Chattanooga: Black youths turning more to other sports
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.”