Today marks the 50th anniversary of a milestone in American history: the first regular-season, major-league baseball game played on the West Coast (though, in its day, the Pacific Coast League was considered by many to be a third major league). The Giants beat the Dodgers 8-0 in front of an overflow crowd of 23,448 at the old Seals Stadium in San Francisco, tagging a young Don Drysdale for six earned runs in three and two-thirds innings. Some would argue it's been downhill for the franchise ever since.
Baseball in California (and, later, Washington, Colorado, and Arizona) has been about as successful as Horace Stoneham and Walter O'Malley could have hoped 50 years ago. Two of the biggest reasons why, at least in northern California, were Willie Mays and Willie McCovey. Mays and McCovey were two of the better players in baseball history, and helped the Giants build an enduring following in their new city. But they were also two black men who were born into Jim Crow–era Alabama and made their Major League debuts at a time when African-Americans were still not fully welcome in the game (Mays in particular, playing his first game with the Giants in 1951). When Mays moved to San Francisco in 1958, he was unable to rent a house in the affluent Forest Hill neighborhood of the city until Mayor George Christopher intervened.
Which is why it's particularly troubling to note that the Associated Press reports today that only 8.2 percent of players on Major League rosters to start the 2008 season are black Americans, the lowest figure in at least two decades. Thankfully, this isn't a result of prejudice; without excluding the possibility that some racism still persists in the big leagues, the main problem is competition from other sports. Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, told the AP: "Baseball has probably lost a whole generation here. African-Americans just aren't playing it at this point. They're going to have to increase their efforts."
Ilya Somin doesn't see any cause for concern here--but I do. It's wonderful that, as Somin points out, thanks to the great strides baseball has made in growing its popularity in Latin America and East Asia, baseball today is more diverse than ever. But diversity per se isn't really the goal here; a shared national narrative is. For those of us who accept the premise that baseball isn't just another sport but part of the fabric of America, it's disturbing to contemplate the reality that in many corners of our land baseball simply isn't on the public's radar screen. Of course this isn't to suggest that everyone has to be a baseball fan or that you have to like baseball to be a good American--just that baseball has always been one of the many facets of national culture that can serve to unify us, across barriers of race, religion, class, and gender. In certain respects its ability to perform that function is on the wane, which is why efforts like MLB's Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities program are worthy and important endeavors. And why, whatever you may think of their respective job performances, President Bush and Joe Morgan deserve credit for recognizing the challenge.
I'm not a baseball pessimist: God knows the game has problems, but it always has, and in many ways it's as healthy and vibrant today as it's ever been (even if the Giants aren't). It could still be doing better, though.
Photo: Willie Mays at Seals Stadium, April 15, 1958 (Getty Images)