NCAA: Where are you on baseball diversity?

by Greg

Bill Gates laughingly tells the story that he's not too popular at cocktail parties when he insists on talking about diarrhea. Turns out diarrhea kills many kids in the developing world, and his foundation is focused on trying to stop that. Why avoid an important topic, even if it's uncomfortable (no pun intended)?

Similarly, I am not too popular on my own blog when I talk about our abysmal record of attracting and retaining black baseball players. Seven years ago I wrote about the 'crisis' for CodBall, and raised it again a few years ago on a trip to the Dominican Republic, whose rising numbers in the MLB are helping to offset the sadly diminishing number of African American players in this country.

The New York Times weighs in again this week with an article about a new MLB report on the sobering number of African American players in the Big Leagues.

According to the league, only 8.3 percent of players on 2014 opening day rosters identified themselves as African-American or black. The highest percentage of African-Americans in the majors, according to research by Mark Armour of the Society of American Baseball Research, was 19 percent in 1986.

The league is reported to be focusing on three remedies: expanding Major League Baseball’s existing urban leagues and academies; improving and modernizing coaching; and more aggressively marketing players. 

While the story acknowledges there are other ideas on the table, I don't understand why Major League Baseball would not prioritize a college baseball pipeline. We already know that players overall in this country can drive up their draft value by succeeding at the college level.  Why not partner with the NCAA to create expanded college opportunities for African American players? The NCAA should insist on this as a major priority with or without the MLB.

What might this look like? It's not as simple as offering scholarships, although that would help. The NCAA and MLB should partner with the United Negro College Fund, historically black colleges and universities, the College Board, top charter schools like KIPP and get serious about building this pipeline. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the head of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, go on national news programs to talk about college basketball and football issues. Why not baseball?

The Cape League, the West Coast League and other summer collegiate leagues should be part of this pipeline. Don't we al want to see more Mo Vaughns, Albert Belles and Frank Thomases playing on elite summer diamonds?

Jim Collins, in his excellent book about the Cape League, wrote, that "the players in the Cape Cod League reflected not professional but college baseball." Chatham, the team he chronicled, didn't carry a single black or Latino player in 2002. It had just 14 black players dating back to 1990.

Last night at the Mariners and A's game I noticed that my favorite vendor, an African American man originally from South Shore High School in Brooklyn, had brought his family to the game while he worked. Dropping off some food for them and darting back to work, he told me that he had played baseball on his high school team. South Shore is now closed and he's found a better life in the Seattle area. He said his three year old lives and breathes baseball, which was apparent on Felix Hernandez appreciation night.

Let's hope the NCAA and MLB figure out how to keep youngsters like him interested in baseball and that we see them in summer college leagues and in increasing numbers on MLB fields.