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JEFFREY KAYE: Jackie Robinson struck an historic blow against the color barrier in American sports when in 1947 he became the first black to play Major League Baseball. Others soon batted and ran in his wake. By 1978, one in four professional baseball players were African American, but in the years since, and despite their growing dominance in other sports, American-born black athletes have become an increasingly rare sight on major league playing fields. Today, only 10 percent of big-league athletes are African American. That’s the lowest percentage since 1960. The trend disturbs baseball officials such as Jimmie Lee Solomon, senior vice president of Major League Baseball.
JIMMIE LEE SOLOMON, Major League Baseball: We feel that one of the reasons for the declining number in African American participation is because of lack of exposure, because baseball at the lower levels is becoming a suburban sport, if you will.
JEFFREY KAYE: While black participation has declined, the numbers of Latin, American and Asian athletes in pro baseball is growing. Latinos now account for a quarter of all major leagues players because of aggressive recruitment in Latin America, where baseball is popular.
JIMMIE LEE SOLOMON: What we need to do is to get baseball back to as many people in the country as we can, including African Americans, and that exposure will also tend to make more African American fans and more African American players.
JEFFREY KAYE: But that’s a daunting challenge, for it’s no secret that basketball, not baseball, has long been the sport of choice in many African American neighborhoods. At this south Los Angeles playground, athletic allegiances are clear.
REPORTER: You don’t like baseball?
YOUNG MAN: No, not really.
YOUNG MAN: I just don’t. It’s too slow.
YOUNG MAN: Baseball is cool, but there ain’t that much action in it, you know what I’m saying? There’s so many times you can hit the baseball. In basketball you have multiple players, people that can double- team, you know what I’m saying — especially when we’re playing 21.
JEFFREY KAYE: Sports marketing expert David Carter says Major League Baseball’s problem with young people, especially young African Americans, is the sport’s old-school, conservative image.
DAVID CARTER, Sports Marketing Consultant: Major League Baseball has not captured the attention of young people. It is not fun. It is not sexy. It is a sport, if you will, that your grandparents followed. It has to dig out of that. It has to become a sport that is followed and revered by young people again.
JEFFREY KAYE: But restoring baseball’s popularity will be difficult says Carter because other sports –especially basketball — have trounced baseball in marketing their game to young African Americans.
DAVID CARTER: The NBA has been packaged and sold as entertainment, and people are buying it as entertainment.
JEFFREY KAYE: Chuck McPherson, who often shoots hoops with kids in his LA neighborhood, says there are also solid dollars and cents reasons for changing sports tastes in America’s inner cities.
CHUCK McPHERSON: Basketball is a cheap sport. If you play baseball, you’ve got to get a catcher’s uniform, you got to get all kinds of expensive cleats, expensive bats, but in basketball, I don’t have nothing, just a ball. It’s easily accessible. Basketball, all you need is a hoop and a net and some guys who want to play. So a lot of it is economic, at least in the black community it’s economic, or else we’d be playing hockey, too.
JEFFREY KAYE: Economics also encourages cash-strapped parks and recreation departments to favor building basketball courts over baseball diamonds, says Solomon.
JIMMIE LEE SOLOMON: They find it much more inexpensive, much easier to put up a blacktop slab of asphalt down with a basketball goal and call that a recreational component. A baseball field will take much more space and will be much more costly from a maintenance standpoint, and then as soon as a kid knocks a window out across the street, they will shut them down.
JEFFREY KAYE: And Major League Baseball also complains that even if inner-city youngsters do develop a passion for the game, opportunities to play and prosper in the sport beyond their neighborhoods are paltry. Colleges, for instance, are offering fewer baseball scholarships compared to football and basketball, scholarships that help to hone talent and serve as a gateway to the major leagues. To cultivate a new generation of African American baseball players and fans, major league ball has invested millions of dollars into a program called RBI, or “Reviving Baseball in the Inner-city.” It’s a national youth baseball and softball program for 120,000 youngsters between 12 and 18 years of age.
JOHN YOUNG: What we have to do as baseball people is to educate the kids. Baseball is a lot of fun if you play it properly.
JEFFREY KAYE: RBI’s founder is former major league scout John Young, who started the program in south L.A. In 1989. Young says even the toughest inner-city kids can be intimidated by baseball.
JOHN YOUNG: The toughest thing to do in sports is hit a baseball. So many kids that haven’t played are afraid of the ball. We get kids who come into this program, they are kids from tough neighborhoods– they see a lot of gang violence, you know, tough kids– but they are afraid of baseball. They are afraid of being hit by a baseball.
SPOKESMAN: Do you guys know how to throw a ball?
JEFFREY KAYE: At this recent R.B.I. Olympics event, major league players like the Los Angeles dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown, a star supporter of R.B.I., Were on hand to give playing tips.
KEVIN BROWN: I spread my fingers a little bit.
SPOKESMAN: All the way through the cones!
JEFFREY KAYE: Los Angeles Dodgers scout Bob Merriweather said his presence here is proof that his team, like the rest of pro ball, is committed to finding and developing baseball talent in America’s inner cities.
BOB MERRIWEATHER: We’re looking for athletes, but we’re also looking for athletes who can play the game and who want to play the game. If I don’t go out there to look for talent and I don’t go out there to help these kids get better, where are we going to find the players? We’ve got to find the players from somewhere, so why don’t we try to find them everywhere we can? This is one of the areas where we know we have athletes.
JEFFREY KAYE: But efforts like RBI haven’t stopped the decline in African American participation in baseball. During RBI’s 14-year history, the number of black pro ball players has fallen by 7 percent.
JIMMIE LEE SOLOMON: I think we are working hard to do the things we need to do to get our fan base expanded. It’s just that it takes time. It’s not an easy thing to do, and you can’t just fix it overnight.
JEFFREY KAYE: To win over action- craving younger sports fans, including African Americans, Major League Baseball is experimenting with ways to make the game more fast-paced, like reducing delays between pitches in games. And pro baseball has also announced it will soon break ground on a state-of-the-art urban baseball academy in Los Angeles, not far from where Jackie Robinson grew up. Pro ball hopes it will be a place where the next generation of African American baseball greats will be discovered and trained.