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date: 07 December 2022

Baseball.free

Baseball.free

  • Caryn E. Neumann
  •  and Jill Dupont

A version of this article originally appeared in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present.

[This entry includes two subentries, on the Negro Leagues and on integrated professional baseball.]

Negro Leagues

When Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, his appearance marked the beginning of what many African Americans hoped was only the first in a series of social breakthroughs. What could be more telling of a race's ability and potential, after all, than success achieved on the level playing fields of America's national pastime? It is difficult to overstate the significance of Robinson's triumphant rookie year, a season in which he was scrutinized and tested both on and off the baseball diamond. Decades later his feat is remembered and recounted as part of a string of civil rights accomplishments leading up to—and beyond—the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Robinson's successful desegregation of Major League Baseball also signaled the beginning of the end for Negro League baseball, perhaps the most successful and vibrant of the black institutions that emerged when African Americans were excluded from a variety of arenas in the first half of the twentieth century. Before Robinson could even dream of the opportunity that he seized following World War II, the foundation for his achievement lay in the rugged hands of players like Quincy Trouppe, who once lamented that he came along “twenty years too soon,” or in the elegance of Buck O'Neil, who insisted he was “right on time.” It is the wistfulness and buoyancy embodied in these statements that testify to the mixed legacy of the Negro Leagues—the hopes that were never fulfilled, and a livelihood that was prized by many who struggled against a discriminatory society.

Early Years.

Indeed, Trouppe and O'Neil represent only a slim if well-known slice of time in the history of black baseball, which had many different incarnations before the post-Depression era. It is the post-Depression era that is best remembered, perhaps because its stars loomed larger and brighter in an era of greater visibility and press coverage: Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cool Papa Bell, and the irrepressible Satchel Paige, to name just a few. But their accomplishments, like Robinson's, were built on a foundation that had been established by players like Solomon White, Dave Malarcher, Bud Fowler, Rube Foster, and Moses Fleetwood Walker, little-known names from an obscure era of professional and semiprofessional baseball, both black and white.

If, as many have suggested, the fortunes of African Americans in baseball were an accurate reflection of their status within society generally, then it is not surprising that nineteenth-century baseball teams and leagues were not governed by the strict racial codes that emerged during the course of the early twentieth century. This is not to say that discrimination did not exist, only that general patterns of exclusion did not stop Bud Fowler from joining the minor league team in Lynn, Massachusetts, in 1878, becoming the first African American to play professional baseball. Nor did it stop Moses Fleetwood Walker from earning distinction in 1884 as the first black to play alongside whites in the major leagues as a member of the Toledo entry in the American Association. Although estimates of their numbers vary, no fewer than thirteen African Americans—and perhaps as many as thirty-three—played on major and minor league professional teams in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Black clubs also played in white associations of semiprofessional and minor league teams and occasionally competed against major league teams.

But as early as 1885 when the Brooklyn-based Cuban Giants—who were neither Cuban nor giants, smirked a writer for the New York Sun—became the first of several clubs to emerge and form leagues of African American or “colored” teams, a tradition of black-only baseball teams was born. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Cuban Giants were joined by such teams as the Page Fence Giants of Adrian, Michigan, the Philadelphia Giants, the Cuban X Giants, the Saint Paul Gophers in Minnesota, the Pittsburgh Keystones, the Chicago Unions, and the Chicago Union Giants (later called the Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants). Solomon White, an infielder for the Philadelphia Giants—along with the pitcher Rube Foster, on a team that won an astounding 133 of 154 games in 1904—later estimated that there were as many as nine black semiprofessional teams in the Philadelphia area alone in the early 1900s. As the professional baseball leagues closed their doors to African Americans by 1898, these early teams formed the nucleus of a growing and vibrant baseball scene in black communities.

Negro League Game. Umpire Peter Strauch calls player Larry Doby of the Newark Eagles safe after Doby slides into home plate, manned by Philadelphia Stars catcher Bill Cash. Strauch's call caused an outfield riot, 1946.

Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Many of these teams were located in cities along the East Coast and in the Midwest where there were significant African American populations, but attendance in the early years was always spotty, if not downright disappointing. Until the Brooklyn Royal Giants were created by two black co-owners in 1904, most of these teams were financed by whites more interested in their own pocketbooks than in the well-being of their players. Schedules and games were often improvised with very little advance notice for fans or players, and the players often jumped from team to team seeking better wages. The names and locations of clubs often changed just as quickly, making it difficult to establish team rivalries or hometown loyalties. Until World War I most teams barnstormed throughout the North—and to a lesser degree the South—where they picked up followers and sometimes recruited new players.

Rube Foster and the NNL.

The transience and fragility of black baseball can be gleaned from the career of Rube Foster, by all accounts an extraordinary pitcher for a number of teams. From a young age Foster's entire life revolved around baseball: at age eighteen in 1897 he shrugged off his father's disapproval and joined a Texas barnstorming team, the Waco Yellow Jackets. He was discovered in Texas and brought to Chicago by Frank Leland in 1902 to become part of the Chicago Union Giants. Mirroring the moves of other players at this time, he jumped Chicago for a white semipro team in Otsego, Michigan, and later the Cuban X Giants in Zanesville, Ohio. In 1903 he pitched the X Giants to the so-called colored championship against the Philadelphia Giants; the following year he delivered a title to Philadelphia after picking up both wins in the three-game championship against the Cuban X Giants. Foster also played alongside the future heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, who played first base on that 1904 team.

In 1907 he rejoined Frank Leland, hoping for a better salary. The two fought over finances until Leland relented and allowed Foster to do the booking for the Leland Giants and secure a larger percentage of the gate for his fellow players, who were chronically underpaid. Foster organized barnstorming tours against white semipro teams throughout the Midwest and developed rivalries with a number of similar teams in Chicago, then emerging as a hothouse of baseball. Foster also pitched and lost to the Chicago Cubs on three different occasions during his career with the Giants, and ultimately he took over as manager of Leland's team in 1910. During that season his team won 123 games and lost only six. In 1911 he became co-owner with the white businessman John Schorling of the newly christened Chicago American Giants.

Negro League Founder. Rube Foster, a powerful pitcher and the founder of the first Negro National League, stands second from right.

SPNB Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Though a number of African American leagues were attempted throughout this early period, it was not until blacks began migrating north in ever-increasing numbers that these efforts began to pay off. Still, it was Foster's business acumen, promotional savvy, and foresight that propelled black baseball forward into its first dynamic and profitable era. As he organized tours in California during the winter months, he expanded black baseball's reach, aided by accounts in the Chicago Defender, the most widely circulated black newspaper of the day. Foster also reinstituted the East-West Colored Championship, a popular one-game affair pitting an East Coast team against a club from the Midwest.

As Foster drew accolades from Chicago's black community, new teams were formed in Indianapolis, Saint Louis, and Kansas City. By 1919 Foster and his Chicago American Giants had become major—and profitable—powers in the world of black baseball. With the critical mass necessary to support a number of black teams, Foster forged the Negro National League (NNL), composed of outfits from the Midwest, in 1920. A complementary association, the Eastern Colored League, was formed in 1923, and the two leagues instituted an annual series—modeled on the Major Leagues' World Series—that pitted the best of each league against each other in a clash for African American baseball supremacy.

The 1920s and early 1930s witnessed a period of growth and expansion of black baseball in southern states generally, and in cities such as Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, specifically. In the North, Pittsburgh became a hotbed of baseball activity, with teams ranging from the industrial to the semiprofessional to the two jewels of Negro League baseball: the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. Black newspapers in major northern cities promoted upcoming contests, published box scores, and monitored the fortunes of their local teams, thus tightening the connection between baseball clubs and the communities in which they played. Patterns that had existed since the turn of the century—such as winter baseball in Florida, other southern states, and the Caribbean—became routine. In places such as Cuba, players competed and lived free of the racial prejudice that they confronted in the United States—even in the North and East—and formed friendships with white Major Leaguers who were often teammates.

The Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela also served as winter destinations for black players, some of whom never returned after experiencing a freer life in Latin America. One of those who regularly traveled to Mexico, Willie Wells, declared that he felt like he was truly a man during his winter sojourns.

Decline and Disappearance.

Though escalating player salaries, infighting, the demise of the Eastern Colored League in 1928, and the tragic death of Rube Foster in 1930 all undermined the teams' prosperity, the onset of the Depression initiated a downward spiral from which the NNL could not recover. The owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Gus Greenlee, helped to reorganize the NNL in the early 1930s using the wealth he had amassed as a numbers banker who ran an illegal lottery. He and other such men were some of the only sources available to keep Negro League baseball solvent, which they did with mixed success—and the assistance of white booking agents—throughout the 1930s. Though the morality and volatility of some of the owners remained a constant source of concern, most blacks agreed that black baseball teams were critical in holding African American communities together. Effa Manley, the wife of the numbers man Abe Manley—and the only woman to head a franchise, the Newark Eagles—best exemplified what baseball made possible by attracting crowds through her financial drives for the NAACP and the “Don't Buy Where You Can't Work” campaign. The profits of such owners, however, often came at the expense of their players' salaries, forcing emerging and recognizable stars such Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Buck Leonard to use what leverage they had in parlaying their services to other Negro League or Latin American teams.

Most players did not have that option, nor did they have name recognition outside the black communities in which they played. Despite the charisma and talent of Paige, Gibson, and Bell, even the best players rarely entered the white consciousness. Few whites ever took in a Negro League game, though it was common for black players to attend Major League games. Negro League players took pride in the way they played the game, executing what Rube Foster once called “intelligent” baseball: bunting, stealing, deploying the hit and run, moving runners along, even stealing home. What seemed daring to observers of Jackie Robinson's larceny on the base paths was routine to most Negro Leaguers. Those who later made it to the Major Leagues, including Satchel Paige, were also surprised and disappointed that Major Leaguers did not seem to enjoy talking about baseball as much as he and his fellow barnstormers did, and they missed spending long bus rides and hours at the ballpark examining the mysteries of the game they loved.

It was also during the 1930s and 1940s that white spectators received a distorted image of African American ballplayers from comedic teams such as the Indianapolis Clowns, the Zulu Cannibal Giants, and the Tennessee Rats, some of whose antics made it into a 1970s film Bingo Long and His Traveling All Stars, which purported to depict Negro League baseball. For all the carnival showmanship of such teams—which drew large white crowds—for most players, baseball was a good job to have during a difficult period despite the arduous travel, playing several games in a day, and experiencing the indignities that came with traveling in southern cities.

With the U.S. entrance into World War II and the interracial groundwork that had been laid in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, professional baseball prepared for integration. As many authors have suggested, Jackie Robinson was not necessarily the best of the black players available, but his wartime service, education at UCLA, and talent made him the right choice. His successful rookie season encouraged other teams to sign players, though the transformation was slow: in 1951 only six teams were integrated.

Integration hastened the decline of the Negro Leagues because fans increasingly spent their incomes on Major League games or stayed home to follow games on the radio or television. As profits continued to dwindle, some teams resorted to gimmicks like signing women such as Toni Stone and Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, talented and proud players who could not save the declining fortunes and fan base of African American baseball. By 1961 the Negro Leagues were officially defunct.

The history and legacy of the Negro Leagues are commemorated in the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, founded in 1990 in Kansas City, Kansas, and in the thirty-five players elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. These include owners such as Effa Manley and Cumberland Posey and players such as Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, who spent his entire, brilliant career in the Negro Leagues. In 1946 Bell—then forty-three—was batting .441 and chasing the Negro League batting title alongside Monte Irvin. Over the last few days of the season, Bell removed himself from the lineup. Because he did not have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting crown, the younger Irvin took the title with an average of .389. Asked later why he had disqualified himself, Bell observed that it was time for the younger players to be noticed so that they could receive opportunities to play in the Major Leagues. Perhaps no better testament to Bell's unselfishness can be found than in the fact that Irvin—as well as transitional players such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Ernie Banks—is also enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

[See also Desegregation and Integration, subentry Professional Athletics; Sports, subentry Professional Sports; and biographical entries on figures mentioned in this article.]

Bibliography

  • Heaphy, Leslie, ed. Black Baseball and Chicago: Essays on the Players, Teams, and Games of the Negro League's Most Important City. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. Includes appendices with detailed rosters and timelines.
  • Hogan, Lawrence. Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006. A series of essays in narrative form authored by Hogan and other contributors in rough chronological order, detailing the history of Negro League baseball from the nineteenth century until the last franchise was sold in 1984. Well written and accessible, this is probably the fullest account of African American baseball.
  • Kirwin, Bill, ed. Out of the Shadows: African American Baseball from the Cuban Giants to Jackie Robinson. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005. A series of essays on baseball teams and players before and after integration; notable entries include pieces on the Cuban Giants, Effa Manley, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson, Don Newcombe, and Dick Allen.
  • Lanctot, Neil. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. A massive history of Negro League baseball from the Depression through the post-integration era, focusing primarily on the business and financial aspects of various teams, individual owners, and the league itself.
  • Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White: A History of Legendary Black Players and All-Black Professional Teams. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Has a nice balance between league history and individual players; the essay on Rube Foster is particularly helpful, and rosters, statistics, league standings, and box scores are included in the appendices.
  • Rogosin, Donn. Invisible Men: Life in Baseball's Negro Leagues. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. Based on many oral histories.
  • Tygiel, Jules. Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Arguably the best account of how Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, from the perspective of Robinson, Branch Rickey, black sportswriters, and opponents of integration.

Integrated Professional Baseball

Baseball has often been called America's pastime, yet African Americans were long excluded from the game. When Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line in 1947, he expected to blaze a path for blacks to enter both the player and supervisory ranks in baseball. Black athletes such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, and Barry Bonds did became the most dominating players of their eras, but by the early twenty-first century African American players and fans had decreased sharply in number. Only a handful of blacks had cracked the managerial ranks, and off-field personnel were overwhelmingly white.

Major League Baseball never formally banned blacks from playing. The ban—which began in the 1880s—was just a matter of custom, albeit a firmly entrenched one. Since the early days of the Negro Leagues, sportswriters for African American newspapers had condemned Major League Baseball for keeping black ballplayers out of the game. Most of the black players in the Negro Leagues also barnstormed around the nation, playing exhibition games. Often when they faced the white-only teams of Major Leaguers they defeated them.

By the 1930s the attacks on segregated baseball had grown very strong, but the Major League Baseball commissioner and former judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis wanted blacks to remain in their own league. In 1942 when the flamboyant showman Bill Veeck announced his intention to buy the Philadelphia Phillies and break the color line by hiring the best talent available, including black players, Landis—according to Veeck's later account—blocked the sale. Despite shortages of white players during World War II, no blacks were invited to join Major League teams. When Landis died in 1944, Happy Chandler succeeded him. A former U.S. senator from Kentucky, Chandler did not appear to be a pathbreaker for integration. However, Chandler argued that if blacks could fight against Germany and Japan, then they could fight for a Major League team. Branch Rickey, seeking to improve his woeful team, signed Jackie Robinson in August 1945, less than a year after Landis's death.

The Early Stars.

On 15 April 1947, Robinson became the first African American to play Major League Baseball when he joined the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers; he had played in the Negro Leagues with the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945 and in the minor leagues with a Dodgers affiliate in 1946. Some Negro League players thought that Robinson was the wrong man to break the color line because he was not a good enough player. They worried that he would fail, thereby giving credence to the notion that blacks were not good enough to compete against whites. However, in ten seasons with the Dodgers, Robinson batted .311 overall, was named National League Rookie of the Year in 1947, and was named National League Most Valuable Player in 1949. An infielder who played both first and second base, Robinson was named to the All-Star team six times, and while he was on the team the Dodgers won six National League pennants and in 1955 won the World Series—the team's only World Series while in Brooklyn. Robinson achieved all these triumphs while white, racist players waited for him on the base paths with sharpened spikes, pitchers threw at his head to test him, and racist insults flew at him from both opposing fans and players. Hate mail excoriating the Dodgers for hiring Robinson, plus letters attacking him personally, piled up in the team offices. Although Robinson never publicly reacted to the hatred, the stress gave him stomach pains for the duration of his career and may have shortened his life—he died at age fifty-three.

Robinson opened the floodgates, and soon a host of other black players jumped from the Negro Leagues to the Major Leagues. Roy Campanella, perhaps the greatest all-around catcher in the history of baseball, became the second black player signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. After integrating two minor league teams, he joined the Major Leagues in 1948. The pitcher Don Newcombe, the third black player signed by the Dodgers, had played in the Negro Leagues with the Newark Eagles and joined the Major Leagues in 1949. He became the first star black pitcher in the National League with the Dodgers, and when the Cy Young Award was created in 1956, he was the first recipient.

Larry Doby also played for the Newark Eagles before becoming the first African American player in the American League: Bill Veeck hired him to play for the Cleveland Indians in 1947. An outfielder who was a seven-time All-Star for Cleveland and led the league in home runs twice, Doby later served as the second black manager in the Major Leagues when he helmed the Chicago White Sox for part of the 1978 season.

Satchel Paige, who spent his prime years in the Negro Leagues, became the first African American pitcher in the American League and the first to pitch in a World Series. He joined the Cleveland Indians in 1948 and also played with the Saint Louis Browns and the Kansas City Athletics. He served as a player-coach with the Atlanta Braves for the 1969 season, mostly as a goodwill gesture that enabled Paige to earn a big-league pension.

Ernie Banks, nicknamed “Mr. Cub,” was from 1953 the first black player with the Chicago Cubs and became the longtime face of the franchise because he played with the Cubs until 1971. Banks, a shortstop and first baseman, rarely made a fielding error, and he hit more than five hundred home runs in his career.

By the time Banks entered the Major Leagues, many teams had still failed to integrate. One such team was the New York Yankees, the royalty of Major League Baseball, even though the franchise was located only a few miles from Harlem in one direction and from the Brooklyn Dodgers in the other. The Yankee owners George Weiss, Del Webb, and Dan Topping claimed that they did not hire African Americans because they could not find any player good enough for the team. This argument found few supporters, partly because no team had more scouts and resources than the Yankees did. In April 1952 protesters picketed Yankee Stadium to push the process of integration. When asked why the Yankees did not have any black players, Jackie Robinson attacked the Yankee management on television for being prejudiced.

The catcher Elston Howard finally integrated the Yankees in 1955, serving as a replacement for the perennial All-Star Yogi Berra. Howard alternated between catcher and outfielder, unable to break into the ranks of the regular players. Although Howard did not complain, other black players saw racism in his treatment, especially because he received comparatively little publicity in New York, the biggest media market in the world. Howard eventually in 1963 became the first African American to be named Most Valuable Player in the American League. The Boston Red Sox were the last team to integrate, in 1959.

Although the Major League teams slowly integrated, Jim Crow ruled at spring training. Small Florida towns that hosted Major League clubs did not welcome black players in hotels or restaurants. On one occasion Howard and his fellow Yankee Hector Lopez were not permitted to stay with the team at the hotel in Fort Myers. Instead they slept in a black-owned funeral home with five dead bodies. African American players eventually filed a grievance with the Players Association over separate and unequal treatment.

The Black Superstars.

When the best baseball players are named, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are always on the list. An All-Star more than twenty times, Mays became the first African American superstar of the 1950s, playing with the New York and San Francisco Giants. Mays broke into professional baseball with the Birmingham Black Barons. In 1950 when it became apparent to Major League officials that the Negro Leagues were dying and that blacks could thrive in the Major Leagues, teams began courting Mays. He signed with the Giants because they paid Birmingham $14,000 for his contract—other teams offered no more than $7,500 and paid Mays $6,000. In twenty-two seasons, Mays batted .302, hit 660 home runs, and drove in 1,903 runs. In 1979, his first year of eligibility, Mays was elected to the Hall of Fame with 94.6 percent of the vote.

Meanwhile, after a brief stay with the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues and in the minor leagues, Hank Aaron joined the Milwaukee Braves in 1954. He broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record in 1974 with the Atlanta Braves. In the city that billed itself as “too busy to hate,” Aaron received hate mail as he approached Ruth's record. He used the letters as sources of inspiration, determining to break the record for himself, for Jackie Robinson, and for all black people. In twenty-three Major League seasons and 3,298 games, Aaron compiled a .305 batting average, hitting 755 home runs and driving in 2,297 runs.

In the early 2000s the San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds set records for bases on balls in a season and intentional walks because teams refused to let him hit. The records indicate Bonds's dominance of the game. Yet one of the best players baseball has ever seen has been dogged by questions about steroid use. In 2007, Bonds broke Aaron's home run record to little acclaim and much controversy. Widely regarded as an embarrassment to baseball, Bonds could not find a team to hire him in 2008, though his batting skills still appeared quite strong. Effectively he had been banned from baseball, even though white players who admitted using steroids continued to have careers on the field. Bonds has denied knowingly using steroids, despite a 2008 federal indictment.

The Managerial Ranks and Front Offices.

It took more than two decades for blacks to move from playing in the Major Leagues to making executive decisions. Elston Howard became the first black coach in the American League when he joined the Yankees as first-base coach in 1969. Poor health prompted Howard to move into the Yankees front office in 1980. Upon Howard's death later that year, at only age fifty-one, his wife attributed his early demise to stress over racism and at not being able to break into the managerial ranks. In 1968 Monte Irvin, a star hitter in the Negro Leagues who was once projected to be the first African American in the Major League, became the first African American to join the commissioner's office. A skilled mediator, he worked for seventeen years as a troubleshooter under William Eckert and then Bowie Kuhn.

Frank Robinson, who won the Most Valuable Player award in both the American (1966) and National (1961) leagues, became the first black manager in 1975, with the Cleveland Indians. Unlike many managers, especially those who were star players, Robinson has had a long career. He has worked for the San Francisco Giants, the Baltimore Orioles, and the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals. Other African American managers have included Larry Doby, Maury Wills, Willie Randolph, and Dusty Baker. The number of blacks in key front-office positions has remained fairly low, however.

Bill White, 1996. Bill White, president of the National League from 1989 to 1994, was the first black president of one of Major League Baseball's leagues. Photograph by Chris O’Meara.

AP Images

Declining Popularity.

By the first decade of the twenty-first century, the number of African Americans playing and watching professional baseball had dwindled to an all-time low. In the 1970s African Americans constituted more than 27 percent of all players. In the 2006 season the number of black baseball players had declined to 8.4 percent. In 2007 the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves, both teams that play in heavily black cities, had no black players on their opening-day rosters. The high-profile New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox had one each. The African American star pitcher C. C. Sabathia of the Cleveland Indians, the only black player on his team's opening-day roster in 2007, described the situation as a crisis.

The gulf between African Americans and baseball is deep. Blacks constituted about 12.5 percent of the U.S. population in 1997, yet less than 3 percent of the players at the highest competitive levels of youth baseball and 3 percent of NCAA Division I baseball players were African American. Blacks constituted less than 5 percent of fans at some Major League baseball parks. A July 1998 survey by the Kansas City Royals showed that only 3.2 percent of those in the stands were African American. In contrast, in Jackie Robinson's era black youths played baseball in great numbers, and the black community strongly supported black players at every professional level. This loss of interest has been linked to the decline of the Negro Leagues. As Negro League players finished their Major League careers and their numbers dwindled, the numbers of black fans also began dwindling.

The place that baseball once held in the lives of young African Americans has been taken by basketball and football. The abundance of black role models in basketball, the perception of basketball's great influence on social mobility, and basketball's image as a form of expression and empowerment all mean that basketball is likely to keep its hold on black youth. Basketball and football players are portrayed in the media as living the lives that black youth would like to emulate. Baseball players do not receive the same level of attention, and the sport is often seen as slow and boring. In essence, baseball lost the marketing war.

Whereas basketball is suited to urban America, baseball requires impoverished areas to provide enough green space for a baseball diamond that also has a lot of maintenance costs. The game requires gloves, balls, and bats, while basketball requires only blacktop and a basketball hoop. In 2002 youth baseball coaches in six states attributed the lack of racial diversity on their teams to the paucity of baseball facilities in black neighborhoods, the cost of playing baseball, and the lack of both parental and community support. Basketball has become an integral part of black culture, while baseball is seen by young blacks and their parents as a white or Latino sport. In a January 2007 poll, only 7 percent of African Americans named baseball as their favorite sport. Without a strong base of fans and a large pool of up-and-coming players, black participation in baseball is likely to fade away.

To prevent this, Major League Baseball has taken several steps. In 2006 the commissioner Bud Selig created the Civil Rights Game, an exhibition to be played each March in Memphis, Tennessee, around the time when the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The league is also working to boost the number of black children playing the game by working with Little League Baseball, the National Urban League, and the Boys and Girls Clubs. In 1992 it began Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), a program designed to encourage academic achievement and participation in baseball in more than two hundred urban areas in the United States. Nearly half of the more than 120,000 youths participating in RBI are African American, and graduates include Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies and Carl Crawford of the Tampa Bay Rays. In 2006, Major League Baseball opened a $10 million Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California. Featuring ten acres of ball fields and a 12,500-square-foot clubhouse, the academy is a prototype for similar facilities that are planned in Washington, D.C., Boston, Houston, Miami, and Philadelphia.

To address the shortage of blacks in the front offices, the league offers two-year executive apprenticeship programs. Under the Diverse Business Partners Program, the league is requesting teams to work with minority-owned and women-owned businesses whenever possible. Some of the businesses have purchased season tickets, thereby bringing blacks back into the seats and perhaps helping to create a black fan base.

[See also Black Coaches Association; Sports, subentry Professional Sports; and biographical entries on figures mentioned in this article .]

Bibliography

  • Davis, Yusuf. “Where Are the African-American Baseball Players? The Numbers Continue to Decline.” Ebony, May 2007, pp. 172–175.
  • Dewey, Donald. The 10th Man: The Fan in Baseball History. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004.
  • Freedman, Lew. African American Pioneers of Baseball: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007.
  • Lamb, Chris. Blackout: The Untold Story of Jackie Robinson's First Spring Training. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
  • Ogden, David C., and Michael L. Hilt. “Collective Identity and Basketball: An Explanation for the Decreasing Number of African-Americans on America's Baseball Diamonds.Journal of Leisure Research 35, no. 2 (2003): 213–227.
  • Rielly, Edward J. Baseball and American Culture: Across the Diamond. New York: Haworth Press, 2003.
  • Tygiel, Jules. Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.