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Chattanooga: Black youths turning more to other sports

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by Stephen Hargis, Chattanooga Times Free Press

When Orlandis Jackson was 7 years old, he played baseball. It was his first organized sport, and he learned the addictive feeling of winning with teammates as well as how to handle disappointment.

Sometime during his early teenage years, Jackson tossed his baseball glove to the side, replacing his first competitive love with football pads and a basketball. The former Brainerd High School multisport athlete is not alone, as an increasing number of black boys are passing on the so-called national pastime.

In a 2007 report by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, only 8.2 percent of major league baseball players were non-Hispanic black, the lowest rate since the report was initiated in the mid-1980s and half the number of 10 years previously. Whites comprised 59.5 percent, Hispanics 28.7 and Asians 2.5.

“Baseball has probably lost a whole generation here,” Richard Lapchick said in the UCF report. “African-Americans just aren’t playing it at this point.”

Jackson continued playing football and basketball throughout high school and signed a football scholarship with Tennessee State University. He said the lack of a visible baseball star with whom he could identify helped lead him to give up the game as a teen, saying baseball looked to be more for whites and Hispanics.

“If I see (Michael) Jordan or LeBron (James) on TV when I’m a kid, I’m going to want to be like them,” Jackson said. “I don’t see many baseball players that I could identify with. We really didn’t have any heroes from baseball, and after a while you just lose interest and start playing the same sports all your friends are.”

Major league baseball is the game identified with pioneering racial integration in pro sports more than 60 years ago. Beginning with Jackie Robinson, black players have been major stars in the sport through the years, with the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson, Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.

But two-thirds of current NFL players are black, and more than 80 percent of today’s NBA rosters are black, while baseball now lags behind in participation by non-Hispanic blacks.

“There was a steady drop in interest for the last 10 years, but it really became noticeable about five years ago,” said Buddy Sullivan, who recently resigned after coaching Brainerd High baseball for 14 years. “Some of the better athletes walking the hall flat out told me that baseball was too boring for them to play.”

Sullivan said he had fewer than 20 players try out in each of the past five years. Brainerd basketball coach Robert High said he typically has more than 100 boys at his tryouts every year.

Recognizing the problem, Major League Baseball has opened programs such as RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and Urban Youth Academy in recent years. Facilities are a big part of their focus.

“When you look around here, there aren’t many fields that are in good enough shape for kids to play baseball on,” said Eric Penn, whose son, Eric Jr., played for Brainerd. “There are a lot of kids whose parents work two jobs, so the playground is a second home. It’s easier to go to the rec center or playground and play basketball.”

The dwindling number of black baseball players is not just at the major league level. According to a recent study by Northeastern University, 61 percent of the college basketball players and 52 percent of college football players are black but only 6 percent of the more than 9,800 Division I college baseball players are black. Even historically black colleges such as Mississippi Valley State and Florida A&M have baseball rosters that are nearly 50 percent white.

“It comes down to the game presenting itself to everyone,” said former Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe star Brandon Langston, the only black player on East Tennessee State University’s 27-man roster. “You see NBA and NFL guys on TV a lot, but you don’t see many black baseball players doing commercials, so kids can’t identify with them.

“I think most black kids see baseball as someone else’s culture. It’s a game for white kids from the suburbs and Hispanics. It takes the same type skills — speed, strength, coordination — as basketball and football, but none of my black friends played baseball growing up. I’ve played baseball since I was 5 years old, and I’ve had one black teammate since that time.”

In a poll last season of 10 area high school programs — five in Hamilton County, including two private schools, one in Bradley County, two in Marion County and two in northwestern Georgia — only eight of the 256 players were black. Last year at Hixson, where 10 of the 15 basketball players were black and 70 percent of the 65 football players were, none of the 20 varsity baseball players were black.

Only one black student tried out at Red Bank, and Soddy-Daisy coach Steve Garland said he has never had a black student play baseball in his 11 years with the program.

Besides the lack of an identity with pro players, other reasons suggested by area athletes and coaches for the decline include fewer college scholarships compared to other sports and the cost of playing on a summer-league baseball team compared to AAU basketball.

Full baseball scholarships are rare. Typically, two players will share one scholarship because college baseball is not a revenue-producing sport like football and basketball. Division I football programs have 85 scholarships available, compared to 11.7 for baseball.

“I had one kid who could have been a real prospect,” said Glen Swafford, who for 25 years has coached the Chattanooga Clowns, an all-black youth baseball program. “This kid could play any position, including pitcher, and was a very good hitter. He was just a real good athlete, but his daddy told him to quit and concentrate on basketball because it would be easier to get a scholarship in that sport.

“We’ve seen a big drop in our numbers recently, and it’s because more black kids are either playing summer basketball or working out for football. They think they have a better shot at getting out of a bad situation with a scholarship in those sports.”

Swafford and Chattanooga Cyclones founder-coach George Koontz believe the socio-economic barrier also plays a key role in limiting baseball’s exposure.

“Baseball has become a very expensive sport to play,” Koontz said. “There aren’t many kids that can afford $300 bats, $100 gloves, $100 cleats, plus the money it costs to sign up with some teams and then travel every week. It can be as much as $4,000 to play for an elite travel team, and there aren’t many kids that can afford that financial burden.

“There are a lot more kids that can buy a $20 basketball and go to the park or the rec center and shoot all day. There just don’t seem to be as many benefits to playing baseball anymore. We still try to get more black kids involved in our program, but frankly it’s tough to do. There just doesn’t seem to be much interest.”


3 Responses

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  1. Nice post. You should check out which is a new community for sports fans of both pro and college sports.

    Jessica K.

    July 19, 2008 at 11:12 pm

  2. This is an interesting article but it does lack balance. I was a baseball player for Brainerd High School back in 1975 and I knew then that baseball would be waning as the years went by. Baseball was not a popular in the black community as basketball or football. Please understand, Brainerd was not a majority black school at that time in 1975. On the Brainerd baseball team in 1975, I believe that there were only 3 blacks on the team. In 1974, there were only 4 blacks. All the blacks came from feeder programs that were in integrated feeder elementary and junior high programs. The kids that came out of the majority black school at that time did not have the skills to make the high school teams. Brainerd Junoir High and Dalewood Junior High had better baseball programs than Elbert Long Junior High, Hardy Junior High, or Orchard Knob Junior High.

    To give you an example of the difference in level of baseball play between, Brainerd baseball and Orchard Knob baseball, happen in 1972. Brainerd Junior High played Orchard Knob Junior High. My barber had coached a young man from his youth until the age of 14 and bragged incestantly of his skills. This barber also bragged about the other kids he had coached and their abilities. For two solid years before we played in 1972, he boasted that his kids, he had been annual champions in the Orchard Knobs youth baseball associations, would simply wipe our kids out. The game in 1972 would be the limit test of his boasting. Brainerd Junior High won the game 15-0 at the end of 2-1/2 innings. Brainerd did not bat at the bottom of the 3rd inning. None of those kids on Orchard Knob’s team played in high school. Some of those guys on Orchard Knob’s team went to high school with me. They played football, run track, and shoot hoops. Only one came out for baseball and he quit by the second week of practice.

    The problem that you are trying to identify is much deeper than role models and image. Coaching in majority black programs is inferior. I now reside in the Atlanta area. I coached a team one year with inferior players. That is, I had baseball players that had, for the most part, no more than one to two years of experience playing youth baseball at the 12 to 13 year old level. Most other teams had players that had played since tee-ball. In a seven team league, our team came in 4th. We did not defeat the 1st or 2nd place teams. Although, we should have beaten the second place twice. We played each team three times and beat the 3rd place team twice. One can only conclude that the coaching these days is inferior. These kids have no chance to compete at high school level baseball if they cannot compete at the junior high school level.

    In this league I coached, one coach was a track coach and had no baseball experience, another guy was a football coach with very limited baseball experience, other coaches were parents with limited to no baseball experience. If these kids wanted to go to the next level, they do not have the skills.

    To the young man referenced in that baseball is a boring game, this young man had no ideal of what he is talking about. Baseball is a game of fineese as well as speed and strength. In football, size, strength, and speed and care one a long ways. In basketball, size and strength and care one a long ways. In baseball it is not about size, speed, and strength but the knowledge applied to the game that manners. A fast pitcher can be hit and a power batter can be pitched around. A fast runner can be neutralized in a variety of ways.

    Baseball is game that coaches help but the game is truly learned through fathers. Playing in the backyards and going to the batting cages, outside of coaching, develop young baseball players. Since the advent of the absent of the black father in the home, baseball, correspondingly, has been on the decline. There is no one to show the young black male athlete how to play the game. Most women have not played baseball which quite different than fast-pitch or slow-pitch softball. My dad taught me the game and my 9th grade coach show me how to put it all together.

    R. Strickland

    August 11, 2008 at 5:13 pm

  3. I appreciate the time you put in this work or in this post. Although u have bright ideas, I really cannot agree with them. I’m sure there are better ways to walk through this difficult situation. Not trying to insult or troll or anything .

    Dimple Neives

    July 21, 2010 at 2:26 am

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