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Baseball's demographics shift away from African Americans

Whether it's access to ball fields, the expense of equipment or opportunities in other sports, fewer African Americans are playing baseball today than in previous decades.

June 25, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Dave Winfield, coach of the Culver City Nationals, gives the team a pep talk before a game.
Dave Winfield, coach of the Culver City Nationals, gives the team a pep talk… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

Although he grew to be as tall as a power forward and as strong and fast as an All-Pro tight end, Dave Winfield was destined to be a baseball player. He even has a baseball date of birth.

David Mark Winfield was born on Oct. 3, 1951, the same day Bobby Thompson hit his "Shot Heard 'Round the World."

More important in his development, though, was that Winfield was raised half a block away from the Oxford Playground in St. Paul, Minn.

Oxford Playground had a ball field.

"I was fortunate," says Winfield, a first-ballot Hall of Famer who finished his 22-year career with 3,110 hits and a World Series ring. "Kids used to go outside for four, five, six, eight hours at a time without coming home.

"And every parent knew how to play baseball, and they taught it."

Not anymore. The number of children aged 7 to 17 playing youth baseball declined 24% in the most recent 10-year period for which statistics are available, according to the National Sporting Goods Assn.

Winfield grew up in an African American neighborhood. The decline in such neighborhoods has been far more precipitous over a much longer period of time. That's one big reason why the percentage of African Americans playing major league baseball has fallen from 27% in 1975, Winfield's second full season, to 8.5% this summer.

"I'd like to see it improve," says Winfield, a vice president and senior adviser with the San Diego Padres. "I can't say it's a problem. It's different. It's a trend. It's unfortunate."

Winfield discusses the trend in his 2007 book "Dropping the Ball: Baseball's Troubles and How We Can and Must Solve Them." In one chapter, titled "The Last Black Major Leaguer," Winfield theorizes that if current trends hold, African Americans and their relationship with the major leagues could soon be back to where they were when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

Don Newcombe, one of the first African Americans to follow Robinson to the big leagues, laments the trend and says no one could have predicted it. But he also takes it as a sign of progress.

Today, young African American athletes have more options than ever, Newcombe says, and if some of them are gravitating not just toward football and basketball, but also to golf, tennis and soccer, well, that's a good thing.

"It doesn't sadden me," says the former Dodgers pitcher, who is now a special adviser to the club. "It makes me happy to know that they have the choices."

While other sports have become more available — and perhaps more compelling — to African American youths, opportunities to play baseball have either declined or become prohibitively expensive in many urban areas.

The effect is obvious even at the high school level.

Compare what happened this spring at two Los Angeles City Section schools with long traditions of baseball success: Crenshaw High in urban Los Angeles, which produced major leaguers Darryl Strawberry, Ellis Valentine and Chris Brown, played a 14-game schedule that included just two nonleague games. Chatsworth, in the affluent San Fernando Valley, played 22 nonleague games and 30 overall.

"You have to have money. And you have to be a community where baseball is important," says Winfield, who chose a career in baseball after being drafted by teams in the NFL, ABA and NBA. "You have to have the money because you have to play travel ball; you've got to get special instruction. You have to have the equipment.

"It wasn't [that way] when I was growing up."

Baseball's demographic shift has gone unnoticed in some quarters because the game still looks the same. The decline of African American participation has coincided with a sharp rise in the number of Latin American players, many of whom are black.

As a result, the total number of blacks in the major leagues is at an all-time high at the same time as the percentage of African Americans is at its lowest level in four decades.

Ike Hampton, a former Angels catcher and first baseman, finds that trend alarming.

"The Latin markets have kind of replaced a lot of the inner-city baseball," says Hampton, who helped integrate his South Carolina high school and is now helping revive inner-city baseball at Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy in Compton. "We've gotten away from really looking at our own backyards, and we've gone out and started looking elsewhere.

"That's an injustice to a lot of the kids because there are kids here that can play, that want to play."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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