With his bat, his glove and his flair, Dave Parker put himself in the pantheon of artists from the All-Star Game. He won the first Home Run Derby in 1985 in Minnesota, six years after his throwing arm gave him the All-Star most valuable player award in Seattle. That was in 1979, when his Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series.
“We took on the role of the black people’s team,” Parker, 70, said by telephone this week. “We had 12 different combinations of uniforms, we had flamboyant players. If we hit a ball and it passes the first baseman, you better be on the defensive, because someone wants to take the second base. ”
“It saddens me,” said Parker, who highlights the bygone era in his memoir, “Cobra: A Life of Baseball and Brotherhood,” published this year by the University of Nebraska Press.
“They lack speed. They have the 24th or 25th husband who is not a brother who was previously a brother. You have black players who can do several things, not just squeeze-hit, but go out and steal a base, make an excellent game. I just think they ignore the black player. ”
The absence of the black American player will be strong at Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Denver. Of the 32 All-Stars named to the original NL list, only one is black – Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Betts was also the only black player among the 55 who participated in the World Series last fall between the Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays.
“It’s incredible,” said Al Oliver, 74, a seven-time All-Star in the 1970s and ’80s. “I did not know. There is one. ”
Oliver, who played most of his career with the Pirates, was born six months before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of baseball in 1947. Oliver, growing up in Ohio, said he gravitated toward baseball because “you saw someone who looked like you. ” At his first All-Star Game, in 1972, Oliver had 11 black teammates on the NL list, including Nate Colbert, Lee May, Hall of Famers Fergie Jenkins and Billy Williams and several others on their way to Cooperstown.
“McCovey, Morgan, Stargell, Brock, Mays, Aaron, Gibson,” Oliver said. “It was almost an all-Hall of Fame team.”
The disappearance of so many black players from the modern game is one of the most critical problems for a sport seeking ways to stimulate action on the court and raise its appeal through crossover stars.
The game is packed with dynamic talent, including those featured on the banner on MLB’s Twitter account: Ronald Acuna Jr., Shohei Ohtani, Fernando Tatis Jr., Jacob deGrom and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. All are magnetic attractions, though no one is African-American – and when a sport loses about 60 percent of any demographic within 35 years, there must be something important.
“Diversity in our game is important – it has been and will continue to be – and athletics in our sport is important,” said Tony Reagins, head of baseball development for MLB. “I think the two things go hand in hand – also the cool, youthful, societal influence that the game in terms of diversity can have on the culture itself. All of these things lend themselves to the importance of African Americans, specifically being a part of the game in a marked way. ”
Reagins, who is black, is the former general manager of the Los Angeles Angels. He joined MLB in 2015 with the task of overseeing the development of youth baseball and softball with an emphasis on encouraging black participation. The Reagins had hoped to see more progress at the major league level now.
“When I first arrived at the site in New York and we were building this department, I thought five years was a legitimate goal,” Reagins said. “And once you’ve pulled back the layers of onions, there’s a lot of work to do.”
The pipeline is promising enough: From 2012 to 2020, 17.6 percent of draft first-round picks (51 of 289) were identified as black or African American. The league has several diverse diversity initiatives in place, including a summer invitation, urban youth academies, a partnership with the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and a $ 10 million donation – made with the Players’ Association – to the Players Alliance, a group focused on improving black American representation on the court and in the front office.
Over time, it seems logical that this effort will yield more major leagues. But Reagins outlined some key reasons for the decline that are largely beyond baseball control.
“Economy is also a big part of it in terms of the cost it takes to participate in some of the travel or showcase tournaments, and some of the more expensive equipment that is out there,” Reagins said.
“I think the decline of the black church is part of that. And one of the other issues that is real is the lack of college scholarships available compared to the other sports, football and basketball. ”
In essence, baseball presents three significant economic barriers: the cost of equipment (bat, glove, helmet, spikes); the cost of the now important youth travel and showcase circuit; and the cost of college with Division I baseball programs allowed only 11.7 scholarships, most of which are partial. Men’s basketball teams get 13, and football teams get 85.
“I think a lot of kids want baseball, but they don’t even get a chance to try it at a young age because of how expensive it is,” said Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pirates’ rookie third baseman and son of the longtime Major Leaguer Charlie Hayes.
“It all boils down to getting the game out there for these kids at a very young age,” Hayes continued, 24. “When you get to high school or high school, it’s too late to try to learn baseball because it’s one of The most difficult sports. When I was growing up, I played with a bunch of kids who were really, really good, but they could not afford to go to that D-1 college. At some of these schools, even if you get a 40 or 50 percent scholarship, your parents will still have to try to pay $ 20,000 or $ 30,000 a year to go. ”
As his career continues, Hayes said, he hopes to help create opportunities for disadvantaged children to play the game. He said he was encouraged by some of baseball’s efforts, citing the Players Alliance and the Breakthrough Series, a prospect camp for players of color funded by MLB and USA Baseball.
But at the moment, one does not tell how much the sport has lost, in excitement on the spot and appeal off the field by losing so much black talent.
“It made it more competitive,” Parker said. “When we played against other black players, we did not let them go. We went out, we did not compromise. I would take Ozzie Smith out to the left field with a slide if I could get him. We just enjoyed competing and loved each other. ”