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Black College Baseball Programs Sliding in Popularity

Black College Baseball Programs Sliding in Popularity
By Levi Johnson

Major League Baseball was all but dead in the water in the late 1990s. A strike in 1994. Abysmal attendance records. Only a dramatic 1998 chase between Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs in a season turned the fortunes of the league. But even as MLB enjoys a resurgence in popularity, the “national pastime” is facing extinction at the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities.

There are currently 19 Division I baseball teams at HBCUs. And those programs are having an increasingly difficult time attracting enough Black players to fill out their rosters. But the lack of Black athletes isn’t specific to HBCUs. Just 6 percent of Division I baseball players nationwide are Black, reflecting a growing disinterest in baseball among young Black athletes. Not coincidentally, the number of Black American players in the Major Leagues is at a 25-year low. Blacks made up only 8.5 percent of professional players in 2005.

William Forrester Jr., executive director of the Richmond, Va.-based Metropolitan Junior Baseball League, says seeking out non-Black players at      HBCUs might be the only way to keep baseball alive on those campuses. His organization recently sponsored the third annual Bobby Bonds Memorial Symposium, held at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C.,
to discuss ways to rekindle interest in the game among the Black community.

“Having players from the White and other races is okay, as I see it,” Forrester said. “It’s no secret that these programs are not really making it as they are now. Therefore, there is a dire need to go in another direction, as this relates to the survival of the programs around this country.”

Forrester and many of the symposium’s attendees agreed that dwindling interest and a lack of funding and support from HBCU athletic departments are the primary threats to Black college baseball. The MJBL hopes to encourage young African-Americans to take an interest in baseball. 

“What our organization is about won’t correct all the issues that these college programs have to deal with,” said Forrester. “Money or stronger funding for these programs is the key to keeping them around.”

Michael Robertson, head baseball coach at historically Black Prairie View A&M University, is in full agreement with Forrester’s assessment.

“Better funding is the key because money increases the amount of scholarships we can offer, thereby providing more chances for a young man to advance in this game,” he said. Robertson’s squad claimed
the Southwestern Athletic Conference title this past season, and he earned coach of the year honors.

Division II Shaw University was also a champion on the baseball diamond, winning the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association title last season. But they have become the latest casualty of funding decisions that favor football and other more popular sports.

Houston Astros scout J.D.  Elliby says college administrators have given up on baseball programs.

 “Somehow, we have got to find much better ways to get people interested in doing as much as they can to help these programs grow,” he says. “Black college baseball in recent years has sent some good talent up [to the Major Leagues]. But the number of players coming from these schools who have a chance to make it has been going down over the past few years. It’s a trend that we hope will reverse itself very soon.”

During the symposium, former New York Mets standout Mookie Wilson said rekindling the passion for the game, especially within the Black community, will eventually help boost the sagging numbers.

“It has something to do with how the game is being marketed in our communities,” he said. “But the bigger problem might be with young people just losing interest [in the game]. What you need to do is help the youth establish a relationship with baseball.”

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