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Nostalgia at Bat

I BECAME A serious baseball fan in the mid-1950s, when my mother took me to the Polo Grounds to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play the New York Giants. The loudest cheers at that hulking old stadium in central Harlem were for a quartet of black men—Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella who played for Brooklyn, and Willie Mays who starred for the Giants. Most of the fans my mother and I sat among were also African-Americans. Many seemed delighted that a little white boy was rooting just as loudly for the rival Dodgers as they were.

The location of the park was just one reason for the racial complexion of the crowd. Before Jackie Robinson integrated the majors in 1947, the Negro Leagues—one of the largest black-owned businesses in America—had drawn well, and amateur baseball was played all over black America. Integration soon destroyed the market for blacks-only pro baseball. Ironically, fewer black men made a living playing baseball in the 1950s than had during the heyday of Jim Crow. But that did not dissuade African-American fans from streaming into Major League games, eager to see how athletes of their race would fare against white and light-skinned Latin competitors. “Nothing was killing Negro baseball but Democracy,” wrote the black journalist Wendell Smith.

During the following two decades, the number and prominence of African-American players steadily increased. By the late 1970s, they made up 27 percent of all major leaguers—roughly equal to the percentage of Latinos on rosters today. Such black stars as Don Baylor, Reggie Jackson, Joe Morgan, Ken Griffey, Sr., Willie Stargell, and Dave Parker ranked among the most dominant hitters, while Ricky Henderson and Davey Lopes (and Maury Wills in the 1960s) made stealing bases a critical part of the game for the first time since the dead ball era ended in the 1920s.

Today the thrill which African-Americans once received from—and gave back to—the game at every level is all but gone. They make up less than 9 percent of Major League baseball players, and they are even scarcer in ballpark seats and in the lineups of youth and adult amateur leagues. Last fall hardly anyone seemed to notice that the World Series champions, the San Francisco Giants, had not a single American-born black man on their roster. Meanwhile, Latino players—nearly all of whom are immigrants or the sons of immigrants from Caribbean lands—are among the leading figures in the sport. It is as hard to imagine an All-Star game today without Alex Rodriguez or Albert Pujols, as it once was without Robinson, Mays, Reggie Jackson, or Barry Bonds. Why did this ethnic turnover happen?

In Raceball, Rob Ruck blames team owners in particular and the relentless exigencies of the marketplace in general. “The exodus of African Americans from baseball,” he writes, “began amid a radical makeover in the sport’s political economy that wiped out much of the black community’s baseball infrastructure.” Corporations purchased most clubs from family owners, and, to make a healthy profit, they allowed television coverage of nearly every game, which sapped energy and spectators from “independent, community-based” teams. In the 1980s, MLB scouts and teams began opening “academies” in the Dominican Republic, where they developed talented teenagers at a fraction of the cost it would take to train their African-American counterparts on the mainland. As a consequence, black kids no longer come of age “watching their fathers, older brothers, and neighbors playing on the sandlots or hearing stories about legendary black ballplayers.” Americans of all races now view Jackie Robinson as a political symbol rather than an athletic icon.

Ruck has an exceptional grasp of the history of both black and Latin baseball. His narrative is thick with details that extend beyond such oft-told tales as Roberto Clemente’s resistance to cruel jokes about his command of English and the de facto segregation of the MLB executive corps, which remained intact until a quarter-century after Robinson had first donned a Dodger uniform. During World War II, for example, the Homestead Grays, cream of the Negro Leagues, drew more spectators than did the all-white Washington Senators, whose stadium they used when the latter went on the road.

Ruck also reveals that it was Cuban migrants who brought baseball to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. This occurred in the 1880s, years before American occupying forces in those countries put their own stamp on the game. And he tells the delicious story of the attempt in the 1940s by the Mexican multi-millionaire Jorge Pasquel to offer lavish pay boosts to such white stars as Ted Williams and Stan Musial and such black ones as Martin Dihigo and Ray Dandrige (all of whom are now in the Hall of Fame) if they would quit their American ball clubs to play for his league south of the border. Only a volley of lawsuits and white baseball’s threat to boycott any sporting goods firm that supplied equipment to the Mexican League squashed this grave threat to the Major League monopoly.

But Ruck’s explanation of baseball’s “whiteout” in recent decades is finally unconvincing. The bejeweled hand of commerce, televised and otherwise, has long gripped each of America’s three major professional team sports (the NHL came rather late to the party); but from kindergarten through high school, black youths thrive on amateur football and basketball teams. The relative lack of scholarships for college baseball, as opposed to those for its rival sports, does help to induce black athletes to feed at the NCAA’s pots of plenty. But it is odd that Ruck, a left-wing historian who knows something about political economy, hankers for a bygone age when passionate amateurs played before adoring local crowds. Back then, the best black athletes were always willing to leave their local teams for a regular paycheck and to perform, whenever possible, in front of large, integrated audiences.

Ruck also neglects how the global reach of baseball is gradually making the professional sport more multi-racial than either of its main competitors. Today more than a third of minor leaguers are Latinos, while an increasing number of players in both the majors and the minors hail from East Asia—and the sport is just starting to mushroom in China. In a decade or so, when gifted American kids from immigrant backgrounds make their way up from Little League, white Americans may become a minority on MLB rosters—as they already are in the NFL and NBA.

Baseball has always been my favorite sport, and so I wish that the same preference was still true for millions of black athletes and spectators. I occasionally fantasize that LeBron James is a power-hitting outfielder and Kobe Bryant a quick and graceful shortstop able to steal bases with abandon. But such brilliant athletes make large fortunes and are famous all over the world for playing a different game that they love. Like any human endeavor—and like any business—every sport has to evolve or die. Few black Americans appear to care for what no longer deserves to be called the “national pastime.” Baseball historians like Ruck and fans like myself will just have to get used to it.

Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent. His new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, will be published in August.