At a pee-wee football team practice in my neighborhood — before Hurricane Sandy turned the field into a lake — I stood on the sidelines with coaches talking about . . . baseball. We'd noticed that the field didn't have a baseball backstop, only football goal posts, which set off an impromptu memorial for the death of baseball in the black community.
“Remember when every sport had its own season, and we played them all?” said Antonio Maffett, coach of the Fort Washington Stallions football team in Prince George's County, Md. “We'd play baseball anywhere — vacant lots, streets, alleys — and we'd use broomstick handles and socks wrapped in twine.”
Not even the Washington Nationals successful season had rekindled much interest in the game. As for the World Series, our kids were more likely to think World Series of Poker than baseball.
So what happened? If the answer is that black people simply prefer basketball and football more than baseball, as a Washington Post poll found last year, so be it. But if a sport that is so quintessentially American — one that includes Jackie Robinson's historic breaking of the color line back in 1947 — lacks black participation because of poor facilities and a lack of support, then something ought to be done to change that.
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African American players in major league baseball dropped to 8 percent this past season, down from 27 percent in 1975, according to a study by USA Today earlier this year. At least 10 teams started the season with no more than one black player.
But the problems obviously started long before the first pitch.
“One of the problems is that we don't devote enough resources to the sport,” said Tony Davenport, coach of the Fort Washington Canons, Md., youth baseball team. “We have camps for football and basketball year-round to develop those skills, but rarely do we get any information about baseball camps. We also have a devil of a time getting the county to drag the playing field, smooth it out. Once football practice begins, the field gets so chewed up that our opponents refuse to play on it.”
To jump-start interest in the sport, the county needs to support volunteers such as Davenport — keep the baseball fields playable, and spring for some batting cages and pitching machines.
The second problem, one not as easily fixed, was cited by Gerald Hall Jr., director of baseball operations for the Woodridge Warriors in the District of Columbia.
“If you did a survey, I believe you'd find that the one thing average and above average players have in common is a father,” he said. “Baseball is, at heart, a father-and-son sport. And if you're a kid that has nobody to throw to, nobody to talk to, nobody to discipline you in the way that baseball demands, you're not likely to play the game.”
“You have to catch the kids early, start with the basics — how to hold a bat, the proper throwing motion, catch with the glove, not your hand,” he said. “A lot of kids really enjoy it if they continue to be provided with guidance.”
My brother-in-law, Joseph Windham, who lives in Washington, introduced his son to baseball almost as soon as the kid could hold a bat. I watched those two playing and practicing together for years — in little league and at St. Albans. Last year, Cameron went off to play baseball at Amherst College, becoming one of only a handful of black college players.
As the decline in black baseball players became apparent more than a decade ago, Major League Baseball vowed to help breathe new life into the sport. The Nationals, upon their arrival to Washington in 2008, even agreed to build a youth baseball academy in Washington. But nothing has come of it so far.
Some have speculated the game just became too slow for today's impatient youth, that 162 games a season were too many for our attention-deficit generation to follow, that baseball teams didn't have individual stars like basketball and football do — certainly none with a fancy line of high-priced sneakers.
Maybe there's something to all of that. But it's unfortunate just the same. Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige and the Negro leagues — gone and soon to be forgotten.
J.C. Bradbury, on his Web site about economics and baseball — www.sabernomics.com — notes that the financial and educational payoffs provided by baseball are better than any other sport. MLB even offers college scholarships to any player who signs a minor league contract.
“Why aren't we seeing a movement of African American talent towards the sport with the highest financial returns?” Bradbury asks. “I think this question is key to understanding the racial disparity in baseball.”
Someone needs to explain that to the kids.
In my day, it wasn't about the money. It was about having a Louisville Slugger in your hands, a Willie Mays genuine cowhide baseball glove on one hand and a hardball leaving the other, with spin.
And running the bases like Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks or Lou Brock after knocking one over the backyard fence.
Milloy is a columnist for The Washington Post.