Utah baseball diamonds a microcosm of nation’s declining black player population

Story and slideshow by TALON CHAPPELL 

View the local baseball culture around Salt Lake City.

When Brooklyn Dodgers player Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, he didn’t know that only 30 years later black players would be a staple in American baseball.

He also didn’t know that only 30 years after their resurgence, black players would be rapidly dwindling in number.

The percentage of black professional, collegiate and high school players has dipped every decade since the ’70s. Then, black players like Reggie Jackson, Ozzie Smith and Hank Aaron were dazzling crowds with speedy base running, golden glove plays and 450-foot home run bombs.

Almost nowhere else in the U.S. is this statistic more glaring than in Utah, where black baseball players at all levels are virtually nonexistent.

This begs the question: Why are black kids staying away from baseball diamonds? What can baseball do, in Utah and the rest of the US, to get more black youth involved in what was once America’s favorite past time?

“42” past and present

The story of Jackie Robinson is being chronicled in the new film “42,” named after Robinson’s jersey number which has been retired in every major league stadium in honor of his legacy.

“42” opened in theatres Friday, April 12, 2013.

The movie follows Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman) through his childhood learning baseball, his rise in the minor and Negro leagues, signing by team executive Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) for the Dodgers and the struggles he faced while playing in a white league and segregated stadiums.

Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, which was one year before the U.S. military was integrated, 10 years before Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and 12 years before the Boston Red Sox became the last major league team to integrate their roster.

Robinson laid the foundation for future generations of black ball players to enter the majors on equal standing with their white counterparts. He also got the black community to watch and pay attention to Major League Baseball.

Michael Wilbon, a respected ESPN baseball and basketball writer (and host of “Pardon the Interruption”) grew up in Chicago during a time when baseball was far more relevant in the black community than it is today.

“The talk in the barber shop wasn’t of Wilt [Chamberlain] and [Bill] Russell nearly as much as it was of [Hank] Aaron and [Willie] Mays,” Wilbon said in a Washington Post story. 

Baseball losing interest among Utah youth

Landon “Land-O” Dickerson is a center fielder for the Layton High School baseball team. He is also the only black player on the baseball team at his school, located about 30 miles south of Salt Lake City.

Dickerson first started playing tee-ball when he was 5 years old and knew that baseball was his sport.

“I grew up playing baseball. I played football and basketball too but nothing made me more excited than going to the batting cages in spring,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson never really paid attention to the fact that he was usually the only black kid on his youth baseball teams. He was too busy playing to care. While he was batting and fielding, his few black peers were pursuing the two other dominant American sports, football and baseball.

“I didn’t even think about it [lack of black players] ’til I started playing comp [competition level] ball. I thought it was weird that no other black kids wanted to play competitively, but everyone said I was weird for liking baseball more anyways so I didn’t really care,” Dickerson said.

Robert Ferneau is the head coach of the Layton High baseball team. He has had a long and illustrious career in baseball.

Ferneau played at Layton High before playing at the collegiate level, first at Snow College (Ephraim, Utah) then at Colorado State University. He then finished his playing career at Weber State University. After an injury kept him from being drafted into the majors, he focused his energy on coaching. After earning a bachelor’s degree in exercise and sports science, he came back to coach his alma mater in 1993.

During his 20-year tenure at the school, Ferneau has noticed the drop in participation from black players.

“There’s usually not a lot [black players] because of our community, but usually a couple per season. Now we get one or two a season, sometimes none,” Ferneau said.

Ferneau doesn’t think there’s a whole lot baseball can do to attract more kids, of all races, to play. But some options he thought would help include building and maintaining better facilities and fields, getting more kids involved with baseball and tee-ball at a young age and spreading exposure of professional black ballplayers.

Utah collegiate baseball completely lacking in diversity

The already dismal percentage of black athletes in baseball further decreases in the college ranks.

The rosters of Utah’s two major collegiate baseball programs (the University of Utah and Brigham Young University) feature no black players between them. Every other Utah college or university’s baseball program is club based and of those programs, only two had a single black player on their roster (Utah State University and Weber State University).

Ryan Madsen played college ball at the College of Eastern Utah in Price, Utah. He too noticed the decline in diversity when he got to the college level.

“I was always used to having a couple non-white guys on my youth and high school teams. When I got to CEU the whole team was white, and a lot of our competition was mostly white,” Madsen said.

Madsen believes that many black high school players don’t aspire to play at the college level because there just aren’t enough scholarships to go around.

“They’d rather try to get a scholarship in a different sport, or stop playing ball to get a job so they can begin to afford paying for college,” Madsen said.

After his two years at CEU, Madsen decided the cost and effort of major collegiate baseball was too high and he focused on his education. He graduated from the University of Utah with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2012.

According to a CBS Sports report, NCAA baseball programs can only offer 11.7 scholarships per season. This means that most of those scholarships are split among multiple players, which adds to the already staggering cost of a college education for those athletes in less-than-desirable financial situations.

Only 11.7 scholarships for baseball, as opposed to 85 scholarships handed out by major college football programs. It doesn’t quite add up.

Black players being replaced in the professional ranks

Utah’s three minor league teams have a combined four black players on their rosters, only two of whom are of African-American descent. The state’s most prestigious team, the Salt Lake Bees (AAA affiliate for the L.A. Angels) have no black players on their roster; the Orem Owlz (AA affiliate of the L.A. Angels) have one black player from the Dominican Republic and the Ogden Raptors (AA affiliate of the L.A. Dodgers) have three black players, one from the Dominican Republic, and two from the U.S.

Chances that were once being given to promising young African-American players in major league farm systems are now being given to the wave of players from Latin-American and Caribbean countries.

According to a CNN Money article, most of the reasoning behind the transition from homegrown to foreign players in the majors is purely economic. Because of the relative poverty within these countries, it is cheaper for major league teams to train, develop and sign a player from Latin America or the Caribbean than it is to do the same in the U.S. Because of this, every major league club has an academy that offers schooling and baseball training in the Dominican Republic, as well as 10 clubs that have one in Venezuela.

In response to this, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig set out to build the U.S.’s first homegrown baseball academy.

“We’ve already built development academies in the inner cities … We’ve got one in Compton that everyone raves about, we just opened one in Houston and we’re building one in Miami and Atlanta,” Selig said in an ESPN interview.

Black players only make up roughly 8 percent of major league rosters and 25 percent of those individuals play for three teams (Yankees, Dodgers, Angels). This represents a major decline from the 27 percent in 1975 and even from the 19 percent in 1995. Selig told ESPN “that winning back the African-American athlete [may be] his last hill to climb” before his retirement in 2014.