Blacks play catch-up in national game; Baseball: Five decades after Jackie Robinson's breakthrough, the numbers of African-Americans on the field, in the front office and at the ballpark are shrinking.


THE END OF the World Series will close out the baseball season. It also will bring to a close Leonard Coleman's ten-ure as National League president. His departure from Major League Baseball will remove the game's highest-ranking African-American, further eroding the increasingly tenuous connection African-Americans have to a sport responsible for one of the most memorable and important historical symbols of black emancipation -- the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Coleman, whose decision to resign is tied to a disagreement with the commissioner's office over lines of authority and supervision of umpires, is a person of exceptional qualities and integrity. A Princeton-Harvard man who spent several years on a mission for the Episcopal Church in Africa, he will not be easily replaced. His absence will create a significant void in a game that, more than any other professional sport, made it possible for gifted African-American athletes to compete as equals.

He also will be missed as a person of grace and dignity who worked with diligence to increase the number of African-Americans in executive positions within baseball. Those who see this issue divorced from the "real world" beyond sports have short memories and a shallow grasp of American history. The breaking of the color barrier in the major leagues took place long before the rise of Martin Luther King Jr., Brown vs. the Board of Education and the civil rights movement in the South. Before any of those things happened, Jackie Robinson was breaking down racial barriers, within baseball and without, that had stood since 1839 when the modern game was invented. It should be remembered that Branch Rickey of the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1947 -- a year before President Harry S Truman ordered the desegregation of the military. That is why the near-absence of African-American managers, front-office personnel and executives is extremely disappointing and troubling. Coleman's departure will aggravate that shameful and sorry fact.

Of the 30 teams of the National and American leagues, only one, the San Francisco Giants, has an African-American manager, the highly regarded Dusty Baker. The major leagues have no African-American general managers, team presidents or owners.

Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, has asked major league teams with managerial openings to interview African-Americans. Rumor has it that the Chicago Cubs will hire Don Baylor, the former Colorado Rockies manager (now a hitting coach with the Atlanta Braves), for the job left vacant when Jim Riggleman was fired. The Milwaukee Brewers, the team that is owned by Selig but run by his daughter, have talked with Davey Lopes, a coach with the San Diego Padres, about their managerial opening, but how much of this is real and how much is show?

The commissioner's directive was blatantly ignored by one team, the Detroit Tigers, whose officials hired Phil Garner, the fired Brewer's manager, without so much as a perfunctory interview with any African-American candidate. Selig has promised that the Tigers will be fined for failing to heed his directive. We'll see.

Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, in issuing its Racial Report Card two years ago, pointed out that the percentage of African-Americans playing major league baseball has fallen to a 20-year low -- 17 percent, or 129 players out of 750. That fewer African-Americans play our "national pastime" is often overlooked because many of today's greatest stars -- Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Bernie Williams, Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds, Barry Larkin, Mo Vaughn and the Orioles' Albert Belle -- receive significant media attention that distorts the shrinking number of black players.

In 1997, the year baseball celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's joining the Dodgers in Brooklyn, the Dodgers in Los Angeles had no black players.

But the problem isn't confined to the major leagues. At the College World Series in Omaha this year, of almost 200 players, only 10 were African-Americans, with none serving as head coaches.

The Northeastern report says that 6.5 percent of the student-athletes playing baseball in Division 1 of the NCAA are African-American. The study adds that, in 1997, only six African-American coaches were leading 764 college baseball teams -- a shocking 0.8 percent.

Nor is the issue confined to the playing field. It extends dramatically to attendance at major league games. The number of African-Americans watching baseball has seriously declined, a fact established with a simple eye test by anyone attending a big league game or watching one on television. Even if you think you're "colorblind," you cannot miss the obvious -- few African-Americans are there. This is in dramatic contrast to the days when 25,000 African-Americans watched some of the great Negro League teams play, including the Baltimore Elite Giants and the Homestead Grays.

Why, 52 years after Jackie Robinson, should there be fewer African-Americans playing and watching baseball?

Some say the absence of African-Americans at major league games is a factor of economics; they cannot afford to attend. That reasoning borders on racial stereotyping and must be rejected. The issue isn't economics. Baseball, of all major professional sports, remains the least expensive to watch. The issue for most African-Americans is one of choice rather than cost, a matter that baseball needs to acknowledge.

There is also this: Many gifted young African-American athletes play sports other than baseball, especially basketball and football. Northeastern University says that, in 1996-97, 78 percent of the athletes in the NBA were African-American. The corresponding figure in the NFL was 66 percent. These are significant statistics. They tell a story of young African-Americans succeeding in dramatic fashion away from the baseball diamond. That's a positive development. It means these athletes have more opportunities to succeed.

But while more chances arise for African-Americans to play basketball and football, they have diminished where baseball is concerned. Baseball's record of developing young African-American players, of providing them with opportunities to play, especially in our inner cities, is poor. The RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) program started by the major leagues is a laudable effort, but it needs to be vastly expanded and more extensively funded.

Other teams would do well to follow the example of the San Diego Padres, who are building 60 youth baseball fields. But, in hard truth, few major league owners are as generous as John Moores, the Padres' owner -- and even fewer understand the significance of the issue, not just as a baseball issue but as a societal issue.

The baseball talent pool among African-Americans is drying up. If you can't put African-American players on the field, you won't get African-Americans in the stands, which is more than a loss for baseball, it's a profound loss for the integration of American society. And, most troubling of all, it tells us that 52 years after Branch Rickey did what no one else in the major leagues had either the integrity or moral courage to do -- sign an African-American player -- we're still engaged in this debate.

With Leonard Coleman as president of the National League, there was hope that baseball, with Coleman's gentle but firm pleadings, would remember its place in our history -- as a sport that transcended a game and became a pivotal force in raising African-Americans' hopes that one day, in a good and just society, because of a game the boys of summer play, they would truly be free at last.

Baseball must do more than redeem the legacy of Jackie Robinson, the legacy it celebrated two years ago. Baseball must honor the efforts of individuals such as Leonard Coleman and find the means to bring back to baseball those African-Americans who no longer consider the game relevant to their lives.

George Mitrovich is president of The City Club of San Diego and The Denver Forum. Buck O'Neil is president of the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

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