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Jackie Robinson Anniversary: Why Are Black MLB Players in Decline?

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Less than a week before Major League Baseball (MLB) prepares to celebrate the 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line, Commissioner Bud Selig announced the formation of a 17-member diversity task force that will address African-American participation.

In a telephone interview with the New York Times Selig states, "I really think our history is so brilliant when it comes to African-Americans. You think about the late 1940s, the 1950s — wow. And you look at that and you say to yourself, 'Why did it not continue, and what could we do to make sure it does continue?'" in response to why such a commission matters now.

While the Atlanta Braves' all-black outfield featuring 2012 Golden Glove winner Jason Heyward and B.J. and Justin Upton (who recently made MLB  history by becoming the first brothers to hit game-tying and walk-off home runs in the same inning) furthered African-American achievements, black players only account for 8.05% of the league -- a record low. In fact, the number of African-American players is less than half of the 17.25% of athletes who played in 1959, the year the Boston Red Sox became the last team to integrate. Peaking at 27% in 1975, the percentage of blacks on major-league rosters fluctuated in the high teens until the late 1990s.

Baseball executive Dave Stewart turned player agent lamented to USA Today, "Baseball likes to say things are getting better," says former 20-game winner and front. "It's not getting better. It's only getting worse. We've been in a downward spiral for a long time, and the numbers keep declining."

Waning in popularity throughout the country, enthusiasm for America's pastime most sharply in declined in black communities. The number of black fans in the stands largely reflect the dwindling numbers of players on the field and black youth are choosing to play football and basketball over baseball.

Both cultural and economic barriers persist that dissuade African-Americans' entrance into the major leagues. Black baseball players such as Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, though just as dominant in his sport as Miami Heat basketball giant LeBron James, simply do not hold the same name recognition. To put it bluntly, kids aren't wearing the new Derek Jeters. Moreover the costs of playing baseball far outweigh that of other sports; purchasing bats, gloves, and balls is much greater than the price of only needing a basketball and a hoop on the community playground.

In contrast, the excitement and popularity of Latin American major-leaguers has elevated the sport to the either the first or second most popular among nations in the region. Children too poor to afford bats and gloves grab sticks and rocks to gather and assemble ragtag teams emboldened by sheer enthusiasm. Consequently, the number of foreign-born players from Latin America and the Caribbean rose to 27%.

Yet the fault of attracting African-Americans to play ball largely falls upon the institution itself. Scouting director for the Oakland Athletics Billy Owens cites that NCAA college baseball scholarships are far too few, reinforcing common misperceptions among black athletes that there is less money and less opportunity in pursuing a baseball career.

If the MLB task force is to succeed in increasing African-American participation, it must put its money where its intentions are. Working with college baseball to increase the number of scholarships will be critical in addition to adopting black-focused youth programs like the National Hockey League’s Hockey in the Hood. Moreover, making baseball "cool" must shift from a quiet crusade among black baseball professionals and to an active courtship with franchise players like Kemp and rising stars such as the Upton brothers serving as baseball's African-American ambassadors.

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