Skip to main content
Original Issue

Gray Area

A league's complex racial future

BASEBALL'S problems with race are not confined to the stands behind the visitors' dugout at Fenway Park. No one knows that better than the man who was subjected to racist taunts in Boston on May 1, Orioles outfielder Adam Jones.

On an MLB Network special last month commemorating 70 years since Jackie Robinson broke the color line, Jones, 31, said, "What I see in the media, front office, scouts, [public relations], community relations—they're white. When you look into the stands—they're white! You're uncomfortable now that I've said something? I'm uncomfortable every single damn day."

Baseball is a diverse game, but it is not now, as Jones notes, a black one. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, 36.3% of major leaguers in 2016 were something other than white Americans, but just 6.7% were African-American. The last time fewer players were black was in 1957, when the Tigers and the Red Sox had yet to integrate. There are only two black managers, one GM and no black majority owners.

To baseball fans of every color these statistics must sound grimly familiar, noted with unease as they are every April 15, when the game celebrates Robinson. Invariably the numbers precede a mixture of resolve and resignation: Baseball should do something about the problem, but what? Tastes change with time, and no sport can force anyone to play or watch it.

And yet it is undeniable that most sports compel deep and arresting feelings from their adherents. Late commissioner Bart Giamatti once called baseball a "vast, communal poem." That poem gets less vast and less communal without black fans. As Chris Rock put it in a memorable HBO rant in 2015 on the disappearance of the black baseball fan: "We don't really need baseball, but it needs us."

Black America, Rock argued, has long shown white America what's cool. What could have driven black players and fans away from baseball? As recently as 1986, African-Americans made up 18% of MLB players, and eight of 18 All-Star starters were black. The game's sometimes stodgy culture is often cited as a hindrance to present-day black participation. Most of the other culprits fall into the prosaic category. Baseball equipment is expensive, and the bill gets higher when youngsters are asked to travel to tournaments. Baseball is also less likely than football or basketball to yield a full college scholarship. And the game lacks the inner-city cachet both of those sports have.

But things may be changing. According to data provided by MLB, more than 20% of first-round picks since 2012 have been African-American, including outfielder Corey Ray, who went No. 5 to the Brewers last year and is the major success story to come out of the White Sox' Amateur City Elite (ACE) program. ACE, started in 2007, seeks to identify and nurture talented young baseball players in Chicago who might not have access to strong coaching or facilities, or enough money to travel. More than 100 boys from ages 12 to 17 participate.

MLB also has its long-standing RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) initiative, and it recently opened Urban Youth Academies in Houston, Philadelphia and elsewhere. And in 2015 the league hired former Angels general manager Tony Reagins to oversee all of youth baseball, with a goal of bringing the game to new players white and black, rich and poor.

Reagins recalled a trip earlier this year to Flint, Mich., a majority-black city, where he brought baseball equipment to "11-, 12-, 13-year-olds who had never held a bat. I told them, 'Let's put a bat and ball in your hand and see if you have fun, and if you do, let's keep a bat in your hand, so you can keep playing.'"

Ray too wants to connect with youngsters. "I want to make it to the big leagues and play for as long as I can, but at the end of the day I'll be happy if I can somehow inspire as many African-Americans as I can to get out of the inner city," he says. That's the kind of quest that could make anyone want to become a baseball fan.

"You're uncomfortable?" Jones said on MLB Network. "I'm uncomfortable every single damn day."