The Disappearing Black Baseball Player

African Americans are opting out of baseball — but the sport won't let them go without a fight

The Disappearing Black Baseball Player
ILLUSTRATION BY KELLY GLUECK

Tony Evans has already been sitting in a meeting room at Busch Stadium for more than two hours when most of the other youth baseball organizers and coaches leave.

The 25 men and women, who are primarily from low-income communities around St. Louis, took notes as a presenter from Sports Illustrated Play guided them on how to use the digital platform to help with logistics like scheduling games and submitting rosters.

It's a new process and, at the meeting in early March, some of the coaches are skeptical about whether it will actually make organizing leagues easier.

"It's going to be good," Keith Brooks, director of Cardinals Care, assures them.

Evans stays behind because his league in Normandy participates in inter-league games against other communities in St. Louis, which means he has to learn some additional steps. He doesn't end up leaving the stadium until 9 p.m., after three hours.

But he and the other adults, who are either volunteers or local government staffers, appear willing to sit through the meeting because they believe that the Redbird Rookies can help children and teens who otherwise might not be able to afford youth sports.

The Cardinals started Redbird Rookies through its nonprofit, Cardinals Care, in 2004. The program provides funding for uniforms and equipment, such as gloves, bats, balls and pitching machines, and off-field cultural, health and educational programming to teams in the free leagues run by nonprofits or municipalities throughout St. Louis. Many of those leagues play on fields donated by Cardinals Care and a current or former Cardinals player, who then is recognized by having his name bestowed on the field.

But despite the fact that it's free to participate in the Redbird Rookies, fewer kids take advantage of the program than a decade ago. In 2008, there were 4,000 players in the program, according to the organization. Last year there were about 2,500.

Then and now, the majority of the kids who participate are African American.

Across the county, the number of African American baseball players has steadily declined over the last 30 years. In 1986, 18.3 percent of Major League Baseball players were African American, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. In 2016, the number was 6.7 percent, the exact same figure as when Jackie Robinson retired in 1956.

Despite the fact that MLB and teams like the Cardinals have invested millions of dollars and tried a variety of youth baseball initiatives, it's unclear whether they will be able to bring African Americans back to the game at previous levels.

"It gets harder and harder every year to get the kids out playing baseball," says Evans, who is 56 and has been involved with the game his entire life. "Because of course baseball isn't one of the sexy sports like football or basketball."

click to enlarge Martin Luther King III threw out the first pitch for the Civil Rights Game in 2008. - FLICKR/
FLICKR/
Martin Luther King III threw out the first pitch for the Civil Rights Game in 2008.

I first became interested in the declining rate of African American baseball players during college, when I interned with the Memphis Redbirds, the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate. They were the only professional sports team owned and operated by a nonprofit. The Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation was dedicated to two initiatives: "Sports Teams Returning in the Public Education System" and "Returning Baseball to the Inner City," better known as RBI.

The nature of minor league baseball is such that it's hard for teams to market any particular player. They do not control their rosters — the MLB teams do — and if a player is really that good, he likely won't be there long. As such, most teams attract fans through food and drink specials and zany promotions like the Mike Tyson Ear Night (courtesy of the Fort Myers Miracle) or the Hairiest Back in Louisville contest, as seen at a 2007 game between the Louisville Bats and the Richmond Braves.

But we were different. Not only was AutoZone Park, a downtown Memphis stadium financed with $72 million in tax-exempt bonds, nicer than most, if not all, minor league ballparks, but fans purchasing tickets knew they were supporting a worthy cause.

In 2007 — the year before I interned — more than 1,200 kids ages five to sixteen participated in RBI, a free summer program that lasted six to eight weeks. It featured baseball, a reading program and mentors helping with life skills like "how to dress for a job interview, how to open a bank account," recalls Dave Chase, who was then president and general manager of the Redbirds.

"Not looking for baseball players but looking for citizens," says Chase. "It was giving kids something to do over the summer instead of hanging out on a street corner."

The Associated Press reported in 2005 that the Redbirds and donors were providing $600,000 annually for the youth programs, and that the team planned to increase that figure to more than $7 million once the team repaid the bonds that financed its stadium.

The team's mission felt particularly compelling in Memphis, a city that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2007 had a poverty rate of more than 25 percent and one of almost 35 percent among African Americans. James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel, a site now home to the National Civil Rights Museum.

So a year before I arrived, Chase spearheaded an annual exhibition before the start of the regular season known as the Civil Rights Game. In 2008, the New York Mets, led by an African American manager and a Latino general manager, played the Chicago White Sox, led by a Latino manager and an African American general manager. The team also honored actress Ruby Dee and former outfielder Frank Robinson before the game, and Martin Luther King III threw out the first pitch.

With the game and its proximity to the Civil Rights Museum (six blocks), Chase told MLB.com, "It's adversity and opportunity. We have the chance to do something great now. Memphis is a perfect fit."

The Mets toured the museum. Afterwards, closer Billy Wagner told the New York Times, "It made me embarrassed to be white. I can't believe all of that actually happened."

The team's bench coach, Jerry Manuel, talked to the Times about the links between the civil rights movement and baseball and then addressed the downward trend in the number of African American players.

"What we need to figure out is whether this is an exhibition game to appease someone who thought of a great idea or will this springboard us toward having some significant dialogue to find out whether it's significant that the numbers are declining," he says.

Whatever impact the game had, it did not become a fixture in Memphis as Chase had hoped.

In the middle of the 2008 season, the team was close to defaulting on its bond payment for the stadium and brought in a new management team, which meant Chase was out. The promised $7 million contribution never happened. Out of money, the team also canceled the 2008 playoffs for its youth RBI program.

"The decision to not play those final games was a bad decision," John Pontius, treasurer of the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, told the Memphis Flyer. "It was made in the middle of a very difficult transition from one management team to another. Obviously, if anyone had the ability to make that decision over again, they'd make it differently."

The next year, the Civil Rights Game became an MLB event and bounced around among different cities. The last game was played in 2015. I could not find a single news story about the game's demise.

click to enlarge Major League Baseball will need to hook kids like Rayshawn Minor, ten, to keep a pipeline of African American talent. - COURTESY OF DAVIETTE SAUNDERS
COURTESY OF DAVIETTE SAUNDERS
Major League Baseball will need to hook kids like Rayshawn Minor, ten, to keep a pipeline of African American talent.

People who care about baseball offer a variety of explanations for why black youth have stopped playing the game.

"I think in the African American community there is this notion that the game isn't as cool, isn't as fast-paced, as immediately gratifying," as some other sports, says Tony Reagins, who is African American and spent four years as general manager of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. He now works as the league's senior vice president for youth programs. "In this age, instant gratification is important. I think our game is a game where there is no clock but that is very strategic."

Others point to the lack of African American stars in the major leagues. There is no LeBron James in baseball.

"You had Kobe Bryant. LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. The NBA did a great job of marketing these players to the urban communities," says Reggie Williams, a retired MLB outfielder who worked as the Redbirds' vice president of community relations.

When I asked Brooks about the drop in Redbird Rookies participation, he mentioned the transient nature of people served by the organization and the financial struggles of its nonprofit and municipal partners in youth baseball. The Cardinals provide all the baseball equipment and have sponsored 23 fields over the last two decades. But the nonprofits or local governments that run the leagues must find paid or unpaid umpires and volunteer coaches, organize games and handle some of the field maintenance.

"Some of the communities that we have ball fields in that host Redbird Rookies are also some of the most challenged communities," says Brooks, who has been with the Cardinals for fifteen years.

In 2000, the team's nonprofit sponsored its first youth baseball facility, Cardinals Care Field in Hamilton Heights Park in north St. Louis.

"We had a lot of parent participation," says Bev Powell, director of the athletic recreation ministry at the Friendly Temple Church, which is near the field. "The kids seemed to be really engaged in it — and we had boys and girls."

At services on Sundays, she and other volunteers used to find enough kids to field four teams, Powell says. Now the church can only field one team — and that's with kids from other communities. She and others blame coaches of select football and basketball teams that have demanding schedules, which forces kids to focus on one sport at an earlier age.

About five years ago, the Redbird Rookies stopped using the Hamilton Heights field and moved games to the nearby Bob Gibson Field at Sherman Park. The city Parks Department had not mowed the grass or maintained the field well enough, Powell says, and an increasing number of homeless people would throw trash and bottles onto the field.

"It was just an unsafe situation for the children," she says.

The Mathews-Dickey Boys & Girls Club in north St. Louis has also over the last decade had to move games away from nearby fields in Penrose Park and Fairground Park, which are maintained by the city, because of safety concerns.

"There is impulsive shooting — bullets flying all over the place — and our children are not safe," says Tom Sullivan, chief operating officer of Mathews-Dickey, a nonprofit youth center located on North Kingshighway. (The organization received funding from the Cardinals and MLB to renovate its field at Bob Russell Park in Bellefontaine Neighbors. It's now known as Adam Wainwright Field and opened in 2016.)

Like other Redbird Rookies leagues, Mathews-Dickey has seen its number of youth baseball teams decrease — the organization once had 70 teams; now there are about 30 — but it's not because the organization is turning kids away, Sullivan says. In addition to seeing greater interest in football and basketball, he points to a population shift, noting that more than half of its Boys & Girls Club members have moved from the city to north county over the last decade.

That increases the "distance and affordability" of getting to the fields, he says.

Other Redbird Rookies leagues have also not turned kids away, Brooks adds, but some leagues simply closed down their baseball programs. A Police Athletic League, in which city police officers volunteered, shifted from baseball to track and field, in part because an officer who had been involved with the baseball program was killed. The organizer of a league in Wellston has moved on this off-season, Brooks says, although participants can still play in a league in Pagedale. And other leagues in north city simply no longer exist.

"In some cases it makes it harder for them to participate; in some cases, as they get older, they may select other sports," Brooks says. "It's a combination of things; there is no one factor."

Despite the decline in numbers, there have been success stories. Joshua Jones, 25, grew up in Ferguson and played three years in Redbird Rookies. He received a $4,000 scholarship from Cardinals Care and attended Depauw University. He now works as a therapist at a transitional living program for males ages sixteen to twenty.

"I think the way that it builds community and the familial bond with people who have the same issues and concerns and experiences — I think that goes a long way," he says.

Riana Roberts, 21, also received a scholarship from Cardinals Care after playing in the Redbird Rookies league in Normandy for three years.

"It taught me a lot about teamwork," says Roberts, who now studies chemistry at Jackson State University in Mississippi. "And also sometimes we would play with guys, and I used to be kind of intimidated because of the stereotype that guys can do more than girls, and it kind of helped me build character and realize I can do just as much as a guy can."

click to enlarge The Redbird Rookies parade through Busch Stadium in a July 2009 game. - JERRY ADLERSFLUEGEL JR.
JERRY ADLERSFLUEGEL JR.
The Redbird Rookies parade through Busch Stadium in a July 2009 game.

Tony Evans spends the first weekend in March canvassing for Redbird Rookies around Normandy.

He is a believer not only in the benefits of baseball but youth sports generally. He was one of twelve kids and grew up in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood in north St. Louis.

"My high school football coach made a better person out of me, because at that time I was going down the wrong road, and if it wasn't for his positive influence in my life, I wouldn't have graduated high school," Evans says. He has been a football or baseball coach for most of his adult life. His parents couldn't afford for him to play in little league, so he appreciates that Redbird Rookies is free.

Evans works at Centene as a data analyst and is also a city councilman in Normandy, which has long suffered from underperforming schools. The state stripped the district of its accreditation in 2012 after years of poor standardized test scores. (That year, just 22 percent of students passed the communication arts test, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.) Earlier this school year, education officials recommended that the district again receive accreditation following an improvement in test scores and school climate.

Jones leaves fliers with information about the league on the counters at a barbershop and trophy shop. And he hands them out at a local grocery story. By the time Saturday is over he's signed up twenty kids.

He is focusing on the youngest kids, the five- and six-year-olds eligible for tee-ball. Last year he had about 45 kids in that age group; this year he aims to attract 100.

"Some people, if you give them a flier, they will look at it and then throw it [away]," says Evans. "I try to hold a conversation with them and let them know about the benefits of Redbird Rookies and its off-field programs."

For example, the organization partners with Schnucks on a healthy eating program that provides them with coupons for free foods like carrots and raisins and, with a proof of purchase, rewards them with Cardinals tickets. The organization also takes participants to a show at the Sheldon Concert Hall and sponsors a health fair.

Jones recalls one child who had never been to a dentist, with teeth that "were just so out of order." He visited the fair and connected with a dentist and orthodontist for free care. Now, Jones says, "He just won't stop smiling."

Daviette Saunders works with Jones at Centene. A couple years ago, she heard him talking about Redbird Rookies and decided to sign up her grandson, ten-year-old Rayshawn Minor. He lives with Saunders because his mother, Saunders' daughter, is "not equipped to being a mother yet," Saunders says. They moved in October from Normandy to nearby Walnut Park because of a "terrible, terrible landlord," she says. In both municipalities, "I wouldn't want him just out and about by himself."

"There is nothing in our neighborhood — there are no close rec centers or comfortable places where he can be around other boys with some supervision," Saunders says.

Minor wanted to "be the class clown and had trouble sitting down in class," his grandmother says. They use Redbird Rookies as an incentive for him to buckle down in school; otherwise, no games or trips to the batting cages or jazz concerts.

Despite the fact that they moved, Minor will continue to play in Normandy. The field, sponsored by Cardinals Care and named after Cardinals Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, sits in Robert Hoelzel Memorial Park. Even in March, before it had been prepped for the coming season, the field looked nice. It features a large scoreboard, dugouts and an outfield fence.

Minor was one of the captains of his team last season and wore 42, Jackie Robinson's number. He explains that it's because he saw 42, the 2013 film starring Chadwick Boseman.

"He stole bases and I want to steal bases too," he says.

click to enlarge Rayshawn Minor, center left, with his Redbird Rookie teammates - COURTESY OF DAVIETTE SAUNDERS
COURTESY OF DAVIETTE SAUNDERS
Rayshawn Minor, center left, with his Redbird Rookie teammates

Boys like Minor may soon have more African American baseball players to look up to.

MLB points to recent drafts as evidence of the success of its RBI effort. From 2012 to 2017, 41 of 204 first-round draft selections were African American, the Guardian reported. In the most recent draft, the Cincinnati Reds selected Hunter Greene, a seventeen-year-old shortstop, with the second pick. Greene was a graduate of MLB's first Urban Youth Academy, which opened in 2006 in Compton, California. There are now eight such academies around the country, which aim to promote baseball and softball and help the surrounding communities. Greene was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and compared to LeBron James and Babe Ruth.

"If there's ever a young man who could live up to a Sports Illustrated cover at age seventeen," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told the New York Times, "I think Hunter's that young man."

Reagins, who oversees the academies, says he does not know why the Civil Rights Game was stopped.

But, he says, "we have probably replaced one game with aand a multitude of programming that addresses African Americans in baseball." That includes an expansion of the league's Breakthrough Series, where top players at the academies display their skills in front of pro scouts and a girls baseball tournament that debuted in 2017 at the academy in Compton.

"The impact that we have year round is far greater than one baseball game — not that the one game wasn't important," Reagins says. "It's not a quick fix; if you are expecting results in one year or two years, it's not going to happen. We think it's important to be consistent and commit resources to it long-term."

Since I left Memphis, the Cardinals bought the Redbirds from the nonprofit foundation and later sold the team to Peter Freund, who owns a number of minor league teams and is a minority owner with the New York Yankees. The team remains a Cardinals affiliate and has a youth baseball program that features fourteen fields around Memphis and more than 1,000 participants, according to its website. (There were 1,200 participants in 2009, according to the Flyer.)

Locally, Brooks thinks that with fewer parents signing kids up for football because of concerns about safety, "there is an opportunity to catch them early and have them develop a love" for baseball.

He also hopes that the Sports Illustrated online registration system — rather than individual municipalities and nonprofits handling registration — will take some of the legwork away for people like Jones "and allow them to reach a broader audience."

"Maybe ten years from now we will be having a completely different conversation," Brooks says. "Because we will have groomed a generation of young people to come back to baseball."

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