Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Mookie Betts.
Los Angeles Dodgers second baseman Mookie Betts can't get to a ball hit for a single by Los Angeles Angels' Matt Thaiss during the seventh inning of a baseball game Friday, July 7, 2023, in Los Angeles. Credit: Mark J. Terrill / AP Photo

As a kid growing up in California, Enos Cabell remembers baseball being everything to him.

It was that way for young Black boys in his neighborhood and really across the country because young Black boys wanted to be the next Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Larry Doby or Willie Mays. It’s not that way anymore as most baseball diamonds in the inner city have been dismantled, or if they do still exist, they’re unkept or go mostly unused.

“It’s really tough because nowadays, football is prevalent and basketball all you need is a ball and you don’t even need tennis shoes. You can play barefooted,” said Cabell, who went on to play 15 seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB) and now serves as a special assistant to Astros owner James Click.

And the money is different.

“When we grew up, it was only boxing or you played baseball. It wasn’t like the other sports,” added Cabell.

But now that there are more sports options, it seems that the game known as “America’s Pastime” has become much less of an option for African Americans. The lack of numbers in the sport that was once so prevalent in the Black community that we had our own league — The Negro Leagues – has diminished to an all-time low.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at Central Florida recently published a report that found Black players accounted for just 6.2% of the MLB opening day rosters in 2022, which was a decline from the previous season’s record-low of 7.2%.

Just how bad it’s gotten was on full display during last year’s World Series when there wasn’t one American-born Black player on either the Astros’ or Phillies’ roster, marking the first time that had happened since 1950.

The question is why?

The reasons seem numerous as Black players from Hispanic nations have all but replaced African American players at the game’s highest level.

Cabell and Bishop James Dixon, who is the pastor of Community Faith Church and the chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, attribute the shrinking numbers to economics. To stay competitive at the Little League and youth baseball levels, families must have the financial ability to cover the costs of travel teams, expensive equipment and specialized training.

Bats, for instance, can run hundreds of dollars, and most young players now have several bats at their personal disposal.

“When we played baseball there were a few bats per team,” said Dixon, who was a star quarterback at Waltrip back in his day. “Now, every baseball player on the team has to have his own bats and a bag to put the bats in. And different kinds of shoes based on the ground and gloves for each position.

“So, it’s priced out. That’s the discrimination. It’s economics. Not just skin color. You can’t pay to play then you can’t make it happen.”

Even Astros manager Dusty Baker was surprised at the cost to be in the game when his son was growing up.

“My wife, I didn’t know what she was doing. I said, ‘Baby, what are you doing with all of that money? What do you need all that money for?’” Baker recalled. “She was spending $5,000 or $6,000 to play baseball. She was calling me from Phoenix, Cooperstown, Florida.

“We had a league in our town. We had some bad boys in our town. We didn’t have to go 10 miles and we were going to be up against some bad dudes. But I heard now, if you want to get a scholarship or you want to play professional ball you’ve got to go to one of these leagues. It’s making it tough on us.”

Baker, who of course was in the dugout for last season’s World Series and made a point of calling out the lack of American-born players involved in the World Series, believes part of the diminishing presence has to do with the lack of heroes young Black boys can find in the game these days.

“We all had heroes — Black heroes,” Baker recalled. “I had Jim Brown in football, I had Elgin Baylor in basketball, I had Bob Hayes in track. And then Tommy Davis was my hero in baseball. He wore No.12 with the Dodgers. I ended up wearing No.12, I ended up at the same position he played. He was one of my heroes and when I met him he was an even better hero than I thought.

To help bridge the gap, Major League Baseball has thrown millions of dollars at trying to help revive the interest of American-born Black boys in baseball. MLB has committed $150 million over 10 years in collaboration with the Player Alliance to help revive African American interest at all levels.

The MLB initiatives include programs like MLB Youth Academy, Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) and the Dream Series.

The programs are aimed at getting young Black kids like Dylan Campbell back interested in the game. A one-time two sport high school athlete at Strake Jesuit, Campbell went on to star in baseball at University of Texas and earlier this month was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers organization.

“I just feel like we are getting more opportunity, honestly, starting at a young level,” Campbell said. “I feel like they are doing a lot more to get young African American kids in the game. Getting it started up for them at a young age allows them to stay in the game much longer. Getting that assistance is so important because not everybody is fortunate enough to have neighborhood teams or a Little League team to go to.”

Though Campbell has an advantage most youth, regardless of race don’t have–a father who played professional baseball–he still believes the efforts made to increase Black youth participation in baseball are plentiful and will produce positive results.

“So, there are all of these organizations out there setting up games, setting up leagues for kids to play and setting up donations to get equipment just to get kids in the game which is really good.”

I've been with The Defender since August 2019. I'm a long-time sportswriter who has covered everything from college sports to the Texans and Rockets during my 16 years of living in the Houston market....