By Rich Radford
© July 23, 2009
As first baseman of the World Champion 1977 New York Yankees, Chris Chambliss was 1 of 6 blacks in the everyday lineup at a time when black players represented 28 percent of all major leaguers.
"I didn't think that would be the high-water mark," Chambliss said. "I thought more blacks would get involved. I thought the number would grow."
Instead, it dwindled.
The ebb came two years ago, at 8.2 percent - the lowest level since baseball was fully integrated in 1959. At the college level, it's even worse: Blacks make up about 6 percent of the Division I players.
So what are the game's leaders doing about this?
For starters, Major League Baseball is paying the freight for young players like Louis Singleton to attend its Urban Youth Academy this week in Compton, Calif.
Singleton is a rising senior at Norfolk's Granby High - a pitcher no less. And the percentage of black pitchers in the majors has been between 3 and 5 percent for the past decade.
At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and with an 89 mph fastball, Singleton has the tools and skills to someday enlarge that ratio. But when asked to name a black pitcher in the majors, Detroit Tigers lefthander Dontrelle Willis was all Singleton could muster.
"Wow, you got me on that one," Singleton said. "That's kind of sad."
And vexing to people like Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's point man in the recovery plan. Solomon's voice became enthusiastic when pointing out that the ratio of blacks in baseball had risen to 10.2 percent in the past year.
"It was the first bump up in many, many years," Solomon said.
Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, has overseen the launching of a series of initiatives designed to steer blacks back toward the game. Among them: the opening of the Urban Youth Academy in 2006, the Civil Rights Game in 2007 and the "Wanna play?" program that started this season. The RBI program - Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities - also falls under his jurisdiction.
The dwindling numbers scream for answers. And reasons.
Why have young blacks left the game?
"These kids play football in the fall and their coaches tell them they need to be on a weight-training and conditioning program in the spring," said Ocean Lakes High coach Gary Spedden. "And if they play basketball in the winter, they have a coach begging them to play AAU ball in the spring and summer.
"By the time baseball rolls around, we've already lost much of our chance to get them on the field."
Spedden was coaching at Green Run in the early 1990s when a dynamic ninth-grader showed up for tryouts: Plaxico Burress.
Destined for NFL stardom with the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, Burress "could have been a star in baseball," Spedden said. "We put him in rightfield and he chased down everything. But in the end, a high hurdle on the track doesn't move and a curveball does. There are a lot of nuances in baseball that take a lot of time to master. We had him for all of about 10 days."
Chambliss points to "the African-American neighborhoods, where organization of youth baseball doesn't exist."
"I was lucky in that respect growing up," said Chambliss, who manages the Triple-A Charlotte Knights, the top farm club of the Chicago White Sox. "My father was a military chaplain. We lived on military bases in Great Lakes, Ill., Camp Pendleton and near San Diego, where baseball was played and everyone had a Little League. I was always exposed to baseball and I was always encouraged to be a three-sport guy.
"Now, these kids are asked to choose and specialize at too young an age."
Solomon points to economics as a factor, and points a lot of fingers in doing so.
"Baseball is not an inexpensive game to play," he said.
He pointed out that Major League Baseball involves itself at the grass-roots level with seminars and its Baseball Tomorrow Fund, which can be used to refurbish youth fields. But eventually, something as simple as a city council meeting can drive a stake into the heart of baseball at the urban level.
"If a city planner is told to plan some type of athletic field for a depressed urban area, he's going to look at something that will provide impact and he's going to weigh resources," Solomon said. "And he's going to end up looking at a basketball court because it's a one-time expense to build one, while baseball is a tougher proposition."
Robbie Butler, Singleton's coach at Granby High, said that the lure of "Friday Night Lights" can be blamed to a large degree. Butler coached at Booker T. Washington, a predominantly black school, from 2002 to 2006.
"Baseball at Booker T. just wasn't 'cool,' " Butler said. "I could never get any of the higher-profile athletes there to bite on playing baseball. They all wanted to play the glamour sports.
"In football, if you make a long run or a long pass, you're a hero. In baseball, six of seven out of 10 at-bats, you're going to look bad. Baseball can be a frustrating sport, and there's no immediate success. Round ball, round bat. It's tough to play."
College scholarship numbers also can end up swaying a high school athlete. College football teams can award 85 football scholarships; baseball teams are limited to slicing up 11.7 scholarships among team members.
Singleton, though, is in California this week hoping to land some of that scholarship love. Four other Virginians are with him at the camp: Green Run High catcher David Dean, Great Bridge High shortstop Justin Lee, Bethel High outfielder Jamie Scott and Patrick Henry-Ashland middle infielder D.J. Martinez.
All five played for Team Upton, a predominantly black all-star team that this past weekend went to Atlanta for a six-team tournament put on by an organization called Mentoring Viable Prospects. From there, the five flew to Los Angeles with other players from the Atlanta tournament. They are training and playing all week with and against teams from the Urban Youth Academy, Southside Chicago and a hand-selected group brought together by Major League Baseball Scouting Services.
Team Upton was the creation of Chesapeake's Manny Upton, whose sons B.J. and Justin are major-leaguers themselves. This is the second year he has taken such a team to Atlanta.
"We want to give these kids some exposure and show them what is possible," Upton said. "I think it's critical that we make these inroads with the young black athletes. We're losing them to other sports, particularly after they reach the age of 13 and 14. There's a void there that needs to be addressed.
"One of the kids from Richmond said to me, 'I've never seen this many good black players together on one field before.' "
Upton covered most of the trip to Atlanta, paying for hotels and a meal. All the players had to do was "get here and pay the $100 registration fee."
Money always seems to be a factor.
"A lot of these kids can't afford to attend showcases where they can be seen by college coaches," Solomon said. "Most showcases cost hundreds of dollars. We hope they use this experience in Compton as a springboard to get a college education."
While in Compton, the players went to a Los Angeles Dodgers-Cincinnati Reds game with Solomon and other MLB officials. Two other similar academies are under construction in Houston and Miami.
"Baseball is a game passed from generation to generation and for many an African-American family, the male is not there," Solomon said. "Remember back to your first memory of baseball. Chances are it involved either your father or your grandfather."
Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, runs a watchdog group that has been charting baseball's ethnic ratios since 2002. Simply put, he thinks the past two decades were a huge swing and a miss for most blacks.
"It appears as if baseball will virtually skip a generation of African-Americans," Lapchick said, "and if there is to be increases, it will be in the future and not in the short term."