March 25-31, 2004
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
How Major League Baseball Is Wooing Back African-Americans.
On a cold Sunday afternoon in mid-March, the wind whips through a poorly kept baseball diamond in the Hunting Park section of the city. Empty potato-chip bags and candy wrappers swirl into a small tornado in left field, then float gently to rest next to the broken beer bottles and cigarette butts. The batting cage is rusted, and protruding iron bars dangle dangerously 7 feet off the ground. Behind the batting cage, the small benches that serve as makeshift bleachers reek of urine even in this cold weather.
A couple of cars pull up to the curb, and nearly a dozen children pour out, chatting animatedly and scrambling toward the baseball field. They're the Hunting Park Ballers, a youth baseball team hoping to be sponsored by Major League Baseball and the Philadelphia Phillies as part of two minority outreach programs called the Rookie and RBI leagues. RBI isn't an acronym for runs batted in, but Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. The program is an ambitious endeavor by the league to address a sharp decline in recent years of African-American participation in big-league baseball by investing heavily in youth programs in minority neighborhoods. The Rookie League is for kids 12 and under, and RBI teams are comprised of 13- to 18-year-olds.
Because their application to the Rookie and RBI leagues is still being processed, those funds haven't trickled down to the Hunting Park Ballers, which is why coach Robert Price has the 9- to 13-year-olds practicing with a mini-basketball instead of a baseball. The mini-basketball is softer, and only one glove is shared between the 10 players.
The raw numbers seem to bear out the concerns of the league's powers that be. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 by joining the Brooklyn Dodgers, the floodgates were opened; for the next 30 to 40 years, the number of African-Americans in professional baseball increased by leaps and bounds. The old Negro Leagues slowly became a thing of the past as stars such as Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks and Satchel Paige made their way to the majors. John Kennedy, who carried a near-superhuman .464 average while with the legendary Kansas City Monarchs, became the first black Philadelphia Phillie in 1957.
By 1978, one in four major leaguers were African-American, but then something happened. No one can pinpoint an actual time or event that may have precipitated the change, but since then the numbers have been falling. Today, just 10 percent of the players in Major League Baseball are African-American, the lowest percentage since the Negro Leagues folded in 1961. In 1991, MLB adopted the RBI program and has since donated $15 million to the minority outreach effort.
Major League Baseball spokesman Matt Burton speculates that there could be any number of reasons for baseball's declining popularity in minority neighborhoods, but he promises to find and remedy the problem.
"Let's face it, it's just easier to play basketball in the inner city," Burton says. "You can put a court on any strip of blacktop and play in a schoolyard or parking lot with just a few kids. Baseball takes lots more equipment, a large park or diamond, and more kids to play."
Burton also admits that sports such as basketball and football are doing a much better job of marketing to inner-city kids, and the league is looking at ways to do the same. It also administers the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, which since its inception in 1999 has donated $6 million for youth baseball programs around the world. Burton says the league brass is particularly proud of the impact Rookie/RBI and Baseball Tomorrow has had on inner city kids.
"We run the programs in conjunction with the Boys and Girls Clubs and a few other organizations," Burton says. "As part of the program, we stress education and the importance of staying in school. Progress is a little slow, but we're making an impression. Since we started the RBI program in '91, 100 Rookie/RBI alumni have been drafted into the major leagues. There are, I think, six or seven of them on major league rosters this year. The last two number-one picks in the draft were African-Americans, so I'd say we're making some headway."
The fact that baseball has experienced a decline in popularity in African-American communities is a source of confusion to Hunting Park Ballers coach Robert Price. The 37-year-old volunteer has managed the Ballers on a shoestring for three years, since he showed up at a game and was drafted on the spot.
"My son Everett wanted to play baseball, so I went looking for a team," says the portly man with a ready smile. "I went around volunteering with a couple of teams, and one day one of the coaches just walked up to me, handed me a folder and said, "This is your team.'"
Price says he's been a baseball fan all his life, and played on a team at 11th and Cecil B. Moore when he was a kid. Since then, he says, times have changed and baseball has been pushed to the back of the African-American consciousness.
"Kids today all want to play basketball," Price says while helping the Ballers pick up the cans and broken glass from the field so they can practice. "They don't even know the basic rules of baseball," he says. Price has to teach these kids "everything from scratch." As if to illustrate his point, 12-year-old Dominique McDaniels, the first Baller to take batting practice, steps into the batter's box and assumes his stance. It's all wrong. Price gently chides the child, showing him the proper way to stand, how to bend his knees and how to hold the bat. The kid tries it Price's way, and he sends the first pitch sailing over the second baseman's head for what should be an easy single. The problem is, Dominique is so busy gloating and posturing over the fact that he made contact that he forgets to run to first base. Price shakes his head ruefully.
"See -- that's what I mean," he says before going back to give Dominique a good talking to. "Nowadays trash talking is more important than the game, and baseball isn't a game of trash talk like basketball is. But these kids are so used to it, they don't understand that."
The next batter is Marcus Ross. Marcus gets a hit and tries to leg out a double, but he gets caught in a rundown. To avoid the tag, he runs wide and well outside the base path. In a real game, Price yells at him, that's an out.
Price says that he doesn't mind going over the rudiments of the game, but he and the Ballers could use some financial support. There's only one glove among the ten Ballers, and the bats, helmets and catcher's equipment are remarkably old and worn. That's why he's applied to the Rookie and RBI programs through the Phillies.
"Most of these kids' parents don't even have the $25 entry fee to play," says Price, who says he often makes up the difference out of his own pocket. "I'd take any help I can get, but I'm not asking for much. I just need uniforms and equipment for the kids. If I can get that through the Phillies, great."
Meghan Leary, the Phillies' manager for fan development and education, says Price will get his wish and that by opening day the Hunting Park Ballers will look like a real baseball team. They'll also get several other cool perks, like tickets to a Phillies game and maybe a chance to meet some players, she says.
"There are more than 7,000 kids from Southeast Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware in our RBI and Rookie leagues," Leary says. "We provide shirts, hats, bats, balls, bases and even pitching machines. We've had great player involvement, and the guys on the team are enthusiastic about helping out the youngsters. [Right fielder] Bobby Abreu has even contributed money out of his own pocket."
Leary doesn't have the exact figure of how much the Phillies have spent on the RBI and Rookie programs, but she says it's a lot of money. And money well spent, she says, if it gives kids a newfound appreciation for the game.
"The Phillies organization is really reaching out to the community," she continues. "The most important thing to us is that kids are playing baseball who probably wouldn't have the opportunity otherwise."
According to information provided by Major League Baseball, RBI programs have been started in 190 cities worldwide, providing equipment and support to more than 120,000 boys and girls. One of the more practical components of the RBI and Rookie programs is the commitment to academic achievement. Program directors not only stress staying in school, they incorporate schoolwork into baseball.
"We're particularly proud of the educational elements of the program," says Leary. "We've developed a program we call "Phillies Phundamentals' where we use baseball to teach geography, science and math. Baseball is a game of statistics and science, if you think about it. From the way an outfielder gauges the trajectory of the ball he's trying to catch, to the geometry of the baseball diamond itself, there are tie-ins to practical science and math, and we see that as a great opportunity to teach as well as have fun."
Jimmie Lee Solomon is in a unique position to speak on the subject of baseball, black kids and academic achievement. A former track and football star at Dartmouth, Solomon is senior vice president for baseball operations at the league, and he came in ninth on Sports Illustrated’s list of 101 most influential minorities in sports. Solomon says the reasons black kids eschew baseball these days are both pragmatic and philosophical.
"There’s no doubt that America’s pastime has been replaced by basketball, and to a lesser degree football, in the hearts and minds of our youngsters," says Solomon. "In America’s inner cities, blacktop is a lot more plentiful than large fields of grass and requires no maintenance. As a practical matter, it’s a lot cheaper for city recreation departments to install and maintain basketball courts than baseball fields. Baseball requires lots of equipment, lots of green space and lots of people to play. Basketball requires a couple of kids and one ball. You can get up a game of three-on-three basketball a lot easier than the 15 to 20 needed for a good baseball game."
It's not just the ready availability and low cost that drives kids toward hoops and away from the diamond, Solomon says. Sneaker manufacturers and sports marketers have done an excellent job of capturing the youth market by successfully tying basketball to the popular culture, he laments, and baseball is having a hard time playing catch-up.
One of the most successful is And 1, a Paoli-based firm that markets not only sneakers and sweats, but DVDs and CDs of street basketball players at their blacktop best. The And 1 Mix Tape Tour, a traveling basketball show featuring America's top playground basketball legends, packs in crowds of youngsters coast-to-coast with its mix of high-flying dunkers and hip-hop DJs. According to the company, after just10 years in business, And 1 sneakers grace the feet of 20 percent of NBA players --and kids like wearing the same shoes the pros wear.
And 1 spokeswoman Mandy Murphy tells baseball's honchos how the fledgling company managed to get it done:
"Our target market is the 12- to 17-year-old male basketball player," Murphy says, "and we market directly to them without exception. Our advertising department, our sales department and everyone here is passionate about basketball, and we make sure that commitment shows up in everything we do."
And what could baseball do to take a page from And 1's book of marketing success?
"We know that kids are of paramount importance to the success of our brand," says Murphy. "We speak directly to them, not over them or around them. Our And 1 Mix Tape Tour speaks to street ballers. We know most of these kids will never get an NBA contract or multimillion-dollar endorsement deal, but they can wear the shoes, they can wear the gear, they can have the look."
Above all, Murphy says, never take your target market for granted, not even for a second. If you do, they'll slip through your fingers.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"Basketball is a religion around here," she laughs. "And we know our market feels the same way. If kids like it and it's basketball related, we're going to have it."
Not surprisingly, Jimmie Lee Solomon agrees. Solomon is quick to admit that baseball dropped the ball when it came to holding on to its market, but says he's working every day to reverse the trend.
"We're going to bring the game to the kids," Solomon says. "The commissioner of baseball has made a firm commitment to getting fans, young and old, black and white, back into the ballparks and back into baseball. We know that once kids are exposed to the game, they're hooked. We just have to make sure they get that exposure."
Solomon says he hopes the latest youth fashion trend, the throwback jersey, has an effect on kids' attitudes about baseball.
"A lot of the thing with basketball is that the sneakers are a fashion statement," says Solomon. Every pro has his own sneaker line, and when the new ones come out, kids are lined up around the block to pay $150 for a pair. Baseball cleats are not a fashion statement. Those throwback jerseys cost a couple of hundred bucks, and kids want Erving, Abdul-Jabbar and Chamberlain jerseys because those are the legendary players they heard of. A lot of our African-American kids have never heard of Willie McCovey, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays or Rod Carew. The throwback baseball jerseys aren't as popular yet, but we suspect they'll grow in popularity once kids are exposed to the great black baseball heroes."
Candidly, Solomon says Major League Baseball has failed to do an adequate job of teaching the fundamentals of the game itself to kids, which is part of the reason Ballers coach Robert Price has to remind his kids to run to first base after a hit.
"Kids consider baseball slow and rather boring," Solomon admits, "because we failed to highlight its brilliance as a game of strategy. Most kids can't even fill out a scorecard, something we all learned at a very early age. We have to do a better job of teaching the game, of showing them its subtlety and nuance and strategy. Why a manager puts the bunt on, or the hit-and-run, is as much a part of the game as the monster home run. That's one of the things I like so much about the RBI-Rookie program. It gives kids that understanding, and with it, an appreciation and love for the game."
Without a resurgence of interest in baseball in the African-American community, Solomon says, who knows when, or if, we'll see the next Barry Bonds or Ozzie Smith. Kids have to see people who look like them on the field achieving greatness, he muses, or they'll believe greatness in baseball belongs to someone else. Above all, Solomon says, he's determined not to let that happen.
"This is a priority for us," he says pointedly, "from the top down, we here at Major League Baseball are committed to this effort."
Back at the field in Hunting Park, the Ballers are just about to wrap up practice on this chilly Sunday afternoon. The kids put away the sparse equipment they have and start throwing a football around. Coach Price says that he's put in his application for the Ballers to receive the Phillies' RBI-Rookie league status, and can't wait to get the new uniforms and equipment. Even if that somehow doesn't happen, he says, he'll still open the season as scheduled. According to the Phillies' Meghan Leary, though, Price doesn't have a thing to worry about. The Ballers will be styling in their new uniforms for the opening pitch.
"We start playing for real around June 15 or June 20," says Price. "We have a parade for the kids, from Sixth and Hunting Park Avenue to the field at Ninth and Bristol. They really love the parade, and it gets the neighborhood involved too. Sometimes people come out of their houses, watch the parade, and follow it all the way to the field so they can watch the first game. It would really be nice to have the kids in new uniforms this year. If you look good, you play good."