MLB Wants African-American Presence to Grow

Jimmie Lee Solomon

Jimmie Lee Solomon knows all about the dwindling number of African Americans in baseball. He acknowledges that it’s a concern and understands that it could be a while before change in the opposite direction is noticeable.
He believes that Major League Baseball is doing everything it can to reverse the trend. But he is also quick to point out an obvious yet often-ignored fact.
“Baseball is more diverse than ever,” said Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball development. “Forty percent of our players are from diverse backgrounds, from non-Caucasian backgrounds. So that’s a good thing. But when the number of African Americans is declining, and you have areas in our country that are either underserved or unserved, now that is a problem.”
In 2011, MLB once again will honor the history of African Americans in baseball – a sport seen by many as a true pioneer in Civil Rights – by staging its fifth Civil Rights Game in Atlanta, the central hub of the Civil Rights Movement. (The date has not yet been announced.)
The focus of the game will be on the contributions of African Americans to the sport, but a lot of the chatter leading up to the event will undoubtedly center on where baseball stands with regard to African-American presence, and what it can do to help turn it around.
In the 1970s, the percentage of players on Major League rosters who were African American was reportedly in the 20s. But in 2010 that percentage was 9.1, and it hasn’t gone higher than 15 percent since 1997, according to the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Racial and Gender Report Card.
In addition, though such rising stars as David Price, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton have emerged recently, no more than five African Americans have been taken in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft each year since 2006.
“I think it’s a big problem,” said Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, who will be an integral part of next year’s Civil Rights Game and the surrounding festivities.
“I am very much disappointed in the way Blacks, especially here in this country, have been able to play the game,” he said. “ I know the game itself, I know we have some serious problems, problems that people probably don’t understand. We see African Americans playing a lot of basketball, we see a lot of African Americans playing football…I’m concerned about baseball.”
Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig has often talked about the desire to see more African-American players in the game, because he wants baseball to influence all cultures and because having the best athletes is easiest when the talent pool is as deep as possible.
But many believe that somewhere along the way, MLB lost a generation of African Americans. In hopes of making up for that, MLB – like no other pro sports league, really – has celebrated the history of African Americans in the sport with the Civil Rights Game since 2007.
Perhaps more important, it has started Urban Youth Academies (UYA) in Compton, Calif., and Houston – with others planned for Philadelphia and South Florida, and the ultimate goal being to have one in each Major League city — where inner-city kids can receive free baseball instruction and learn about other careers available through the game. MLB has also given more than $30 million to the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.