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It has been pointed out before. But as the Nationals first take the field Thursday night for their home-opening series, it's worth mentioning again that they are playing in Washington, D.C., which is home to one of the highest concentrations of African-Americans of any major American city. That stands in stark contrast to the persistent decline of African-American players in major-league baseball.
The Racial and Gender Report Card on Major League Baseball which covers the 2004 season was issued last week to coincide with the opening of the '05 baseball season. And there was much good news on the issue of race in the game. Baseball received an A or better for opportunities for players, managers and coaches as well as for MLB's central office. Among the major men's professional leagues, MLB had the second-best grade for race, with a B+.
Some of the highlights:
• Arturo Moreno, who purchased the Angels last year, became the first Latino team owner in a major pro sports league.
• MLB currently has seven managers of color (four African-Americans and three Latinos), second only to the NBA.
• In 2004, 29 percent of the professional staff in MLB's central office were people of color, a close second to the NBA's 30 percent.
• In another close second to the NBA, 11 percent of team vice presidents were people of color. MLB had the most Latino and Asian vice presidents of any of the professional sports covered in the report.
• Among the men's leagues, MLB had the best record for people of color in the ranks of senior administrators (17 percent).
• Thirty-seven percent of MLB players were people of color: Latino (26 percent), African-American (9 percent) or Asian (2 percent).
Baseball has done any number of things to increase racial balance in the game. Yet as the new era begins in Washington, much of the focus on race and baseball is on the declining numbers of African-American players.
Only two members of the Nationals are African-American. Of the 25 players on the Nationals' roster, four are from Mexico, three are from the Dominican Republic, two are from Puerto Rico and one each is from Cuba and Japan.
Overall, less than 10 percent of the players in the league are African-American. These are the things that seem to be getting the most attention.
What has happened to African-American players?
The answer is layered. Since the 1970s, the sports of basketball and football have taken off in popularity in the African-American community. Basketball doesn't require a lot of equipment or space. Hoops can be found on garages in rural America and parks in urban America, all over the country.
Baseball fields, meanwhile, aren't nearly as available in cities across the land.
Another factor: There are fewer African-American stars in MLB to serve as role models for young people. In the 1980s, African-American stars statistically dominated the game. In 1983, roughly one in five players was African-American. In that season, half of the top 20 hitters in the National and American leagues were African-American. Among home run leaders, five of the top 11 were African-American, as were six of the 10 leaders in RBI and runs scored. Eight of the 10 hits leaders were African-American.
In the 2004 season, only two of the top 20 hitters were African-American. Two of the 10 leading home run hitters were African-American, and only one of the top 10 leaders in RBI and hits was African-American.
Obviously, African-Americans are no longer as dominant. Stars from the Caribbean have emerged in huge numbers, with dramatic impact. Therefore, if you are a young African-American looking for an athletic role model, the chances are much greater that you'll gravitate to an NBA or an NFL player.
In the 1980s, African-American parents in a position to direct their children into a sport might have seen the lack of opportunity for African-Americans once they finished playing the game. When Los Angeles Dodgers vice president Al Campanis made his infamous statement on ABC's "Nightline" in 1987 that African-Americans might not have "the necessities" to be big-league managers, there were no African-American managers in MLB.