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Nightengale: Will Growth of MLB’s Black Population Continue?

Cleveland's Rajai Davis hits a fly ball during the second inning of a spring training game against the Oakland Athletics Feb. 27 in Goodyear, Ariz. Photo: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

By Bob Nightengale |

It’s certainly not worth celebrating, but Major League Baseball has at least made back the loss of African American players that a year ago resulted in a historic low.

The African-American population increased to 7.8%, up from 7.1% a year ago, on Major League Baseball’s opening-day rosters and disabled lists, according to USA TODAY Sports’ annual study.

It may not look like a significant increase, but it happens to be baseball’s largest growth since 2007-2008.

There are 68 African Americans on rosters, six more than a year ago, when baseball had its lowest percentage of black players since 1958.

Yet, despite the modest uptick, nearly one-third of all teams don’t have more than one African-American on their 25-man roster or DL.

“We’re starting to see some progress,’’ MLB executive vice president Tony Reagins says, “but is there a lot of work to be done? Absolutely.

“Our goal is to get our numbers back to 19% and 20%. That’s a lofty goal. But this isn’t a one-time effort. We are fully committed to this.’’

Major League Baseball no longer is accepting excuses for its African-American declining population, and is taking full responsibility.

For the first time, MLB is making every club accountable for its actions, sending out an extensive survey to each club asking how many minorities are in their front offices, among their scouting ranks, their coaching staffs, and players in their minor-league system.

It’s called the Diversity and Inclusion Annual Report, providing information and performance metrics of their initiatives during the past year. It will be the first time the Commissioner’s office has proactively shared the information publicly, and is expected to be released in two weeks.

“It is important that we create an atmosphere within baseball,’’ MLB said in a statement, “where diversity is celebrated and inclusion is promoted as a strength of our business.’’

Franchises failing in that mission will be publicly identified.

It’s embarrassing to Major League Baseball that the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox series this week features more African-Americans than three entire divisions.

The San Diego Padres, considered to have the richest farm system in baseball, once again do not have a single African-American on the opening-day roster. There are six other teams who have only one African-American.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and Mets, who play in the two largest cities in America, had only one African-American, 33-year-old Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp, active on Opening Day.

It’s unacceptable, MLB knows it, and insists it will do something about it.

“We’re ramping up our scouting efforts in inner cities,’’ says Reagins, former GM of the Los Angeles Angels, “and that’s going to be a big part of our objectives. We’re going to focus on going back to the inner cities, those high schools, those baseball programs, that have been forgotten.

“You’re going to see our scouts go back to the same areas that provided us with Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry and Eddie Murray and Kenny Landreaux in South-Central LA. That used to be a breeding ground for MLB. I think we have the opportunity to get back to that.

“It’s going to take work, but we’re committed to do that.’’

Major League Baseball executives don’t speak about it publicly, and are careful in choosing their words, but they understand this is their opportunity to take advantage of football’s spiraling issues with head injuries. There are five states with active proposals in legislature that would prohibit kids under the age of 12 from playing organized tackle football.

Parents’ growing concern with football concussions, and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) research, has helped trigger the dramatic rise in kids playing baseball. The annual Sports & Fitness Industry Association revealed in its annual report in 2017 that baseball had the highest growth (6%) of any major sport while football declined 4.7%. Casual play in baseball is up 49.1% in the last three years. The report also said that baseball has the second-highest participation rate among African-American youth behind basketball.

“We’re going to continue to do what we do with our Play Ball initiatives,’’ Reagins says, “creating that awareness and engaging with boys and girls in communities.

“And if we have opportunities to get more young people engaged because they’re not playing another sport, so be it. But we want to provide our best opportunities for young people around the country.’’

Certainly, MLB is encouraged by the influx of African-Americans in their amateur draft, featuring 41 players selected in the first round since 2012 – 20.1% of the 204 total selections. Last year was also only the fourth time in the history of the draft that the first two picks were African Americans, with Royce Lewis selected by the Minnesota Twins and Hunter Greene going to the Cincinnati Reds.

There should also be staying power among the ranks, considering that 75% of the African-Americans in baseball are 30 years or younger.

“I’m not smart enough to know what happened before, and the reasons for the lull,’’ Reagins says, “but I can tell that we’re fully committed to take advantage of our resources now.

“Hopefully, five years from now, we’re talking about 15 to 20% (African-American population), sustaining that, and growing from there. We want to continue to build that pipeline year after year.

“The commitment is there.’’

This time, for real.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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