documentation for every word of number, although that information can be provided on request. The article was simply written to point out a problem that apparently exists not only in my opinion.

                                    Baseball, America’s Game, or is it?

            Baseball, as American as apple pie and hot dogs; the American past time; the game all Americans love; the game that represents’ what America is all about. So go the clichés. While we Americans like to think that those clichés are true, the real fact of the matter is that they are only clichés. Baseball, for all the good things it offers, also has anegative side. The negative side reveals the sad fact that many young ethnic Americanmales are being selectively excluded from the game of baseball. This exclusionexperience is very subtle and almost undetectable if one happens not to be ethnicAmerican. Many majority individuals might suggest that the claim of exclusion is justanother in a series of complaints lodged against the majority society by disgruntlingcitizens with chips on their shoulders. Although that suggestion might not enjoycredibility in some instances, when one examines the statistics relative to this concern,some credence must be given to the claim of exclusion. This writer invites a closer lookinto the claim of ethnic American male exclusion from baseball by examining the processof exclusion. The process begins in Little League and continues through college. How canthis exclusion be possible when we see kids all over America playing baseball, one mightask. The answer is that we do not question, generally, what we see. We usually focus onthe game, and not on the players. Our concern for individual players comes much later.

            Most Little League teams today are formed in the suburbs. European Americansrepresent the majority population in the suburbs. The teams, in essence, are representativeof the community. In Little League baseball, the teams are usually coached by volunteer

parents from the community. The teams usually consist of the coach’s son, the son’s friends, and his schoolmates. Team positions are generally given to the coach’s son and his friends first. Children of the coach’s friends are also given a priority for positions on the team. If more team members are needed, they are usually acquired from the league pool of players not assigned to a team. Hence, if an ethnic American kid is not a friend of the coach’s son, he will get on a team from the pool of players unassigned. A player joining a team from the pool does so with the understanding that he is not a core player; he is just a member of the team. The coach decides the player’s value to the team later.

            The number of ethnic-American boys living in the suburbs today is limited, but growing. While this writer could focus on ethnic-Americans kids in general, we can more clearly make to point of exclusion by focusing on African American boys in baseball.

            Generally, an African American boy will not hold a starting position on a team unless a number of factors exist: his father is one of the coaches, his father is a good friend of one of the coaches, he is a friend of the coaches son, or the boy is an exceptional athlete (sometimes, even if the boy is an exceptional athlete, he might not start). If none of those conditions exist, the chances of the African American boy starting are little to none. Why, one might ask, does this condition exist? Again, the answer starts with the coach and his decision to play his son and the friends of his son first. The African American player usually comes from a player pool, so if all the positions are not taken, he gets a chance to play. All the boys get a fair chance to practice, but getting to play in a game is another story. Other possible answers are many and varied, but the results are unmistakable: African American boys do not get the experience of playing ball, therefore, their development as players is affected. If they are not allowed to develop, they will not be able to compete.

            A few examples might serve to underscore the essence of some African American boys’ Little League experience. One nine-year-old player, Jack Roberts, the only African American on his team, never started a game for his team. As a matter of fact, he played, at most, one ending out of every three or four games. When he played, it was always in right field. A big irony with Jack was that often other teams, would play week-end tournaments and invite Jack to play with it. Jack usually found himself serving as leadoff batter, second baseman or shortstop, and if needed, pitcher. However, on Monday with his old team, he would find himself back on the pine. Why did he not simply join the tournament team, one might ask? Because these teams did not want him as a regular member, only for tournaments.

            Another example shows the lengths to which a coach-father will abuse and exploit his power over a team. Coach Rusty Green took over the coaching task from another father. This team was composed of the same boys who had been together for around three years. When coach Green took over the team, he made it known through his actions that the most important player on the team was his son. He constantly demonstrated this by having his son play every minute of every game. Unfortunately, his son was not physically developed enough to deliver the baseball from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. That fact, however, did not affect coach Green’s decision to play his son every minute of every game in spite of the fact that a number of other players sat on the bench and got little, if any, playing time. Two of those boys were actually very good players, but also happened to be African American.

            Once, coach Green and a couple of team families went on a three week vacation. The team was left in the hands of two team fathers. During this three-week period, the team improved from a losing record, to a winning one. One reason for this turn-around was that more boys were given an opportunity to play because of the absence of coach Green’s son and several other players; their absence had a positive impact on the team. When coach Green and the others returned, however, he reorganized the team again around his son, and a renewed losing record became a consequence of that effort. The African American players who had been enjoying some quality playing time in coach Green’s absence were forced to sit on the bench once again. If anyone questioned the coach’s decision, he would simply dismiss them because he was the coach and could not be over-ruled.

            Another example involved a ten-year-old African American, Alvin Byrd, who was known for his foot speed, and who was on a team where he was well-liked. He quit the team after playing only one season because re rarely got a chance to play a position of bat. He was used almost exclusively as a base runner. He realized that his lack of playing time was negatively affecting his over-all development. He also realized that nobody cared except himself and his family. Because of his early disappointment, he gave up on baseball and turned his attention to track and football.

            Generally, African American players, and European American players held in not so high esteem, are usually not assigned positions. They are generally sent to the outfield. The other players on the team are assigned skilled positions and practice those positions, some include positions in the outfield, where the other players get to watch the “chosen ones” practice. Therefore, if an African American player, and the European American players with him show any improvement, it goes unnoticed. From the experiences encountered by African American players, one finds little difficulty in recognizing how it is that some African American players do not get playing time from their Little League experience. One also recognizes how it is that some of these boys miss development opportunities in baseball. As a matter of fact, very few African American boys have enjoyed the opportunity to play in Little League all star games. Some, but not many.

            Once the African American player leaves Little League and makes the big move to junior high school, he does so with a feeling of hope. He hopes at this level that the coaches will judge him on his ability, hustle, enthusiasm and hard work. Little times passes before he realizes that the coaches are not really interested  in him, because the same boys who played skilled positions in Little League are usually the same boys that will plat them in Jr. high. Undaunted, however, he perseveres, hoping that he will impress the coaches. Little does he know that they will not be impressed by him. Their minds are usually made up about him. If he stays on the team, he will receive some playing time, scant though it may be, because the coaches in most public schools try to avoid the look of impropriety.

            John Jeffers, the only African American player on his junior high team, played second base during Fall practice. The coach had him practice and play that position on a daily basis. However, after football and basketball seasons were over, and other players came out for baseball, John was immediately moved to the outfield. When John questioned the coach about playing second base like he had practiced, he was told that he was no longer needed at that position, although he was better than the player who replaced him. John often inquired of the coach about getting to play at any position. He was told something to pacify him or that the team always needed good pitchers. Armed with this information, John began to work on pitching both on his own and during practice. Even after showing the coach how well he controlled the ball with his slider, fastball, and change-up, he still got little playing time. Sometimes the coach would tell him before a game that he was going to play, only for him to discover at game time he was to warm the pine. Still, John persevered.

            What happened to John was no different from what happens to many young players African American and European American. However, what happens to European players and what happens to African American players happens for different reasons. If one were to assess the skill and talent level of the players, one would notice a difference in comparison. In essence, stereotypes began to influence choice of African American players who play and those who do not play. One stereotype looks at an African American player’s power, size, and speed. If all three qualities come in one package, the coach feels great because he can justify his use of this player. If the coach only selects African American players who possess these qualities, the process in known as ‘stacking.’ The other stereotype looks at African American players who do not possess the three above-mentioned qualities in excess as not wanted or needed. Therefore, I an African American player does not excel in two or more of the three areas, he will not play in junior high except as a  token payment for hinging around. If the parents of the African American player attempt to talk to the coach, whatever excuse the coach bothers to offer must suffice because the school’s principal, and usually the superintendent, give the coach full freedom to do as he wishes relative to his team.

            If the African American player continues his objective of playing into the high school level, he must confront new and different challenges. One challenge comes in the form of Summer leagues. In some areas of the country these leagues are sponsored by the American Legion. The leagues are actually booster clubs made up of the parents and friends of the players on the team. The teams are usually the same players as the high school team with a few exceptions (some players whose schools do not have a legion team are usually assigned to schools with legion teams in their school district). But, generally, the teams are composed of the high school players from the school team in the district. The coach of the legion team is usually the school coach or assistant coach. Most of the players are familiar to the coach. Therefore, if the African American player did not get much playing time while on the school team, not much will change in legion ball, except he get to pay for the privilege.

            Since the focus of this article is on the suburbs, one might rightfully ask about African American boys playing baseball in the city/inner city. Many civic-minded organization and individuals contribute their time, money, as well as services to provide a forum whereby African American boys might enjoy playing baseball during the Summer months. The predominantly African American public and private schools excluded, the baseball played in the city/inner city is generally for recreational and entertainment purposes only. An African American player wanting to play at the high school or college level would generally want to play competitively. The competitive baseball programs for the African American city/inner city players are very few and far between.

            For example, Joe Carter, a now retired African American professional baseball player, attended a predominantly African American high school, Millwood, in Oklahoma. His school did not have a Summer baseball program; therefore, Joe had to play with a neighboring suburb school’s American Legion team for the Summer, if he was to play at all. Although he was a distinct minority on the team, Joe played; he possessed all the qualities of speed, size, strength, and power (we are not including here). He was also a multi sports letterman. Two factors are represented relative to Joe: his having to seek competitive baseball outside his home school, and the fact that he was an exceptional athlete. Had he been simply an above average to average player, one wonders if he would have gotten a chance to play. Regardless of the programs provided for playing baseball, one fact still stands out above all others, the statistics. The number of African American males playing baseball reflect only a token participation at all levels of competitive baseball.

            Two more challenges to the African American player are time and money. In summer baseball the parent or parents must make a commitment that obligates them to financially support the team, as well as provide transportation for their child to each and every game, regardless of the game’s location. If the parent cannot be responsible for these concerns, the player should not seek to play on the team.

            While American Legion teams are focused on developing the school’s players, in reality the only players to really develop are the ones the coach has selected for special attention. Of course, not all the players on the team want to play. Some are just happy to get a uniform; some just want to hang out with some team members. Generally, these players are satisfied keeping stats or running after foul balls. These casual players and the unfortunate African American  do get some playing time, but not enough to make a difference in their game. If an African American player or his parent were to complain to the coach about playing time, the coach has a ready reference to the casual European American players who also do not get sufficient playing time. In essence, because the team has to have a certain number of players to exist, the casual players basically subsidize the team with their membership.

            If the African American players receive outside help (outside the team, like attending camps or working with knowledgeable individuals) in his development, his improvement makes little or no difference to the coach. Usually, the more progress the African American player makes, the less likely he is to play. What becomes obvious to the players at this time and at this level is the coach’s decision to work with and play certain players, and not others.

            Many African American parents experience instances of anger and/or frustration when they are approached by European American parents of team members and hear the comment that “it is a shame the way the African American kid is being ignored by the coach.” When the European American parents are asked “why not share that sentiment with the coach,” the response is usually something to the effect that “if I say something, he might stop playing my son.” If the African American parents had doubts about the feeling of neglect experienced by their son not playing, those doubts disappear when European American parents validate their suspicions. The African American players, at this time, have been denied the opportunity to develop into quality baseball players because of their coach’s decision not to work with or play them.

            If an African American players survives to his senior year, he might begin that year with enthusiasm and hope, but these will soon disappear when he realizes he will not play enough to create a single statistic. For Example, Robert Graham was a very good pitcher. He had demonstrated his talent and skilled the previous year on the junior varsity where he had pitched against many of the rival high schools. However, once a senior and a member of the varsity, he found himself constantly being bumped by the coach for underclassmen he brought up to varsity. On those few occasions when he did get into a game to pitch, he was not allowed to bat like the other pitchers got to do. A number of times he entered a game for an inning, to play right field. If his spot came to bat during this time, he was not allowed to bat. Once he confronted the coach about not having a chance to bat; the coach told him that he was not an effective hitter. Robert reminded the coach that he was one for three at the plate in the three times he had gotten to bat; however, he reminded the coach that one of his starters was zero for twenty-two. The coach simply walked away from Robert.

            Bill Williams, another African American player, was a pitcher as well as a short stop. When Bill complained to the coach about not being allowed to practice at or play short stop, he was told that his pitching was all the team needed, if that. The coach let Bill know in no uncertain terms that he was not valued as a member of the team. Bill realized that his chances of getting some quality playing time (when statistics are kept) were gone.

            Not all the coaches on every team will fit the profile of the coaches mentioned to this point. Many coaches are fair-minded, and treat the players equitably, but they are far outnumbered by the others. Also, not all African American players are excluded from playing ball, but too many are left out. The majority of African American players who are recruited for and play in college, usually come from rural America, not the big city or suburb. Our statistics show that in ten of the largest cities in America, the number of African American players to make All-City large school teams is 2.0%. One reason for such a low number is due to the lack of African American players and the lack of playing time afforded them on their varsity high school teams. If a player accumulates no statistics, he has nothing to recommend him to a prospective college coach or scout. The college coaches rely on statistical information in assessing a prospective player’s value to his team. No stats, no play.

            A retired European American high school football coach, Lonnie Gee, who taught at a predominantly European American school recounted an experience when he counseled a young African American football player not to go out for the baseball team. The coach advised the young athlete to go out for track instead. When questioned about his motives for recommending track over baseball to the player, the coach said that he did not want to see the kid waste his time sitting on a bench. Participating in sports at the college level was more a possibility for this student if her ran track and played football than if he wasted his time trying to get a chance to play baseball. The coach evidently knew something the athlete did not. The recommendation was a gesture of kindness rather than a lack of confidence in the athlete’s ability to play baseball.

            In gathering information for this article, this writer solicited information from a variety of sources. One of those sources was local newspapers in large metropolitan areas. More specifically, the sport directors at these newspapers who were asked to provide the number of African American players on their All State Baseball teams for the years 1996-1997 and 1997-1998. Two of the papers to respond were The Oklahoman, from Oklahoma City, and The Dallas Morning News. The Oklahoman listed two(2) African American players for both years; The Dallas Morning News listed one (1) and (2) respectively. Both cities represent areas of considerable African American population and concern for baseball; nevertheless, each average two African American players or less per team. Those African American players might get a chance to play at the college level.

            The only avenue of approach left to an African American player without statistics but with hopes of playing college ball is the “walk-on” or “try-out.” On some rare occasions, a walk-on will make the team, Usually, an African American player will not be considered because the coach will have selected the African American player or players for his team prior to a “try-out.” The general attitude of many coaches toward African American “walk-on’s” is something like “If I don’t come after you, don’t come after me, because I don’t want you.” Also, “walk-on’s,” if they make the team, generally will not play ahead of a recruited player.

            Arguments could be made to the effect that many European American players face the same or similar experiences as African American players, and those arguments would be valid to a certain extent. However, when we look at the statistics on a variety of levels, we notice one remarkable difference: European American players dominate baseball rosters in college on two NCAA division levels. The average number of African American players on the top ten Division I teams in the nation is approximately one-point-three (1.3).

            Sources show that for NCAA Division II’s top ten teams, the average is very difficult to ascertain because the number of African American players reported to the NCAA from 1996 enrollment information is vastly different from the information this writer received directly from the schools. For example, in 1996, Central Missouri State reported to the NCAA that it had eight (8) African American student-athletes receiving aid for baseball. However, the information this writer received from the school for1997 was zero (0). For the year 1998, the number was one (1). This example is not an isolated one; it is representative of all the teams.  The average percentage number of African American players on Division II teams based on he 1997 and 1998 information this writer received from the schools and NCAA is less than zero-point nine (0.9).

            One of the myths in fashion today is that young African American athletes do not go into baseball because they are lured away by the possibility of making big salaries in football and basketball at a younger age and in a shorter amount of time. Actually, young African American baseball players are not afforded an opportunity to play and develop in the sport at an early age, so they go where the opportunities are present.

            The old adage that an African American athlete has to be twice as good as his European American competitor comes close to being valid in baseball. The apparent assumption of some former players (in some instances, European American as well as African American) is that a coach will play an average European American player over a very good African American one. The coach’s philosophy regarding this action is to give the European American player an opportunity to develop shills the African American player already possess. However, if the African American player is average and the European American player is good, then the coach will play the European player for the good of the team. Therefore, one will hardly, if ever, find an average African American baseball player playing at the college or professional level.

            Common sense dictates that in order to address a problem or concern, that problem or concern must be identified and recognized. Regarding the exclusion of African American males in baseball, this writer has found few baseball coaches at the high school and college level willing to admit that a situation exists. They also reject the act of “stacking” mentioned earlier. Each coach speaks to his unique perspective on selecting players. That perspective, according to the coaches, does not include a player’s color or ethnicity. However, if a predominantly European American team has an African American player, the coaches seem to need to qualify his presence by identifying the players particular talents or skills via the stereotype of strength, power, and speed. Nevertheless, the numbers indicate only a token representation of African American  baseball players on teams from high school to college to the professionals.

            When one realizes the cumulative effects of excluding young African American males from playing baseball, the magnitude of the problem becomes evident. In a recent two-year study conducted by the NCAA, RACE DEMOGRAPHICS OF NCAA MEMBER INSTITUTIONN’ ATHLETICS PERSONNEL, April 10,1998, we find a wealth of information that underscores our concern. For example, for the year 1995-1996, in Division I baseball, the total number of schools (HISTORICALLY AFRICIAN AMERICAN INSTITUTIONS EXCLUDED) reporting to the NCAA was 249. Out of that number, 243 team coaches were European American. No African American coaches were listed as coach; however, six (6) were listed as assistant coaches, but the six was from a number of 451 schools reporting. In year 1997-1998, some progress was made in that one (1) African American coach was hired. The number of assistant coaches, however, decreased to four (4).

            Similar numbers are recorded for the two remaining divisions. All the numbers reflect the sad state of affairs for African Americans wanting into baseball. If something is not done to stop the perpetuation of exclusion, the problem exacerbates. If we do nothing, we become part of the problem.

            What we see is not always what we get, especially when it comes to America’s game of baseball. The African American players we know and generally like at the professional level are outstanding players. They represent the exception rather than the rule. Today many potential African American baseball players will never have a chance to realize their potential for lack of an opportunity to play, an opportunity that usually begins in Little League. Please understand that the focus of this article concerns African American males, not males who happen to be of color from different cultural and ethnicities. That is altogether another story.

            At some point our society will realize that the inclusion/exclusion games played with the lives of our young people by so-called responsible people, are very dangerous and damaging. The biases manifested through subtle but definite means to influence the participation of ethnic American males in sports will be exposed. This write hopes that once the biases are recognized, reasonable people will work towards eliminating them not only for the individuals involved, but also for the betterment of society. After all, if baseball is America’s game, it should reflect America’s people.

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