This week C.C. Sabathia of the Cleveland Indians told The New York Times that the small percentage of African American baseball players is "a crisis." "There aren't very many African American players, and it's not just in here, it's everywhere," Sabathia said.
When he says everywhere, we all know what that means. Look at any Cape Cod Baseball League team and sadly you won't find many black players. I agree, it's a crisis. Only 8.5 percent of major leaguers are African American -- the lowest percentage since the mid-1980s.
From a Cape League perspective, the crisis is not so much baseball as it is college access for African Americans. The Cape League is a collegiate baseball league so the league is going to reflect American colleges and universities. Unfortunately, African Americans represent a small percentage of students on college campuses.
But if in fact one-third of current major leaguers once played on the Cape, then clearly collegiate summer leagues are a key feeder system for the MLB and therefore could play a key role in improving the numbers.
In his chronicle of a season in the Cape League, author Jim Collins wrote about this issue in The Last Best League:
"Chatham didn't carry a single black of Latino player on its 2002 roster. The town had hosted just fourteen black players since 1990...Despite the league's promotion of famous African American alumni Mo Vaughan, Albert Belle and Frank Thomas only a handful of minorities played on the Cape each summer....None of the summer leagues...had high minority numbers...The NCAA Ethnicity Report listed 626 black players among the 9.392 Division 1 baseball players in the academic year 2000-2001....Major league baseball better reflected changing American demographics than did the college game, but it drew its diversity from different worlds."
I've wanted to write something about this for some time. I started thinking about it this winter after listening to Bob Costas' excellent 2001 audiobook Fair Ball: A Fan's Case for Baseball. In the book, Costas argues for baseball to take a greater role in attacting African American players into baseball by starting earlier.
Baseball needs more diversity at the minority level because it's the feeder system, Costas argues. Put more money in the inner cities to make baseball a hot urban sport again. There's a smaller percent of African American players in baseball than in the NFL or NBA. More high schools and youth centers need the equipment and space to play baseball. For less than the cost of a utility infielder MLB teams could re-energize youth baseball.
What is the Cape Cod Baseball League's role in all of this?
- Perhaps the CCBL could dedicate this summer's All-Star game to minority players then and now;
- Perhaps the CCBL could help teams recruit more African American players from colleges nationwide;
- Perhaps grant money raised by the CCBL from foundations could be dedicated to scholarships and support for minority players.
Sabathia is right, this is an important issue for baseball at every level.