Steve Krah
Steve Krah
Baseball has been sports reporter Steve Krah's passion since childhood. In Season Tickets, there will be plenty of stories from the diamond, but that's not all. Look for stories about athletic happenings and personalties of all kinds.

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Reporter Steve Krah covers sports for the Elkhart Truth.

ESPN's Michael Wilbon talks about black MLB players at IUPUI program

In 1995, 19 percent of MLB players were black, but that number has dropped to 8.5 percent in 2013. Why the change? ESPN's Michael Wilbon discussed it during a program at IUPUI on Saturday.

Posted on April 15, 2014 at 6:58 a.m.

There's no denying numbers in baseball.

On Opening Day in 2013, Major League Baseball rosters counted 8.5 percent as American-born black.

That's compared with about 61 percent Caucasian, 28 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian.

The percentage has not been at or above 10 percent since 2008. As recently as 1995, the figure was 19 percent.

Michael Wilbon, who once covered MLB for the Washington Post and now breaks down the National Basketball Association on television and co-hosts the popular ESPN Show "Pardon The Interruption" with former Post columnist Tony Kornheiser, takes a swing at lining up the contributions of baseball to civil rights while the numbers of black players and fans decline.

"Sport has almost always led the rest of our culture in racial awareness," Wilbon said as keynote speaker at a program called "Civil Rights and the National Pastime: The History of Black Baseball in Indiana," hosted Saturday, April 12, by the Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis School of Journalism. "Jackie Robinson and the Color Line can't be ignored. It's a seminal moment in American history. It's every bit as important as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala."

Wilbon, who is 55 and black, pointed out that baseball paved the way for inclusion, but has lost its cool factor with many blacks.

"The irony of that is sort of inescapable," said Wilbon, who grew up on the south side of Chicago as a baseball fan.

"My father took me to baseball games," Wilbon said. "That's what we did. I remember being 4 years old and seeing Mickey Mantle hit a home run off the facade at Comiskey Park and my father lifting me to make sure I saw it.

"I take my (6-year-old) son to baseball. The (low) number of African-American parents I see with kids at baseball games scares me. This is not something we do. We have decided that this is not cool. This is not for us."

So the numbers dropped.

Wilbon said there are those that would say, "That's not a math problem, that's a Michael Jordan problem."

About the time MJ came along, basketball began to surpass baseball in the imagination of the black sporting public and it still has a tight grip.

When Wilbon talks with youngsters — regardless of race — all of them know LeBron James, but few know about (Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder) Matt Kemp.

Wilbon notes that the marketing of basketball has shown it as more glamorous and fast-paced — something baseball often is not — and more and more have chosen hoops over the diamond.

"We can't convince black and brown children in a lot of places to play baseball," Wilbon said. "We can give them all of the equipment in the world, outfit them with uniforms, they are not playing baseball.

"You are clearly going to have to make this product more accessible and more exciting before you bring in the people you appear to be missing either as a talent source or consumers."

The way Wilbon sees it, people are putting too many eggs (or basketballs) in one basket.

"All of our kids are not going to play professional basketball, we need to go back and be much more diverse in our sporting interests," Wilbon said. "It's bad business for us to only be interested in basketball in my opinion."

But it's just not basketball or football helping to shrink baseball's numbers among blacks.

"There was no soccer or lacrosse when I was growing up," Wilbon said. "You've got all these things taking great athletes away from baseball. How does baseball reclaim them?"

Wilbon offered no easy answer to that question.

The current level of participation may be the "new normal," but Wilbon suggested that Major League Baseball and baseball at the lower levels should not throw in the towel.

Wilbon applauded the efforts of programs like Play Ball Indiana, which brings baseball and softball to inner-city Indianapolis and MLB-sponsored RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), which has sent many players on to college scholarships and turned out umpires and groundskeepers.

"Are these programs enough?," Wilbon said. "Major League Baseball has to make a sustained investment."

At the youth level, it's a matter of having adults interested in watching and teaching the game in order to get the ball rolling in a upward direction.

"If you are losing African-American participation what are you gaining?" Wilbon asked. "I don't know, but that has to be considered."


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