A's Questioned: Why No Black Players?
In fact, as the always perceptive Joe Morgan explained to me, it’s the system, which is why the percentage of blacks in baseball has fallen to nine per cent.
“In this country, baseball has become an aristocratic sport,” said Morgan, speaking at a media event to spotlight tomorrow’s opening of the Hall of Fame exhibit at the Oakland Museum. “I live in Danville, and 12-year-old kids have batting instructors. What black inner-city kid is going to have a batting instructor?
“In the baseball draft, teams draft mostly college players. The A’s seldom draft high school players, although they took a couple this year. Usually, the only way a black kid can get to college is with an athletic scholarship, and there aren’t many available for baseball. It’s much easier to get football and basketball scholarships, so you see a lot of blacks in those sports. But, how many blacks did you see in the College World Series?”
The A’s draft college players for two reasons: (1) It’s easier to evaluate them because they’re older and playing on a higher level; (2) They can be used as trading chips quickly, because they’re likely to show the potential to play in the majors much sooner than a high school prospect.
So, they wind up without black players in their organization and without them on the major league level, but their roster is only an extreme example of what’s happening throughout baseball.
Morgan sees other reasons for the decline of black players in baseball. “Some of the skills you associate with black players are not highly valued," he said. "Like speed and base stealing.” (Morgan, of course, was a highly-skilled base stealer in his Hall of Fame career.) “It’s all about power now, because it seems anybody can hit the ball out.”
Morgan was part of a remarkable stream of black athletes who came out of the East Bay in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Vada Pinson, among others. Morgan, Robinson and Stargell are in the Hall of Fame. That stream has been reduced to a trickle. Dontrelle Willis is probably the only one from recent years who might eventually have a shot at the Hall of Fame.
“We played all the time, on American Legion teams when we weren’t playing for high school teams,” Morgan remembered. He also remembered a time when he played for the legendary George Powles, who is also being honored at the museum.
“I played at Castlemont and he coached at McClymonds, but I was on an all-star team that he coached and I saw why Frank and those guys had a head start. He taught fundamentals that I remembered all through my career.”
Morgan was reminded of that by a recent A’s-Angels game which the A’s won when Angels reliever Francisco Rodriguez muffed a throw from the catcher and Jason Kendall scored from third. “Powles taught me that the second baseman or shortstop should always be backing up on that play, and I always did. If either the second baseman or shortstop had been backing up, Kendall couldn’t have scored.”
AS THE PERCENTAGE of blacks in major league baseball has fallen, that of Latino players has risen, to more than 30 per cent.
“They’ve got the passion for the game that we (blacks) used to have,” Morgan said. “We used to see baseball as the way out. Now, it’s the Latinos who do.”
What’s really driving the Latino surge is the baseball academies which have been started in Latin America. In some countries, there are more than one such academy; Venezuela has three. The Latino youngsters not only learn baseball skills but they get fed. Generally, they come from such impoverished backgrounds that there isn’t enough food for their families, so getting regular meals is a powerful incentive.
“They’re not only grooming players for the major leagues but for the minors,” Morgan said. “If you look at the minor league rosters now, they’re full of Latinos.”
It’s a cost-effective program for baseball, too. First-round draft picks get high signing bonuses, some in the multi-million dollar range, but to be eligible for the draft, players must have a high school diploma or equivalent. The Latinos are not eligible because they drop out of school to try to earn a living. Teams often sign players in the 15-16-year-old range, and all the players get is a minor league contract.
Ten years ago, Morgan told baseball commissioner Bud Selig that baseball needed similar academies for black players in this country. “When Sandy Alderson was still in the commissioner’s office, he called me and said, ‘Well, Joe, you should be happy. We’re starting an academy in Los Angeles.’ I said, ‘Just one? We need them in Middle America and on the East Coast, too.’’’
MORGAN IS naturally partial to the sport in which he excelled, especially since his lack of size would have prevented him from playing another sport professionally. But he also realizes the reality of the situation.
The influx of Latino players into the system will continue – Juan Marichal thinks it will increase – and black participation will probably decline even further. Young black athletes now have a passion for basketball, not baseball.
Very soon, other teams may be asked the same question that faced the A’s this year about a lack of black players.
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