The cold, hard numbers are shocking to the senses, but Major League Baseball and The Players Alliance refuse to be deterred, believing progress is being made, convinced that change is coming.
But, oh man, while fully committed stopping the erosion of Black players in baseball, their patience certainly is being tested.
Major League Baseball is celebrating Jackie Robinson Day around the country Saturday, the anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier on April 15, 1947, with everyone wearing No. 42 in honor of Robinson, a historic low number of players on the field will actually be Black.
Only 6.1% players on this year’s opening-day rosters are Black, 58 of the 945 players on the active, injured and restricted lists, the smallest percentage since 1955, according to a study by USA TODAY Sports.
The last time MLB had a lower percentage of African-American players was when the league was 89.8% white in 1955, according to SABR research. That was one year before Robinson retired from the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Follow every game: Latest MLB Scores and Schedules
USA TODAY’s study revealed that five teams don’t have a single Black player on their major-league roster with nine other clubs having just one.
Chicago, the third-largest city in the country with 29% of Black residents, have a total of just two Black players on their two teams, pitcher Marcus Stroman of the Cubs and shortstop Tim Anderson on the White Sox.
“It is frustrating,’’ CC Sabathia, vice president of The Players Alliance and special assistant to commissioner Rob Manfred, told USA TODAY Sports. “I’m not seeing light at the end of tunnel, but I am starting to see it dig, and there’s some headway. It’s right there under the surface.’’
Certainly, baseball has no problem in diversity when it comes to international players. The opening-day rosters consisted of 269 internationally-born players, representing 28% of opening-day rosters. But there are nearly twice as many players from the Dominican Republic (104) as Black players (58) on this year’s opening-day rosters.
“I remember when I first came to Major League Baseball in 2015,’’ said Tony Reagins, MLB’s chief baseball development officer, “I thought I could turn this thing around in five years. But it takes time.
“Sure, we’ve got work to do, but the pipeline and foundation will bear fruit. We’ve just got to be patient.’’
As of Friday, there had already been six Black players called up to active rosters since opening day, and there are about nearly 50 Black minor-leaguers on 40-man rosters.
MLB also is encouraged that 14 of the top 100 MLB Pipeline prospects, including six of the top 25 players, are Black. There were nine Black players selected in the first round a year ago, the most since 1992, including four of the top five picks. There also are 11 Black players projected to be among the top 100 picks in the upcoming draft.
“We’re trying to create pathways, not just get drafted,’’ Sabathia said, “but to actually make it to the big leagues. The efforts are being made. We’re starting to see some of the stuff pay off, with a bunch of those kids being a direct effect of the Hank Aaron program. It’s working. We’ve just got to get more numbers.’’
MLB is indeed seeing an impact from their diversity-focused development programs, counting 27 major-league players as alumni. There have been more than 250 Black players from the Hank Aaron Invitational, DREAM Series and Breakthrough Series drafted since 2015.
MLB also just launched an Identification Tour in 18 cities in underserved communities across the country for players in the eighth and ninth grades. They have already been in Oakland, San Bernardino, California, Detroit, Gary, Indiana, Chicago and St. Louis.
“We don’t want this to be perceived as baseball going into an African-American community one time and not going back,’’ Reagins said. “We want to go back year after year and get these kids involved in programs with their parents and coaches. It’s another way to identify talent, going to communities that once produced major league players.’’
Former major-league pitcher Tyson Ross, who grew up in Oakland, says there are plenty of talented Black athletes in the community, but hopes that the ID tour will help kids fall in love with baseball the way he did.
“It was definitely a big deal for the tour to come to Oakland and hopefully identify talent,’’ Ross said. “There’s a lot of talent in the area, and events like this will continue to develop that big love for the game.’’
There were plenty of Black baseball players growing up playing in the local Babe Ruth League, Ross said, but once he hit high school, the numbers dropped, and it became an alarming decline the higher he advanced.
Milwaukee Brewers All-Star closer Devin Williams said that none of his close friends even played baseball while growing up in St. Louis.
“I didn’t even think Black people played baseball until I got out of St. Louis and went down South,’’ Williams said. “Those kids all played baseball and football. In St. Louis, it was all basketball and football. The select leagues I was in, I never saw any Black kids.
“I just think the inner-city kids today are being priced out of the game period, and there’s not that many playing to begin with.
“We need to do a better job to make this be a cooler sport, to appeal to the youth, and not be stuck in like old-time mindset.’’
The new rules changes, which have quickened the game by 30 minutes, with offense rising, a dramatic increase in stolen bases, and athleticism being highlighted on defense with the banning of infield shifts, could perhaps increase interest, too.
“I think the rule changes will have an impact for sure,’’ Sabathia said. “Teams may have to draft more athletes, more people what they call, ‘raw.’ The field is more wide open now.’’
MLB, trying to increase early exposure for kids, invited 28 players from ages 15-16, to be at their inaugural “The Program” in June at the Jackie Robinson Training complex in Vero Beach, Florida.
It will be reminiscent of the old Kansas City Royals academy that produced Royals great Frank White and Atlanta third-base coach Ron Washington. The kids will live at the complex and compete in tournaments for a month against in front of college and professional scouts.
“You’re starting to see the pipeline develop, especially in a place like Atlanta,’’ Reagins said, “but our job is to create the opportunities. They need to get exposure from scouts and college coaches. That’s my focus. There are plenty of talented players, but they don’t always get placed in the right environments to get seen.’’
“We have to continue to invest and provide resources for these programs, and get those decision-makers involved from teams. I’m having those conversations with a lot of these GMs and presidents, and guys have been open to hearing me out, but we’ve got to continue to do more.’’
If it was just about spending $15,000 to $20,000 for kids to play travel ball and travel to tournaments across the country, a player like 21-year veteran LaTroy Hawkins never would have been discovered in Gary, Indiana.
“We didn’t have travel ball, summer ball, legion ball, daddy ball, and all of that,’’ Hawkins said. “That started to make baseball expensive, a sport minorities couldn’t afford to play in the United States. If that was the case when I grew up, I definitely would have chosen basketball.’’
This is why it was important for Hawkins to travel back home to speak to the kids on the ID Tour in Gary, hoping that more players will come out to show their support, particularly the active players.
“I don’t know if these kids understand the dream of being a Major Leaguer is attainable in my area,’’ said Hawkins, who was a catcher growing up before being converted to a pitcher. “I wasn’t even supposed to be there, but once I heard it was coming to my hometown, I knew I had to go. I think the concept is genius. You go around, try to identify talent and a skillset that will play well on a baseball field, and have kids playing with other kids that look just like them.
“I think it’s important for the generation we’re trying to bring in to guys they see on TV right now. I’ve been retired for seven years now, but it would be a huge boost having some of these guys that are playing now come to these showcase camps.’’
The Players Alliance is trying to create that awareness, and increase opportunities for kids in Black communities, providing scholarships, grants, equipment, and new fields for about 9,000 players across the country. They will join the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers on Saturday and host 75 Black high-school baseball and softball players for a clinic, while former Cy Young winner David Price will auction his 2020 World Series ring to benefit The Players Alliance foundation.
“We can see the passion the players have for this mission,’’ Sabathia said. “We’re all in this together, Black, White, Latin, everyone. We’re bringing an awareness to the program that this is an avenue for kids, our game is a welcoming game for everyone, and a game they can play.
“The efforts are being made. We can see the results. Now, we need to see those numbers.’’
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale