On April 15, Major League Baseball will observe the 60th anniversary of the first black man to play ball in the big leagues, allowing some players to wear Jackie Robinson’s retired No. 42 jersey that day.
Yet, while baseball celebrates the breaking of its “color barrier,” the spring season is opening with a flurry of news coverage and studies decrying the dearth of African-American players on big- league rosters.
Some suggest that many have become isolated from the game by socio-economic barriers, such as growing up in crime-ridden neighborhoods with little access to fields, equipment and scouts.
Gerald L. Early, Ph.D., offers a simpler explanation in the spring issue of 108 magazine, which celebrates baseball’s contributions to American history and culture.
“Black Americans don’t play baseball because they don’t want to,” Early writes.
Early is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and professor of English, African & African American studies and American culture studies, as well as director of The Center for the Humanities, all in Arts & Sciences.
A consultant to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on baseball, Early is author of several essays on baseball and a member of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum board of governors.
He argues that blacks have strayed from baseball because it lacks a firm place in their culture.
“Baseball has little hold on the black American imagination,” Early writes. “Relatively few blacks watch the game. The game is not passed on from father to son or father to daughter; lacking that, the game simply will not have much resonance with African-Americans.”
He argues that baseball faces challenges in marketing to blacks, in part, because it sells itself through appeals to nostalgia and tradition.
Citing comments once made to him by friend and sports historian Michael MacCambridge, adjunct professor in University College in Arts & Sciences, Early argues that nostalgic appeals have little hope of reaching black audiences.
“African-Americans do not look at the American past as ‘the good old days’ or ‘glory days,'” Early writes. “Going back into baseball’s past only leads to segregation and something called white baseball and something else called black baseball, which was meant to be played under conditions inferior to white baseball. He [MacCambridge] is right: ‘You can’t sell baseball that way to blacks.'”
Early also dismisses the argument that African-Americans are “under-represented” in baseball, noting that they make up about 9 percent of players in the major league today, roughly the same as their representation in the American mosaic as a whole.
In the late 1950s, he adds, blacks comprised nearly 20 percent of team rosters, and no one raised concerns about their being over-represented. In the mid-1970s, when blacks made up nearly 30 percent of rosters, the biggest complaint seemed to be that steering so many blacks into baseball was perpetuating a damaging stereotype of blacks as limited to entertainment and athletics.
“If lack of green spaces and the cost of equipment explains why black Americans don’t play baseball today, then how does one account for the fact that they played it in the early 20th century and even organized leagues back in 1920 when they had less money, less space, fewer resources and faced more rigorous racism than they do now. And doesn’t football require green space, organization, uniforms and the like, and blacks seem to have a great pipeline in their communities for developing youth football,” Early writes.
“Black people have agency as much as any other group,” he adds. “They are not simply sociologically determined.
“I say that the simplest answer is probably the best: I assume black Americans don’t play major league baseball so much these days because they don’t want to.”