April 15 is officially Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball. A day in which the game honors the man who broke baseball’s color line in 1947. A day in which every player, manager, coach and umpire wearing a uniform, dons Jackie’s number 42 in celebration and remembrance of the tremendous contributions Jackie made to the game of baseball and to American society.
It is also a time when many will reflect on the lack of African-Americans playing the game at various levels. You have probably read the statistics: roughly 20 percent of Major Leaguers in 1981 were African-American; as of last year, there were fewer than 8 percent. The reasons for the decline have been discussed and analyzed from various angles. Whether it’s the lack of full scholarships to play at the college level, the relatively high financial cost it takes to play the game, or the fact that many minority youngsters view the game as boring (especially compared to basketball and football), we’ve been there, done that. Now what?
Well, the good news is there are fresh faces in baseball’s leadership ranks – MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, and MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark both recently ascended to their respective positions. Both bring a passion and commitment to grow America’s Pastime that includes increasing the number of African-Americans who are interested in and playing the game of baseball.
Since Manfred became Commissioner, MLB has launched the Play Ball initiative, designed to inspire youngsters (and the not-so-young) to play ball – baseball, softball, stickball, whiffle ball, etc. MLB has also expanded the MLB Youth Academy program and has made several strategic hires aimed at increasing diversity. Former Los Angeles Angels GM Tony Reagins was brought onboard as Senior VP for Youth Programs, with the charge of expanding youth participation in the game. More recently, Tyrone Brooks was hired away from the Pittsburgh Pirates to spearhead MLB’s Diversity Pipeline Program, which, as its name suggests, is aimed at making the career pipeline (both on the field and in the front offices) more diverse. Additionally, MLB has teamed up with the Scott’s Company to renovate baseball fields all across the country over the next three years. MLB hopes that by increasing opportunities for all to play baseball, more young people, including African-Americans will participate in the game both on and off the field.
The MLBPA and its players have also stepped up to the plate. The Union continues to support baseball programs operated by current and former players in various communities. The Union is also involved in efforts to increase the quality of instruction and positive coaching available to young people playing the game at every level. Additionally, the MLBPA has teamed up with MLB to create a Joint Youth Initiative, which is bolstered by a $30 million fund to create and support the development of the next generation of baseball players and those interested in the game. Finally, the Union has developed a comprehensive plan called the “Career Preparation Project,” that is designed to provide educational opportunities to players – a critical consideration when you consider the dearth of full college scholarships available to collegiate players and the number of players who enter the game directly out of high school each year. The Project also has a career transition component to help prepare and assist players to stay in the game both on the field and in the suites after their playing days are over. Importantly, the Project includes a diversity component to support and encourage African-American and other minority players. The Union has submitted a formal proposal on the Project to MLB with the hope that the two sides will work together on the initiative.
So perhaps real change is on the horizon. The lack of diversity in baseball is a challenge that has plagued the game for a good minute, but efforts are underway on various fronts to address it, spearheaded by leaders with a real interest in effecting change. Time will tell if those efforts will eventually bear fruit.
(Photo courtesy of the sportingnews.com)