Commentary

Diversity important to Sox GM

As number of African-Americans in MLB dwindles, Williams weighs his obligations

Updated: June 13, 2012, 11:14 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Orlando Hudson has been on the Chicago White Sox for only two weeks, but he knows he holds a singular distinction.

"Now I'm the only one," the 34-year-old Hudson said. "I'm the long-lost brother of Chicago."

Hudson laughed, but he really didn't want to get into the issue, the dwindling percentage of African-Americans in his sport. Each of the past three times he had talked race and baseball, he said with a laugh, he got himself in trouble.

"I get too in-depth with it," he said. "It is a touchy subject for some people."

[+] EnlargeBlake Hickman
Scott Powers for ESPNChicago.comSimeon High catcher Blake Hickman accepted a baseball scholarship from Iowa, but as a 20th-round draft pick he has professional options.

Hudson, just released by the Padres, was signed by the Sox exactly a month after Marlon Byrd was traded from the Cubs to the Red Sox, so for that month there were no African-American players on either Chicago team.

On Thursday, the visiting Blue Jays had two African-American players, 31-year-old Rajai Davis, who was scratched from the starting lineup with an injury, and reliever Darren Oliver, a veteran of 19 seasons.

According to a USA Today story from April, only 8.05 percent of players on major league rosters were African-American. By comparison, in 1995, the percentage was 19 percent. The reasons for the decrease are manifold, but the decline is obvious. Baseball hasn't become homogenous, as the number of Latin players has skyrocketed.

But this season's glaring lack of African-American players in Chicago baseball is empirical evidence of an issue in the sport. Race is a hot-button topic, and with baseball, the one team sport historically connected to race, it's an important one to follow.

"That's why sports is under the microscope with regard to diversity," White Sox general manager Kenny Williams said. "There is a greater need for [diversity] in society as a whole. We can all learn something from one another."

But this year's draft featured the highest number and percentage of African-American picks (seven, 22.6 percent) in the first round since 1992, according to a Major League Baseball news release. Those numbers surprised both Hudson and Williams. Fourteen players were drafted out of RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) programs and two out of the White Sox's Amateur City Elite (ACE) program.

The second overall pick, outfielder Byron Buxton, is African-American. As is the 13th, Courtney Hawkins, selected by the White Sox. The Sox drafted slugging first baseman Keon Barnum, also African-American, in the second round. ACE team catcher Blake Hickman (Simeon High) went in the 20th round to the Cubs, while the Sox took ACE infielder DeJohn Suber (Morgan Park High) in the 38th.

"It could be a sign, it could be a sign," Hudson said. "They took [seven] in the first round, that's good. You know it, you see it. Back in the '70s, '80s, even early '90s, there were a lot of African-Americans in the game. But now it's declined tremendously."

Williams is one of two African-American general managers in Major League Baseball, and that makes him a role model. He is also conflicted. He said he has a social responsibility and a responsibility to the organization, and they aren't always in perfect harmony. But when it comes to his job, the responsibility to the organization wins out.

The White Sox have tried to encourage the game in Chicago through their three interlinking programs: the ACE travel team, the MLB RBI program and the Inner City Youth Baseball (ICYB) program for younger players. Williams enjoys talking to those kids. He likes interacting with them. And when he's speaking to the ACE kids, the social responsibility side of Williams comes through.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Hudson
David Banks/Getty ImagesOrlando Hudson is the only African-American on either Chicago baseball team at the moment.

"Some of the kids out here for pre-draft tryouts from the ACE program, I was like, 'You're not signing. You're not going into pro ball. You're going to school,'" he said. "Now there are family circumstances sometimes where you're going to do what you have to do, but I would hope that's the route they take."

But when he's drafting two African-American high schoolers with his first two picks, is he betraying his own words?

"There lies the inconsistency with the job that I do," Williams said. "My girlfriend [Zoraida Sambolin], she used to work in the educational system here in Chicago and now she's an anchor on CNN, she sent me a message after the draft: 'YOU,' in capital letters, 'YOU drafted high school kids and took them away from college?'"

Williams paused to laugh at the irony.

"So I had to explain this to her, because we talk about this and we believe in it whole-heartedly, and Zoraida held me accountable," he said. "Until I explained that these young men were going into professional baseball with or without me."

Williams has broached this topic many times over the years, and he always says the same things. He credits his life to playing sports as a youth, but the former Stanford student wants to see kids succeed in school first. He said he wouldn't have supported the Sox's program, or MLB's RBI program, without educational components. And don't get him started on the evils of travel baseball.

"Jimmie Lee Solomon and I had many conversations about [the RBI program]," Williams said of the former MLB executive who resigned Thursday. "He solicited my advice about it. One of the things I made crystal clear right from the very beginning, I don't support anything athletically unless it comes with an educational component, period."

Under Williams, the White Sox hadn't drafted a high school player in the first round since taking local product Kris Honel in 2001. And of course, Williams didn't think about race in the draft when the team, under scouting director Doug Laumann, took Hawkins and Barnum with its first two picks. Last year, the White Sox took junior college outfielder Keenyn Walker with their first selection and LSU outfielder Jared Mitchell in the first round in 2009. Both are African-American.

"When the pick comes up, we take the best player," Williams said.

Hickman, one of the kids Williams has pushed to attend college, has some thinking to do. He knows the signing bonus might not be there in the 20th round to push him away from school. But he wants to be a professional baseball player. The day after he graduates high school, he's headed to Cincinnati to play for the summer league Midland Redskins. He has a scholarship to the University of Iowa.

Hickman, a 6-foot-4 catcher/pitcher, didn't notice the dearth of African-American players in Chicago this year. He's young, so he's used to it.

"There's not very many black players in baseball," he said in a phone conversation.

For instance, there were four African-American players on the White Sox's 2005 World Series team. Before Hudson, the team opened this season with none.

At catcher, the New York Yankees' Russell Martin, an African-Canadian, is the outlier. African-American pitchers are few and far between.

Hickman, a White Sox fan, has been to Wrigley Field only once. At his own school -- the home of Jabari Parker, the nation's top prep basketball talent, and alma mater of Derrick Rose -- Hickman's baseball exploits make him stand out in a different way.

"At my school, it's like, 'What is baseball? You should play basketball,'" he said. "I'm like, 'Because I'm not a basketball player. I'm a baseball player.' I feel like people overlook baseball."

"I've learned from baseball how to be independent," he said. "Not to try to fit in with everyone else, to be different."

Parker, a year younger than Hickman at Simeon, made news recently when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Parker has a chance to go No. 1 overall when he enters the NBA draft in two years or more.

While Parker and Rose captivate the city's youth, Hickman hopes kids can look up to him one day, too. That's why he helps coach catchers in the Sox's youth league. When I asked him if he knew any city league players in the majors (Curtis Granderson prepped in the south suburbs), he said he knew of one: "Chamberlain. I can't remember his first name, but he went to Simeon."

He meant Wes Chamberlain, who last played in the majors in 1995. One thing is certain. For the downward spiral of black participation in baseball to reverse itself, kids need to be able to see themselves in the majors. As Hudson and Williams lamented, that's hard to do right now. And that's why this issue is important. Diversity and opportunity.

"Young people need to be exposed to things in their life where they can have hope and vision," Williams said. "If they can't see it, it's very difficult for them to dream it. They can't see the possibilities. It's no different than it was in my youth when I saw Willie Mays and Willie McCovey and Reggie Jackson."

It's a little different. A young Kenny Williams growing up in Chicago now just has Orlando Hudson.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

MORE MLB HEADLINES