Ernie Richardson grew up playing baseball in Mount Vernon and now serves as Mount Vernon High’s varsity baseball coach.
“Growing up, you’d see kids playing baseball in the street. You’d see a painted square on a building for a strike zone,” he said. “Baseball saved my life. It kept me out of the streets and gave me an outlet to do things constructively.”
But nowadays, he describes baseball as a “dying sport, especially in the black community.”
“There is a disconnect between baseball and the African-American community,” said Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. “If you look at it from the standpoint of the Negro Leagues, baseball was the sport in African-American communities… At some point our community kind of fell out of love with baseball.”
When Monte Irvin was growing up, Major League Baseball was segregated. But baseball was every inch black America’s game.
For African-American kids, playing for the Yankees or Giants or Cardinals was no more than a maybe-someday dream. But Negro League teams, the Kansas City Monarchs, New York Black Yankees, Philadelphia Stars and Chicago Black Sox, put professional careers within reach.
And those teams often outdrew their Major League counterparts.
“Baseball was king. It meant everything to play because everyone else played,” recalled Irvin, who at 96 is the oldest living African-American to have played in the Majors. “You’d pass playgrounds filled with kids.
“I hope one of these days we get back to that,” he added after a pause.
It has been 68 years since Jackie Robinson integrated MLB with the Brooklyn Dodgers and 66 years since Irvin, who’d become MLB’s first black executive, left the Newark Eagles to play for the New York Giants.
Since then, baseball revenue and salaries have soared but playgrounds are no longer filled with kids toting bats and gloves. African-American participation in particular has declined.
In 1986, big league rosters were 19 percent African-American.
When the 2014 season opened, 59 of 750 players, just 7.8 percent, were African-American. This April, the number was 60, or 8 percent.
The decline of interest in baseball for African-Americans is not limited to the Major Leagues or colleges.
In 1997, Little League Baseball, which has always been integrated, boasted 2.5-2.6 million players worldwide. That number is down to about 2.1 million,said spokesman Brian McClintock. It’s unclear how many of the players lost were black Americans, but there’s little doubt their numbers have tumbled.
Mount Vernon’s youth baseball program isn’t at death’s door, but neither is it flexing its muscles. The program, which is about 80 percent African-American, once boasted about 600 baseball players.
Last year, the number was 290 in baseball and softball combined, from T-ball through the 13- to 17-year-old Babe Ruth level.
“It really tore my heart when I heard there were only 290 kids,” said Karen Fountain, who recently rejoined the league as president.
Peekskill’s Lapolla Little League was so short of players two years ago that only a late registration surge saved its 50th season. It had more than 300 players a decade ago; It has about 150 now.
Last year, two teams wanted Peekskill High’s Troy Holt, said his mother, Dena Newby. But she doesn’t know how long he will want baseball. She thinks that he, like so many African-American boys, will abandon baseball for basketball.
Marketing cool and competing interests
Baseball’s fall coincided with basketball’s rise.
A Sports & Fitness Industry Association/Physical Activity Council study estimated that, in 2012, 6.95 million American kids, 6-18, played basketball, as compared to 5.61 million playing baseball.
“In the African-American community, basketball is the cool thing to do,” said Ric Wright of Mount Vernon’s Department of Recreation. “Kids get to 13, 14, and baseball is no longer looked at as the cool thing to do.”
Bob Cimmino, Mount Vernon High School’s athletic director and coach of its highly successful boys varsity basketball team, spent 20 years as the city’s Little League commissioner.
But he sees baseball fields at Brush Park (“Mount Vernon at its best.”) as the past, suggesting baseball, a slower-paced game, has gone the way of “bell bottoms.”
The advent of year-round basketball is one thing that hurts baseball, Cimmino said.
“It used to be that there were three-sport varsity athletes,” he said. “But now, if a basketball player plays 12 months a year, he’s playing eight months for an outside interest. If he plays baseball it means he’s missing the AAU (basketball) season. There’s so much money for (basketball) pros, the average kid wants to play year round.”
Cost and facilities
Particularly in the Northeast, there are few ways to play baseball 12 months a year. And, as Irvin noted, the vacant lots city kids once used for pickup games are largely gone.
Victor Flack played Little League before making both the varsity football and baseball squads at Mount Vernon High. He went on to pitch for the New Rochelle Robins summer team and recalls giving up a gargantuan home run to future MLB star Manny Ramirez.
His son, Victor III, now plays high school ball for Richardson.
“It can cost $5,000 to $6,000 to go to camp,” said Flack, who graduated from Mount Vernon in 1992 and went on to play baseball for Westchester Community College. “People in black neighborhoods don’t have that money.”
Richard Coley, whose son also plays for Mount Vernon High, indicated summer travel teams tend to run from $700 up.
“One travel team wanted $2,500. That’s insane,” he said, noting that many teams have paid coaches whose goal is to win games, not necessarily develop players.
Even at the younger level, baseball isn’t cheap. There’s a lot more equipment involved than in basketball, where, once a hoop is found, sneakers and a ball are all you need. And then there are the registration fees.
Rock Geffrard, a former Mount Vernon Little League commissioner and the city’s current RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities program) coordinator, thinks high fees are why only 30 kids played Mount Vernon Babe Ruth last year. With some help from MLB and local youth organizations, Mount Vernon’s youth baseball fees, which last year went as high as $150 for its Babe Ruth program, have been slashed to $60.
Mount Vernon RBI board member Carolyn Harris, whose son, Shawn, 13, will play Babe Ruth this season, agreed.
“Parents don’t have the money. We need to open up to kids who can’t afford it,” Harris said, suggesting the city contribute more, fees be cut and the program expanded to give safe haven to youngsters whose parents (often single mothers) can’t afford summer camps — baseball and general summer camps alike.
Major League Baseball is aggressively fighting the numbers problem. About 200,000 children in the U.S. play RBI baseball, almost an 80 percent increase since 2009. And MLB plans to expand its four free inner-city baseball academies to additional cities as a means of procuring talent — 150 former academy players have been drafted by MLB teams in the last eight years.
Seeing African-American Major Leaguers at a baseball camp or at a youth league event might help promote the sport, according to local baseball enthusiasts.
“Today’s children don’t see many African-American baseball players,” said Fountain, the Mount Vernon RBI president. “They see Dominicans, Puerto Ricans. They may see a man of color but they know he’s not from New York or Oklahoma or what have you.”
“If you go to the black community and ask a kid for the names of five superstar baseball players, he can’t give them to you,” said Geffrard. “He can give you 20 for basketball before five for baseball.”
Don’t ask Troy Holt either. The youngster, whose younger brother, Khalil Newby, 9, also plays in the Peekskill league, gave an empty shrug when asked to name his favorite baseball player but quickly said Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving when queried about basketball.
“You need someone to look up to,” said Mount Vernon High senior Terell Huntley, 18, a first baseman.
The game, however, may have held more appeal for blacks when the Negro Leagues existed. As Hall of Famer Irvin recalled, the segregated leagues produced many black superstars.
Irvin, who played alongside Willie Mays, said MLB lost its black superstars with Mays’ retirement in 1973, and the 1975 retirement of Bob Gibson and then Hank Aaron in 1976.
“All of a sudden, you look up and you don’t have any African-American players playing,” Irvin said.
Access and difficulty in playing
There are other factors, of course. Kendrick points to some MLB teams’ exodus from downtown areas, where many blacks live, to newer stadiums, not easily accessible by mass transit.
Ticket prices have also risen, making it more difficult for lower-income people to attend games. And then there is the patience factor.
“It takes longer to learn how to play baseball and you really have to dedicate yourself,” Irvin said.
“The tolerance level for failure is certainly not where it used to be,” Hanzlik said, describing baseball as “more of a skill sport” than others and one in which “individual achievement and failure are much more magnified.”
“If they experience too much failure, they tend to give up,” he said.
Huntley agreed, saying many of his peers who’ve left the game would “pout or get an attitude” when playing.
“I’ve been playing since I was 8. My heart is in baseball but a lot of people have given up on the game,” Huntley said.
The idea that today’s kids can’t deal with failure was a subject of discussion during an RBI Institute seminar earlier this year, Wright said. One league found a solution: Have kids play T-ball until age 13, so that they won’t strike out.
“Success breeds enthusiasm,” he said, contending today’s kids want instant gratification. “We’re thinking of what changes can be made. If a 13-year-old has success, he’s more likely to play at 14.”
Irvin, who won the Negro League World Series with Newark in 1946 and the MLB World Series with the 1954 Giants, is optimistic.
“I love baseball so much. I think it’s the greatest game that was ever invented,” he said.
He suggested that big-leaguers visit more local youth teams, bringing the message that “You don’t have to be very big, tall or heavy to star and have a career that will last for a long time.”
His advice: “If kids wise up and are a little smarter and see how much money they can make and how long a career can last, we’ll see baseball again,” he said. “We need kids to play. If they play, stars will develop and that will be the salvation.”