The revived attention in recent months to Jackie Robinson’s role in desegregating professional baseball in the 1940s has come at just the time the sport is wrestling with another issue: The low number of African-American players and fans.
In fact, Allan H. (Bud) Selig, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, recently convened a 17-member diversity task force to study the issue of African-American players in the league.
African-American players accounted for 8.5 percent of the league’s rosters on opening day. That is down from the high in 1986, when Black players from the United States made 19 percent of the league’s teams, according to research by Mark Armour of the Society of American Baseball Research.
At the moment, of the players in Major League Baseball, 62 percent are white, 28 percent Hispanic and 1 percent are Asian, the league said.
Also, research has indicated, the level of Black baseball fans has fallen in the last 20 years as well.
It is a far cry from the years before the integration of Major League Baseball, when Black fans supported a national baseball league of their own, the Negro League.
“As a social institution, Major League Baseball has an enormous social responsibility to provide equal opportunities for all people, both on and off the field,” Selig said, in a statement.
He added that the league has already in existence two programs that should address boosting the numbers of Black baseball players over time. One, called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, provides playing opportunities in baseball and softball for youth ages 5 through 18 in underserved communities.
The other is the MLB Urban Youth Academies, which it said has served more than 10,000 young people around the country.
"It’s not a quick fix situation,” said Wendy Lewis, senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances for Major League Baseball, in an interview with BET.com. “It’s a long-term issue and one that is very important to the commissioner.”
Lewis said that the diversity panel is likely to recommend the expansion of existing diversity program and to highlight others initiatives that are less well-known.
In addition, the league is sponsoring a diversity business summit in June in Houston, where representatives for all 30 clubs will look into how to attract a more diverse population and increased supplier diversity.
She added that the diversity panel is expected to operate for some time.
”It’s a continuum,” Lewis said. "The commissioner has put together a vigorous group and I don’t think Major League Baseball will ever take their eye off of the prize of enhancing this sport.”
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(Photo: Matt Solcum - Pool/Getty Images)