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The Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club in north St. Louis inhabits a warehouse whose mustard-colored siding is grimy from industrial grit and the nearby rumble of Interstate 70. Inside, though, sparkle dozens of gold and silver trophies captured by the Bulldogs through the years. A large framed poster of Jackie Robinson hangs in the athletic director's office. A side wall contains a gallery of grainy photographs, triumphant poses of past championship ballclubs.
On a humid spring afternoon, coach Marcus Townsend arrives with a half-dozen aluminum bats and a box of spanking-new Rawlings baseballs. A handful of young black ballplayers follow him as he strides in baggy camouflage shorts to the indoor batting cage at the rear of the building. "Come on, you guys, I'll warm you up," he tells them.
A barrel-chested man, Townsend loads up the pitching machine that will soon spit out 60-mile-an-hour fastballs. "Remember what I told you what to do with that front foot," he instructs thirteen-year-old Kashon Hagens, his voice quiet but firm. "All right, lay down a bunt. No, too hard, you'd be out."
For more than fifteen years, Townsend has been coaching baseball at Mathews-Dickey. At age 39 he's married with five young children and owns a small construction company in the city. But he steals away from work every afternoon to donate his time exposing black youths to the national pastime.
"It's tough to get them interested," Townsend says. "Kids will turn on a game and look at it for one inning and then turn it off. It's too slow for them. I've coached a lot of kids who've gone on to Division I schools and got scholarships for basketball or football, but really they were better baseball players."
Major League Baseball is losing its black ballplayers. In 1975 the high-water mark for African-American big leaguers U.S.-born blacks made up 27 percent of major league rosters. Last season that number was 8.4 percent, according to Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.
"Here, on the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson integrating the game, and with a big ceremony planned to commemorate that at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers will begin the season without a single African American on their roster," Lapchick says.
The St. Louis Cardinals, who in their pennant-winning season twenty years ago boasted four blacks in their starting lineup (Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton and Vince Coleman), began this season with reserve outfielder Preston Wilson as the lone black player on their 25-man roster. The New York Yankees, the sport's most visible franchise, broke camp with only Derek Jeter and he's biracial. The Cleveland Indians headed into their opener with southpaw pitcher C.C. Sabathia and no others.
It was Sabathia who last month touched a nerve when he said baseball is not doing enough to promote its game to inner-city kids, who are gravitating in growing numbers to basketball and football. In an interview with the Associated Press, Sabathia said, "I go back home to Vallejo [California] and the kids say, 'What's baseball?'"
Many causes are cited to explain the depopulation of the African-American ballplayer. Socioeconomic factors play a role neglected playing fields in the inner cities, the increasing number of single-parent families. So does the fact that the journey to the majors tends to be more arduous than the road to the big leagues in other professional sports.
Then there's the lack of black ballplayers with marketable appeal certainly nothing to rival basketball icon Michael Jordan in the 1990s, or current star quarterbacks like Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick.
At the same time, MLB appears more focused on recruiting Latin-American players, who will sign contracts often at a fraction of what a U.S.-born player would cost. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote in 2003 that "major league clubs pump $60 million annually into Latin American scouting and development...." At the end of last season, according to Richard Lapchick's analysis, 29.4 percent of all major leaguers were Latino.
Additionally, fewer African-American athletes are entering the game through the traditional high school and college pipeline. "You got a lot of high schools in the inner cities throughout the country that don't even fund baseball anymore," says Ted Savage, a big leaguer in the 1960s who now is director of target marketing for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The ranks of college ballplayers, too, have spiraled dramatically downward. In 2004 the Michigan State University newspaper, the State News, reported that a meager 1.2 percent of baseball players in the Big Ten Conference were black.
"Our African-American children aren't playing baseball anymore," laments Mathews-Dickey's athletic director, Joyce Jones. "Football and basketball have taken over."
By Lapchick's count, African Americans represent almost 70 percent of the players in the National Football League and 76 percent of the hoopsters in the National Basketball Association.
As ex-major leaguer Dave Henderson explained in an August 2005 interview with the Seattle Times, "It used to be, when you talk abut Jackie Robinson, they didn't want a black player on the field. Now, it has nothing to do with that. It's just that there aren't any African-American players available."
Thomas Brasuell, vice president of community affairs for Major League Baseball, says the sport is painfully aware of the decline of the pool of black players. But he says MLB is doing all it can to reverse the trend.
Brasuell cites a program called Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) as having a positive impact on reigniting interest. "We're giving these kids an opportunity to learn the game," Brasuell says by phone from MLB's New York headquarters. Brasuell points out that Carl Crawford (Devil Rays), Coco Crisp (Red Sox), Luis Matos (Nationals), Jimmy Rollins (Phillies) and Dontrelle Willis (Marlins) are all products of RBI.
RBI took root in South Central Los Angeles in 1989, the brainchild of former Detroit Tiger John Young. Mathews-Dickey adopted RBI the following year, making St. Louis the second city to embrace the program. In 1991 Major League Baseball took over administration of the program.
Today, Brasuell says, teams in 203 cities worldwide participate, with 125,000 kids age thirteen through eighteen enrolled in the program. Last year MLB contributed $1 million to keep RBI running. Additional funding comes from individual big league teams. The Cardinals, for example, donate $50,000 a year to Mathews-Dickey. Townsend says that money covers the cost of uniforms, equipment and tournament travel. Still, it's a far cry from the tens of millions MLB pours into Latin America.
"Back when RBI first started here, we blossomed to 56 teams," recalls Tom Sullivan, vice president of operations at Mathews-Dickey. "Ozzie and McGee and Eric Davis were heavily involved. We had 1,000 kids playing in the early '90s. Now, we're down to 20 teams and maybe 300 kids."
Sullivan is quick to say that the Cardinals' front office is not to blame, and he's appreciative of the club's efforts in building new baseball diamonds in St. Louis through its Redbird Rookies program. "They've been great," says Sullivan. "We are getting great support from Ted Savage and the Cardinals. It's just that we don't get the support from the professional athletes anymore."
Savage concurs. "In the early years [of RBI], the professional players came in, coached and donated their time. You just don't see that anymore."
Townsend remembers his first year coaching at the Boys & Girls Club. "Seemed like everyone was playing then," he says. "But now, you know, kids aren't going to games. They're not seeing it. For me it's all about teaching them something and hoping they'll flourish. If they make it to the pros, that's great. But it's more important that they become solid citizens."
Last year MLB and RBI presented Townsend with the 2006 Baseball America Youth Coach of the Year Award. At a ceremony in New York, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken said, "Marcus Townsend is more than just a coach for the young people at Mathews-Dickey Girls & Boys Club of St. Louis. He's a mentor, a father figure, a strong hand to help these youngsters go down the right path."
Joyce Jones says that when she delivered the good news to Townsend, his first words were: "'Can this help our Boys Club with our baseball program in any way?' He's one of the most unselfish people there is."