By Alden Gonzalez, MLB.com
NEW YORK -- Jimmie Lee Solomon knows all about the dwindling number of African Americans in baseball. He acknowledges that it's a concern, he understands that it could be a while before change in the opposite direction is noticeable and he believes that Major League Baseball is doing everything it can to reverse the trend. But he is also quick to point out an obvious yet often-ignored fact.
"Baseball is more diverse than ever," said Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball development. "Forty percent of our players are from diverse backgrounds, from non-Caucasian backgrounds. So that's a good thing. But when the number of African Americans is declining, and you have areas from our country that are either underserved or unserved, now that is a problem."
In 2011, MLB once again will honor the history of African Americans in baseball -- a sport seen by many as a true pioneer in Civil Rights -- by staging its fifth Civil Rights Game in Atlanta, the central hub of the Civil Rights Movement. (The date has not yet been announced.)
The focus of the game will be on the contributions of African Americans to the sport, but a lot of the chatter leading up to the event will undoubtedly center on where baseball stands with regard to African-American presence, and what it can do to help turn it around.
In the 1970s, the percentage of players on Major League rosters who were African American was reportedly in the 20s. But in 2010 that percentage was 9.1, and it hasn't gone higher than 15 percent since 1997, according to the University of Central Florida's (UCF) Racial and Gender Report Card.
In addition, though such rising stars as David Price, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton have emerged recently, no more than five African Americans have been taken in the first round of the First-Year Player Draft each year since 2006.
"I think it's a big problem," said Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, who will be an integral part of next year's Civil Rights Game and the surrounding festivities. "I am very much disappointed in the way blacks, especially here in this country, have been able to play the game. I know the game itself, I know we have some serious problems, problems that people probably don't understand. We see African Americans playing a lot of basketball, we see a lot of African Americans playing football. Having played baseball myself, quite naturally, I'm concerned about baseball."
Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig has often talked about the desire to see more African-American players in the game, because he wants baseball to influence all cultures and because having the best athletes is easiest when the talent pool is as deep as possible. But many believe that somewhere along the way, MLB lost a generation of African Americans.
In hopes of making up for that, MLB -- like no other pro sports league, really -- has celebrated the history of African Americans in the sport with the Civil Rights Game since 2007.
Perhaps more important, it has started Urban Youth Academies (UYA) in Compton, Calif., and Houston -- with others planned for Philadelphia and South Florida, and the ultimate goal being to have one in each Major League city -- where inner-city kids can receive free baseball instruction and learn about other careers available through the game. MLB has also given more than $30 million to the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.
But Solomon believes that there's only so much you can do in 2010.
"There are more choices now than any time before," Solomon said. "Also, football and basketball have become very popular sports, and the majority of athletes in both those two major sports are African American. One can almost say that many of the African Americans migrated to those two sports, but I would argue that many of them had no choice but to migrate to those sports, because at least in urban America, basketball is available to you. The hurdles for participation are much less, the cost is much less and basketball, for whatever reason, has grabbed the 'cool' factor and made it theirs."
In addition, playing in the National Football League and National Basketball Association -- where last year African Americans made up 67 percent and 77 percent of rosters, respectively, according to UCF -- is easier to strive toward in the inner cities.
It's a lot quicker and more cost-efficient to put up a basketball hoop or find an open field in which to throw a football than it is to round up 18 players, find a proper field, and buy bats and gloves.
There's also the notion that the NBA and NFL offer quicker paths to stardom -- since those drafted don't necessarily have to toil in the Minor Leagues for years -- and the hard-to-deny belief that NCAA football and basketball lend more exposure than baseball.
"That's something I think the kids aspire to and kind of latch on to," Hall of Famer Andre Dawson said.
Those are simply present-day realities that can't be combated, but Dawson believes other things can be done.
"It all boils down to getting the youth back in the game, getting them exposed to the game, getting them to go out and actually play the game," the former All-Star outfielder said. "You just have to constantly pound it in the inner cities, constantly stay in the ears of community leaders, high schools, junior high schools, and just keep it in their face."
That's why Solomon pushes for the promotion of the Civil Rights Game and the expansion of the UYA and RBI concepts. He notes that although he doesn't think MLB will ever get back to the numbers from the 1970s with regard to African Americans, giving inner-city kids more opportunities to play the game at a young age will go a long way in improving those percentages.
And if they don't, at least the opportunity is there.
"I think [the numbers] will go up," said Dr. Richard Lapchick, the founder and director of UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. "Never to where it was, but I think they will go up. I think the popularity of basketball and football have seriously affected the pool of potential candidates."
Baseball, perhaps more so than any other sport, has to be taught at an early age in order for its players to succeed. The irony is that baseball is an especially tough sport to gravitate toward as a youngster if the resources are lacking.
"When we have an economic struggle in this country, especially in this country, the first ones who have the problem is African Americans," Aaron said. "So quite naturally, when you start talking about sports, that's the least thing that most African Americans think about -- buying baseball gloves and stuff."
Regardless of the reason, everyone involved in the game -- from those at MLB headquarters, the current players and coaches, and the living Hall of Famers -- essentially shares the notion that African Americans need to be involved more prominently as players.
At some point during the 2011 season, MLB will look back at the impact of iconic African-American ballplayers through the Civil Rights Game.
But it never stops looking forward to determine how that can continue to happen.
"I think that the numbers will increase," Solomon said confidently. "I think they'll be in the double digits, and I think that we're going to have a very representative number of African Americans when you balance it with the numbers that we have in our society. The more opportunities, the more numbers you'll have.
"I want -- and Commissioner Selig has made sure that all of us work -- to bring baseball back to urban America. And the opportunity that baseball provides should be there, whether the African-American kid in urban America decides to grab on to it or not."