Sam Hairston faced Satchel Paige, mentored a young Willie Mays and became the first American black to play for the White Sox in 1951.
It’s no surprise he had plenty of stories to share with his grandson, Diamondbacks outfielder Scott Hairston, before his death nearly a decade ago. Hairston most vividly recalls the story about the Birmingham Black Barons’ sleeping arrangements.
Barred from staying in many hotels because of their color, players often spent the night in their cars during road trips. Despite the stifling heat and humidity of summer nights in the Deep South, they had to leave the windows rolled up to protect themselves from mosquitoes.
“I don’t remember too much about what my grandfather told me, but that story sticks out,” Hairston said. “I remember hearing him tell the stories about how they were treated.”
Today’s black major leaguers owe a debt of gratitude to men such as Sam Hairston and Jackie Robinson for making it easy to find accommodations on the road, and so much more. Robinson re-integrated the major leagues as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers 60 years ago today.
Robinson was a six-time All-Star during his 10-year major league career. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949 and played in six World Series, winning one.
He was also spit on, thrown at, spiked and cursed incessantly. By keeping his cool and resisting the urge to give up, he paved the way for generations of black athletes to play professional baseball in the United States.
“He had God on his side to go through the things he went through,” said Diamondbacks second baseman Orlando Hudson, who experienced his share of racial bigotry growing up in rural South Carolina. “I don’t think I would have. I don’t think too many players in today’s game would be able to go through what he went through.”
Fewer and fewer American blacks are pursuing the path cleared by Robinson.
When the Red Sox became the final major league team to integrate in 1959 by signing Pumpsie Green, nearly 1-in-5 major leaguers was black. As recently as 1983, the ratio was better than 1-in-4.
Now the figure is closer to 1-in-12.
A report from the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that American or non-Hispanic blacks made up only 8.4 percent of major league rosters in 2006. Whites made up 59.5 percent, Hispanics (a group that includes Americanborn Hispanics, blacks from Spanish-speaking countries and others from Latin America) made up 29.4 percent and Asians 2.4 percent.
The percentage of American blacks was the lowest in 27 years.
Further, American blacks held just three of 30 manager positions, one of 30 general manager positions, and 31 of 519 vice president and senior administration positions. There were no American black CEOs or majority owners.
A list compiled by ESPN. com revealed that 69 out of 750 active players (not including the disabled list) on opening day this year were American blacks. Neither Houston nor Atlanta – cities that are 25 and 61 percent black, respectively – had a single American black.
Some believe the decline has tarnished Robinson’s legacy.
“For all the things that Jackie went through and stood for, to see the way the game is now, it is just unbelievable,” former Diamondback Junior Spivey said. “If you’re an African-American player and you love the game, you better be concerned with it. It’s a tragedy.”
There are several theories as to why the number of American blacks in baseball has declined. Some have hypothesized that black athletes have developed a cultural or social inclination toward basketball and football and have naturally gravitated to those sports as they’ve gained higher profiles over the last half-century. That has left baseball out in the cold.
“It’s not our game,” said Suns forward James Jones, who grew up in Miami. “There wasn’t very much baseball among my friends in my neighborhood. The resources and the coaching wasn’t there.
“Down South, baseball has never been big, and the coaches aren’t willing to put the time in when you have to compete with football and basketball. The budgets don’t allow it, so you really just wind up being squeezed out.”
If that’s the case, Todd Goertzen hasn’t noticed it during his 24 years as the baseball coach at Phoenix Camelback, which is about 10 percent black. He said he gets about one to three blacks trying out for his team every spring, just like in the early ’80s.
Instead, Goertzen has noted an overall downturn in interest in baseball in his area. Camelback Little League, one of the state’s oldest leagues, recently merged with the neighboring East Phoenix Little League in order to field enough teams.
Other observers have asserted that baseball players’ lack of marketing appeal has hurt the sports image in the black community. A recent survey of sports business and media executives conducted by Street & Smith’s Sports Business Daily ranked the top 10 most marketable athletes.
Only one baseball player (Derek Jeter, checking in at No. 4) made the list, which included four black basketball players, three white football players, and three whites and one black from golf, auto racing, tennis and hockey.
Much of that is due to the fact that the products associated with basketball have a wider mass appeal than those associated with baseball.
As Paul Swangard of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center pointed out, “people are willing to wear their basketball shoes while walking around in their every day lives, and they won’t wear baseball cleats. A lot of that money is driven by the shoe companies.”
Most observers believe the declining number of American blacks in baseball correlates with the rising number of Hispanics in the game.
According to studies at Central Florida, the percentage of rosters filled by American blacks and Hispanics was about even at 19 percent each as recently as 1995.
A gap has opened between the groups’ roster percentages in the last 10 years. Hispanics now make up nearly 30 percent, while American blacks make up less than 10 percent. The percentage of whites has remained relatively constant at just over 60 percent.
Major league teams operate training facilities throughout Latin America because they own exclusive rights to young players they sign there on the cheap. The Diamondbacks, for example, operate a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic and have three international scouts assigned to Venezuela, two to Mexico and one each to the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama/Columbia and Australia.
Major League Baseball has honored a scout of the year from the East, Midwest and West every year since 1985. In December, it honored an international scout of the year for the first time. The award went to longtime Dodgers scout and executive Ralph Avila, who led the team’s effort to establish one of the first club-sponsored training facilities in the Dominican Republic.
A team-owned facility would not be worth opening in Atlanta or Los Angeles because American-born players are assigned to major league clubs through the draft.
With precious little money flowing from major league teams to inner-city baseball programs, potential baseball players turn instead to more accessible sports such as football or basketball. Poor athletes are especially susceptible to giving up the game during the two- or three-year gap between inexpensive youth-oriented baseball and publicly-funded high school ball. More affluent Americans have the financial means to bridge the gap by playing on privatelyfunded teams, while players in Latin America work out in club-sponsored facilities.
Unlike Hudson, who was often the only black on his Little League teams, Diamondbacks outfielder Chris Young was one of many young blacks playing baseball in his neighborhood in Houston. “It seemed once I got into high school, a lot of kids started falling out of it and playing football and basketball,” he said. “It’s really sad.”
The economic realities of the situation have not tempered the disappointment of some players. Cleveland pitcher C.C. Sabathia recently referred to the decline of black players as “a crisis” and challenged Major League Baseball to do something, anything, to remedy it. “I don’t know exactly what they could be doing,” he said prior to playing in the inaugural Civil Rights game last month in Memphis, “but I know it’s not enough.”
Commissioner Bud Selig said during his visit to Chase Field earlier this week that his office is working to correct the issue. Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program helps up to 120,000 children per year bridge the gap between Little League and high school ball and is entering its 19th year in 200 cities worldwide. Current major leaguers Coco Crisp of the Red Sox and Dontrelle Willis of the Marlins benefited from the program while growing up in Los Angeles and Oakland, respectively.
The Baseball Tomorrow Fund is a joint venture between Major League Baseball and its players’ association that has doled out $10 million in grants since 1999. (Camelback Little League in Phoenix received a $25,375 grant in 2004 which it used to buy equipment and uniforms and renovate two fields.)
And early last year, Major League Baseball opened the $10 million Urban Youth Baseball Academy in Compton, Calif. However, that financial commitment pales in comparison to the investments individual teams have made in Latin America. “We’re doing a lot of things,” Selig insisted. “I’ve talked to a lot of people, Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron. … I think with all the things we’re doing, we’re going to turn that thing around.”
Some aren’t so sure.
“I think it’s hogwash, to be honest,” Spivey said. “It’s been taken away from us. Major League Baseball has spent millions and millions of dollars in these other countries and here, right here at home, they’re not doing that.”
Not wishing to wait for Major League Baseball to intervene, some major leaguers have taken up the cause on a grassroots level.
Many contribute money, time or both to youth programs in their hometowns. More than a dozen others have contributed $10,000 each to The Torii Hunter Project, a fund-raising organization begun by the Twins outfielder that solicits donations from major leaguers and funnels that money directly into community leagues.
Diamondbacks minor leaguer Justin Upton discovered the program through the agent he and his brother share with Hunter and immediately cut a check.
“The numbers have gone down, (and) maybe it’s because in the inner cities, kids aren’t getting the opportunity to play because of a lack of ball programs,” Upton said. “So just to be able to help the situation, whether it’s by getting them the equipment or the facilities, it’s great.
“There are athletes out there, and if they have the opportunity to play baseball, I’m sure they’d succeed.”
Key moments for blacks in baseball 05-01-1884 Toledo’s Moses Fleetwood Walker becomes first black major leaguer.
02-13-1920 National Negro Baseball League is the first successful black league, formed by Rube Foster.
10-23-1945 Jackie Robinson becomes first black player to sign a formal major league contract.
04-15-1947 Jackie Robinson makes his major league debut with Brooklyn Dodgers.
07-05-1947 Cleveland’s Larry Doby re-integrates the American League.
1947 Sam Lacy of Baltimore becomes first black member of Baseball Writers Association of America.
07-12-1949 Larry Doby, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Don Newcombe become first black All-Stars.
11-18-1949 Jackie Robinson becomes first black player to win MVP Award.
11-21-1956 Don Newcombe becomes first black pitcher to win Cy Young Award.
1962 Jackie Robinson becomes first black player inducted to Baseball Hall of Fame.
05-29-1962 The Cubs’ Buck O’Neil becomes first black major league coach.
03-17-1965 ABC’s Jackie Robinson becomes the first black network broadcaster.
04-11-1966 Emmett Ashford becomes the first black major league umpire.
09-01-1971 Pirates field the first all-black starting lineup.
1975 All-time high 28 percent of major league players are American blacks.
04-08-1975 Cleveland’s Frank Robinson becomes first black major league manager.
1977 Atlanta’s Bill Lucas becomes first black major league general manager.
1992 Toronto’s Cito Gaston becomes first black manager to win World Series.
1994 Ken Burns’ documentary “Baseball” raises awareness of plight of black ballplayers.
04-15-2004 First annual Jackie Robinson Day.
2005 Astros become the first team since 1953 to play in the World Series without an American black on their roster.