Thursday, July 20, 2006

COLUMN -- Integration opened the door, competition is diversifying game

Posted by Craig Westover | 10:19 AM |  

Thursday, July 20, 2006

In 1863 Ned Cuthbert of the Philadelphia Keystones recorded baseball's first stolen base. Also in 1863, President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. At Gettysburg he wondered if a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal could long endure.

Baseball and racial conflict are both part of the American experience. Pioneer Press sportswriter Gordon Wittenmyer reminded us of that last week in a three-part look at "Baseball's Blackout," the declining number of African-Americans in major league baseball.

Despite a nagging undercurrent of implied racism, the gist of the series supports a more complex explanation for the decline of African-American players in baseball. What Wittenmyer reveals about race and baseball is what also lies outside the lines; integration opens competition. Dealing with race is an individual, not just an institutional, issue.

Redemptive Liberalism. Conservative Shelby Steele, who is African-American, describes a view of difficulties — poverty, crime and poor education — that presumes them to be beyond the control of black communities. He contrasts that with a view that does not deny the possibility of outside influence, but refuses to presume it and instead takes responsibility.

The percentage of African-American ballplayers is clearly in decline. Today, 8.8 percent of major leaguers are African-American. That's the lowest total since the major leagues were fully integrated in 1959, down from a high of 27 percent in the 1970s.

"Could (the decline) have been predicted," writes Wittenmyer. "Maybe prevented — by even a modest amount of attention to the cultural structure of the major leagues?"

Steele characterizes such sociological questions as presuming a necessity for societal intervention. The assumption is society has the moral obligation to act.

Under that assumption, actions are evaluated as much, perhaps more, for their redemptive value for society as they are for actual benefit. Indeed, the genesis of Wittenmyer's question is that major league baseball has a moral obligation to maintain the "cultural structure" of the league.

The greatest generation. Douglas Hartmann, a University of Minnesota sociology professor quoted in the articles, suggests that the conditions in baseball parallel integration in the larger society.

"You have this high point in the '50s and '60s where Americans as a nation realized the faults of slavery and Jim Crow and stood up against that and started creating policies to sort of reverse those trends," he said. "And starting sometime in the '80s, as people are willing to spend less money on those specific programs, you start to see gains African-Americans have made at least stagnate if not decline."

Steele, writing in "A Dream Deferred," provides a contrasting view. He notes that in the first half of the 20th century, about 50 percent of the entire black population of the United States uprooted and left the poverty and racial bigotry of the South and moved north. Without "community" leadership, without white support, in the face of the long odds of poverty and poor education, this generation, perhaps the real "greatest generation" of Americans, within roughly 50 years pushed the nation to repeal virtually all institutionalized vestiges of discrimination.

Why, asks Steele, do many African-Americans today remain in northern inner cities decades after the jobs have gone, in some instances no farther than the suburbs? Why can uneducated immigrants with little or no English come into the same neighborhoods and thrive? Why, we might ask, has the percentage of Latino ballplayers increased from less than 10 percent in 1990 to nearly 30 percent of major league rosters today?

Individualism and race. One answer, which presumes the decline of African-American ballplayers is due to external influences, is that Latino ballplayers are taking advantage of dozens of baseball academies in countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

Presuming that is a cause and assuming the moral obligation of Major League Baseball to African-American players, the prescribed action is Major League Baseball responding with a similar program. And it has, opening this spring the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. And as Wittenmyer notes, in its zeal to show how much it is doing to reverse the decline in African-Americans playing baseball, Major League Baseball has made false claims about the project's success to date.

That is not a knock on the effort, but rather an observation of what happens when the motivation to act is personal redemption rather than connecting with the problem; public relations precedes accomplishment. Contrast that with the relatively quiet action of the Twins' Torii Hunter.

Hunter, writes Wittenmyer, grew tired of waiting for others to address the issue. Acting as an individual, he is working with Little League Baseball's Urban Initiative to rebuild under-funded, at-risk city programs (www.toriihunter48. com). Hunter's personal involvement has inspired African-Americans and other players to get involved — up close and personal. He's making things happen.

Lesson to be learned. Institutions can provide access to opportunities, but individuals act on them, or not. Integration opens competition. Jackie Robinson opened the door for African-American ballplayers, and also for Latinos and, today, Japanese and Korean players. If African-American baseball heritage is to survive, individuals, not institutions, must drive the effort — whether for the sake of integration or simply love of the game.