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

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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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