Baseball is regarded as America’s favorite pastime. Its place in the United States’ relatively short, yet storied history is forever entrenched. And just like the country that claims this sport as its own, baseball itself embodies a notable and checkered past with issues of race. A sport that used to be heavily represented by Black people, our participation has fallen off so dramatically in recent decades that many have been left wondering what happened to not only the Black presence on the field, but really, what happened to Black baseball fandom? I hope to take you on a journey around the bases analyzing this recent phenomenon.
Black Americans don’t watch baseball.
We aren’t playing as much in youth leagues.
We don’t play in college.
So many entities are exploring this phenomenon that it is almost becoming taboo to keep rehashing this discussion. I mean, I even wrote an article last year about the MLB’s piss-poor efforts of marketing their Black stars, even though they claim increasing the game’s diversity is a paramount goal. We see the facts, and we know that African-Americans’ interest in baseball is steadily on the decline or, at best, remains stagnant.
I know what you’re thinking: “So J-Mal, you’re telling us that it’s a foregone conclusion that Black people aren’t interested in baseball, and that a litany of commentary has already been produced on said topic?”
Yes I am.
“Well sir, why the f**k are you making us read another piece about the same old ish?”
One day, while perusing one of my usual websites – Very Smart Brothas – I stumbled across an article entitled Why I Stopped Caring about Baseball. In it, author Panama Jackson discusses what happened to him that completely sucked the life out of his baseball fandom. Jackson starts by sharing how during his younger years, his uncles turned him into a card-stacking, statistic-studying, baseball aficionado: “Once my uncles got me into it, I became a baseball savant. I knew all the stats on each player and position because that directly impacted what I thought a card was worth.”
See, Panama was introduced to the game by his uncles. Others find their appreciation for the game from playing catch in the driveway with dad. Some go to the ballpark on a warm Memorial Day afternoon with family and friends. Some grow up in the hood playing with plastic bats and balls, and using manhole covers and bushes as bases (*ahem* me). And like many kids, in one breath, you can visualize a young Panama with the pure joy of enjoying America’s favorite pastime through his pre- (or maybe even post-) cocaine Daryl Strawberry Upper Deck card.
But where does Mr. Jackson’s baseball fandom currently stand? ”Today, save for baseball hats, I almost couldn’t give two f**ks about Major League Baseball.” And there it is. Jackson easily summed up the feelings most my people in one brief, but poignant sentence. Jackson offered his personal account of his love-hate affair with baseball. He gave us an honest narrative about what brought him to enjoy the game, and what drove him away.
Why is Jackson’s take so refreshing? Because he’s a regular guy. Not a sports pundit, or a baseball player/historian/commentator/former
steroid user home-run champion or anything else associated with the game. In an effort to truly understand why a problem persists, and exists, we should ask the people who have the problem. And in this case, we need to talk to Black folks about why they have a major issue with a game that Black Americans used to play, but is now one in which Black Americans are severely underrepresented and disinterested (by the way, I just really like saying Black Americans). And that is exactly what I did.
Now, it must be stated that I love baseball. I’m a one-time fantasy baseball champion (and probably would have won my league this season if my friend/league manager didn’t inexplicably change the scoring system from the standard “rotisserie” setting to the “who the hell knows how to calculate this” setting, causing me to severely neglect my team ownership). I played baseball through high school. I relentlessly cheer for the Detroit Tigers and the Washington Nationals–they are in different MLB leagues so I can do these things. My mother, father, and grandfather introduced me to the game at a very young age. And even though my only television option was watching the Tigers, who had two winning seasons from 1989 (my baseball beginning) to 2005 (my entry into grown adult status), I still watched them on tv and regularly petitioned my mother to take us to the ballpark. I know more people like me–Black baseball fans–exist. As someone who loves the game, it pains me to hear words uttered against it. But I know it’s a harsh reality; a reality I am seeking to uncover and truly grasp.
I first spoke with John, a regular dude from the suburbs of Detroit who grew up watching and playing all sports, who parlayed his 6’5” frame into a college basketball scholarship. John played baseball from age 8-15, and regrets giving up the game to focus on basketball. “My Dad played and got me involved as a kid. It was the first sport I learned…In hindsight, I wish I had focused on baseball.” Nowadays John doesn’t really watch baseball unless it’s the playoffs, and he won’t even think about going to a game unless the forecast reads a pristine 75 degrees with the right amount of clouds to block out the sun.
John recounted his upbringing and explained how some conditions were easily enough to discourage inner-city kids from embracing the game. “I grew up in suburban Detroit and mostly played in the suburbs. One time I joined a city league and the fields were f**king horrible,” he said. “In the suburbs, you take for granted playing on level ground, or having clear lines painted on the field. Some of the Detroit city fields didn’t even have benches for kids to sit on in the dugout. Come to think of it, there was no dugout. There was just space where the team gathered to stand.”
Yeah. I have played on some crappy, sprain-your-ankle surfaces. I agree, it’s not fun.
I continued to search for more input. Enter Tony.
Tony is a crazy guy. He’s a consultant with a knack for always inserting a timely quip into every conversation. A former college football linebacker, he knew early on baseball wasn’t his cup of tea. “I get all nostalgic about my childhood when I watch baseball. It reminds me of when my mom would have me watch the potatoes on the stove. My only job was to turn the temperature down to simmer when they started to boil while she took care of something else more important.”
Anytime someone compares experiencing baseball to watching food boil on the stove, you’ve already lost the battle. “Baseball just never grabbed my attention. On the surface, it amounts to an expensive game of catch (with a ball that I can hardly see) interspersed with commentary and some occasional running. I get that there is a lot of game and skill beneath the surface, but to the uninitiated like me, it isn’t readily apparent.”
And Tony wasn’t alone in his feelings about baseball’s slow pace. James, an orthopedic surgeon in Washington, D.C., played baseball for six years of his childhood. He fell out of the game when his high school didn’t offer the sport. While he appreciates the atmosphere of a game at the park, “it is boring to watch on tv. I like constant action and intrigue in my sports, not long stare downs.”
One of the main reasons that Black people aren’t playing baseball is because interest isn’t being cultivated at home on the television. In his article, writer Jason Clinkscales discusses how much the lack of TV consumption affects the bottom line of overall fandom. “No matter how the numbers look on the diamond, the least considered reason for the decades-long attrition of black players in baseball very well might take place in your own home. African-American television viewership remains at some paltry lows.” Clinkscales continued to add that “The unfortunate reality is that television viewership drastically influences the perception of a sport and league.”
Many of the people I spoke to echoed the same sentiment–that baseball just isn’t exciting to watch. David, an avid baseball fan who played throughout his entire childhood offered his thoughts: “I’ve been a fan since before I can remember…but the pace of the game is such that it’s hard to watch an entire game on television.”
Ok, so we don’t watch baseball games because they’re too long–or as one person I spoke with eloquently put it, “It’s an uneventful waste of time.” While this is strong sentiment to say the least, let’s imagine that all baseball entities found a way to speed the game up and add more excitement. Would that change Black people’s perception? Probably not.
Leslie, who works for the state government (which state you ask? Probably your state. So be careful) and participated in baseball for seven years, remarked on a glaringly obvious fact: the season is just too damn long. “Throughout the course of a season, football has a definite “do-or-die” feel…losing three straight games constitutes a crisis. With baseball, since there are 162 games in a season there’s little reason to get overly concerned about the Red Sox sweeping the Yankees in a three game series in June.” It is becoming more noticeable that the sheer length of the season makes the entire experience less compelling.
One of the most scathing reviews of baseball–seemingly tying everyone’s sentiment into a neat little ball of pocket knives–came from Sydnee: a college student from California who loves sports, or at least the “exciting” ones.. “Watching a baseball game to me is like watching grass grow. I respect it as a sport but that’s it. My friends who love baseball always say you haven’t experienced baseball if you never been to live baseball game. But I hate beer, not a fan of eating hot dogs especially in public, the game is at least three hours, and it’s in the dead-ass middle of summer when it’s 100 degrees. Needless to say I think I will pass.”
After speaking to over twenty people I was hoping to find a greater sentiment of positivity for the sport. Yet I was met with more comments along the lines of “I respect baseball as a sport but…” and “I used to love the game, however…” than I knew what to do with. Fortunately, these honest accounts have opened the door to comprehending the love-hate (mostly hate) relationship that baseball endures with Black America. From not having sufficient playing accommodations in primarily inner-city neighborhoods, to a lack of marketed superstars, to an almost comatose pace of play, to a complete inability to persevere through the painstaking task of viewing an entire game on television, it continues to disconnect us from a game that represents so many important parts of our history in this country.
It is clear that parts of Black America still embraces the game. Historically Black colleges and universities across the country boast successful baseball teams each season. Unfortunately the regular fan is dissipating at an unsustainable rate. Years from now the idea of African-Americans in baseball might be a distant memory.
It’s time for baseball to make some changes. The regular people have spoken.
This piece was originally published on The Sports Fan Journal.