When Aurora’s Hinkley High School baseball coach Nick Dixon was a boy, like a lot of kids who play the game, he would try to emulate the batting stance and swing of his favorite player.
“Griffey is the guy. [Ken] Griffey Jr. was my guy,” Dixon said of the former Seattle Mariners slugger who dominated baseball in the 1990s. “His swing was a pure swing. I imagined I was him always growing up.”
Griffey is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame alongside the greatest players to ever throw or hit a baseball. And he’s an elite African American Major League Baseball great in a sport with a rich history of Black players who have provided some of baseball's most romantic memories: Jackie Robinson breaking the game’s color barrier in 1947. The incredible overhead catch by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series. And Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run in 1974, just to name a few.
But since the days when Griffey dominated baseball in the 90s, the number of Black players in the major leagues has dropped significantly. And Coach Dixon — who is one of only a few African American head baseball coaches in Colorado high school sports — laments that in a game once full of Black superstars, many youth often don’t see themselves represented.
“I don't think there’s an idol or something for these kids to look up to right now,” he said.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research, Black people made up more than 18 percent of Major League Baseball players in the mid-1980s, a period dominated by the likes of Black greats like Griffey, Tony Gwynn and Albert Belle.
But over the last four decades, Black representation in the game has dropped precipitously. And on Opening Day of this year, the percentage of Black players on MLB rosters was just 7.6 percent — and that’s even slightly higher than in 2020.
“There hasn’t been a large Black fan base in Major League Baseball for the past 30 years,” said Richard Lapchick, director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, a nonprofit that studies race and gender in sports in relation to overall patterns in society.
“And if you're a 13-year-old Black boy in the 7th grade and you're trying to decide what sport you're going to play, you have a ton of role models in the NBA and NFL and not so many in Major League Baseball,” Lapchick said.
According to his most recent studies, more than 57 percent of NFL players and more than 74 percent of NBA players are Black.
But the decline of Black players in baseball is seen at all levels, from T-ball and Little League through college and the pros. And when kids don’t see many people who look like them in a sport, Lapchick says they’re less inclined to play it.
“That’s the power and importance of diversity and inclusion: Whatever you're doing, if you don’t see people who look like you, you're not going to feel as included as you would be if there were people who looked like you in your office or playing second base as a baseball player,” Lapchick said. “When everybody else doesn't look like you, you're always going to feel isolated.”
This season, Coach Dixon had just one Black player on his team, Ethan Adams, at a school that is about 11 percent Black and an Aurora Public Schools district that’s about 18 percent African American.
“Yeah, I see that a lot, especially in Colorado,” Adams said of the dearth of Black baseball players in the state. “A lot of the kids that I've played against and teams I’ve been on, there's a dominance of mostly White people.”
So, why is baseball having such a hard time attracting Black players? There's a number of reasons, but many point to cost as one of the biggest.
“We've become a very expensive game to play and that's hurt everyone from top to bottom,” said Chris Mann, an African American head coach of the Northglenn High School baseball team.
Mann is mostly talking about club sports, which usually offers a more elevated level of play for kids who are trying to get the attention of major league and college scouts. But Mann said club dues can cost up to $10,000 for a season — and that doesn’t include travel.
And because the overwhelming majority of college baseball players played club sports, many talented high school kids who can’t afford to play at the club level aren’t on scouts’ radars.
“That's really the reality in all sports,” Lapchick said. “Those travel teams are the elite level of who’s playing whatever the sport is, but in baseball, it's clearly been a white suburban factor in the equation.”
Another culprit: Many families can’t afford the cost of equipment just to play the game.
“Basketball, you need a pair of shoes and a basketball really,” Mann said. “Baseball, you need a bat, you need a glove, you need a pair of cleats. And all those are a couple hundred bucks each.”
And for a lot of parents who have to decide how to spend their family’s money, it’s not much of a choice at all, said Adams.
“Mostly I think it’s because of money and family,” Adams said of Black kids who don’t pursue baseball. “Because a lot of kids quit sports to take care of their family or they don't have enough money to pay for it.”
Then there’s other logistics.
“There's a basketball court on every corner but there aren’t as many baseball fields as there used to be,” Mann said. “The other thing that makes it tough: Basketball is a sport you can play with one or two people. Baseball, you need 18 guys.”
And in a sport that once featured players widely known by a single name or moniker — Hank, Willie, Mr. Cub — there aren’t a lot of Black Major League Baseball players these days who are household names that kids identify with.
“You look at basketball, there's your LeBrons, there’s KD, those guys,” Mann said. “So obviously that plays a huge part into it also. There’s really just not anybody to look up to, anybody to admire (as far as modern-day African American baseball heroes).”
Major League Baseball has tried a lot of things over the years to attract more Black players.
There’s the Players Alliance, a group of current and former Black players that donates their time and baseball equipment to communities of color across the country. Members of the Players Alliance, including former New York Yankees star pitcher C.C. Sabathia, will hold a youth skills clinic at Sonny Lawson Park in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood on Monday.
And the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program (RBI) aims to get more kids playing baseball in underserved communities.
“And because Major League Baseball has diversity, equity and inclusion programs that have just started within the past few years, and every team has a DEI committee, we’re making a concerted effort to change the look of our game and it’s intentional and it’s time that we do that,” said Jim Kellogg, vice president of community and retail operations for the Colorado Rockies.
With the Rockies hosting this year’s midsummer classic, the club is partnering with the league to award more than $5 million to Denver area community programs, including RBI, through the 2021 All-Star Legacy Initiative. With the new money, Kellogg says he hopes to boost participation in RBI by 25 percent over the next four years and fund expenses associated with RBI regional tournaments.
Kellogg says the challenges in getting more Black people playing baseball should be addressed at these early stages of development.
“We understand as the institution of Major League Baseball and the Colorado Rockies baseball club, that we have a philanthropic responsibility to give back to our community and to make a difference within our community,” he said.
Lapchick said baseball has made smart and significant decisions of late that have received positive attention from those involved in social justice issues. That includes the league’s move to incorporate Negro League player statistics in MLB’s records and the decision to move the All-Star Game out of Georgia, after new laws were enacted there that many feel restrict voting rights.
“There are a lot of people in the Black community who noticed that and appreciated that because it really came out of nowhere,” said Lapchick. “That's going to make Black people feel more comfortable with baseball in general. How quickly that helps change the numbers of people who are playing, children playing or grandchildren playing, remains to be seen.”
Lapchick is also encouraged by results from recent Major League Baseball Drafts, which show promising signs for the future of Black professional players. Between 2012 and 2020, more than 17 percent of the players drafted in the first round of the draft were Black, many of whom were involved in MLB-led youth development programs growing up.
And Lapchick says while baseball has struggled to attract Black players, Latinos from various countries are driving the sport’s overall diversity.
“A lot of Latino players are coming from the Carribean,” Lapchick said. “They have helped create a Latino fan base, so more young Latino players are playing the game in larger numbers than Black players.”
While there are a lot of hurdles to getting more Black kids playing the game, one thing that the Rockies’ Jim Kellogg and Hinkley High’s Chris Dixon agree on is the importance of simply playing catch with your child.
Chris Dixon established bonds with his son, DJ Wilson, throwing a ball around in a park.
“It’s given me so much, like a connection with my dad,” Wilson said. “We connect so much about playing it … it's just so much of a fun pastime.”
Dixon was introduced to the game at a young age by his grandpa, who played in the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system. The two often played catch when Dixon was growing up.
“I don't remember ever not playing baseball,” he said. “I started T-Ball at like 3 or 4. But parents are busy now. So they’re not able to go out and play catch. That’s really the first time that everybody feels that love of baseball, is just going out there when you’re 2, 3, 4 years old. Dad buys you a glove, you play catch. And I don't think that happens like it used to. It used to be America’s pastime. I don’t see that so much anymore.”
It’s a pastime Dixon said many Black kids are missing out on. But he hopes that someday soon, the game will once again be the home of Black heroes like the ones he and his grandpa grew up watching.
“You want to see people doing things that look like you, come from where you came from and that it’s just possible,” Dixon said. “If you see somebody doing it who looks like you, it’s possible to achieve that goal.”
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!