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Braves’ move is the latest blow to blacks in baseball

atlanta-braves-black-players 600My grandmother, with skin as dark and smooth as molasses and no formal education, never had a will. She didn't need one. She left this earth with a little under $100 in her savings account. But Alice Cole Robinson gave me some things good money cannot buy: an enduring faith in God, her banana pudding recipe, and a devotion to the St. Louis baseball Cardinals.

We couldn't afford to go to more than a few games a season. And even then, only when nose-bleed seats went on sale. My cousin Bookie and I used to crawl into the backseat of my uncle's old white Buick for the short drive to Busch Stadium. Grandma Alice never went. She preferred to sit in her upper room and listen on her transistor radio perched on the windowsill. She could see the brightly lit stadium from her armchair as she listened to Jack Buck call the game.

I was raised on big league ball. The 1982 World Series was like Christmas in our house. I will never forget pitchers like Joaquin Andujar and Bruce Sutter. Coming up, I had heroes like Oberkfell, McGree, Hernandez, and the Smiths—Lonnie and Ozzie. Manager Whitey Herzog and Cardinal legend Lou Brock were nothing short of gods in our house.

 

 

When it was warm enough outside, it wasn't unusual for a pick-up game to get started on the empty lot next door to our house. The lot, big enough to hold four condemned and demolished homes, became our field of dreams. It didn't matter if you were a girl or a boy, if you could hit, you could play. I got my behind tanned pretty good one summer when I made off with my Auntie Gerry's new red broomstick. My Uncle Ross and old man Caradine from across the street got together and purchased four bats and some gloves after that.

I played shortstop, back-flipping into our makeshift infield like Ozzie Smith. "The Wizard" was my idol. When I was coming up in the '70s and '80s, the baseball field and the stands were as integrated as any time in history. It's different today. Salon.com notes a 2005 Harris Poll in which "47 percent of African-Americans named pro football their favorite sport; only 6 percent chose baseball."

"Baseball has become an afterthought in black America," says Salon writer Rob Ruck. He's right. Major League Baseball has become a white man's game.

Again.

Without question, the game has changed. The number of U.S.-born blacks in the game has declined significantly in my lifetime. In 1975, African-Americans made up a quarter of all players and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with other marquee pro-ballers. Today, they make up less than a tenth of big league rosters. More African-Americans were elected to Congress as Republicans in 2010 than played in the World Series the following year.

Although MLB teams around the country still boast a healthy dose of diversity, that tapestry is largely drawn from Caribbean or Hispanic-American communities. However, thanks to the skyrocketing cost of attendance, ticket-holders are increasingly white and middle class. It's a changing dynamic that many, including owners and coaches, have grappled with and sought to explain. In April of this year, Commissioner Bud Selig named a 17-member committee to study the issue.

Some sports writers dispute that there is a problem at all and take issue with the studies. Others, like ESPN's Tim Keown, speak plainly about athletic redlining.

"Major league baseball didn't create it," says Keown, "but it must address it to have any real hope of changing it."

Over a decade ago, Selig launched a minority hiring initiative designed to force teams to interview a minority candidate for a major opening. Frank Robinson broke the color barriers for MLB managers 40 years ago. Though even today, there are only two black managers—Dusty Baker and Ron Washington. Then too, led by the league's Urban Youth Academy and Baseball Tomorrow Fund, many teams have community outreach efforts with the mission of increasing play among young black boys and other disadvantaged kids.

While many are looking at the way the sport's popularity has grown and receded in some communities, only now are we paying attention to how those economics impact team location.

When the Atlanta Braves announced they were taking the team to the suburbs last week, I was not surprised. I have called Atlanta home and the Braves my second-favorite team for nearly 30 years. I brushed away tears the day Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the 'Launching Pad,' was demolished in 1997. In three decades, I have witnessed our growth as a city and as a region.

Reasons for the move differ based on who you're asking. Some are spot on. Others miss the mark like a wild pitch.

Various pundits will point to the way professional sports teams "shake down" cities across the country. Huge public investment, with little economic return. In the case of Atlanta, local columnists chided two-term Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed for playing favorites, they say, with Falcon's owner Arthur Blank. They outright blamed Reed to letting the Braves get away. Reed, like the Braves, made a business decision.

For the city, keeping the baseball team would mean strapping taxpayers with a bill they cannot pay. The promised economic development around Turner Field never materialized. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the funding for the new, state-managed, Falcons stadium will come from tourism dollars—people that don't live here—and the city got a multi-million-dollar community investment commitment on paper. The Braves organization simply found a better situation in neighboring Cobb County, just 12 miles up I-75.

Sure, without MARTA (Atlanta's rapid transit system) they'll need helicopter shuttles to get fans across the north metro in time for the first pitch. But Atlanta doesn't stop at the city line anymore. It is a ten-county metro. That said, we remain – like many other big cities—largely segregated. Even with an all-black outfield line-up that includes stars like Jason Heyward, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons, the new Braves stadium will be closer to their largely white base of ticketholders.

And that matters.

It still pains me that Atlanta's downtown has lost one of the nation's premier sports teams. But intellectually, it was the right deal for Atlanta and the Braves. It should also be said that Marietta, where the proposed site is located, is not the "lily white" town some sports journalists and political pundits would have you believe.

Although, elected officials up there might pay for the secretive negotiations and the coming traffic jams. As anybody stuck at the I-75/ 285 interchange will tell you, getting home can be a living hell—with or without a baseball stadium. But, I wish them well. They've got four years to work out a transportation strategy. And when they do, I'll be there.

But more than that, I wish we could find a workable strategy to bring baseball back to African-American communities. I got my hopes pinned on the next Heyward and Upton — both U.S.-born and black. Baseball is one of the most expensive youth league sports, especially when it comes to competitive team travel, equipment and the level of necessary parental involvement.

In today's development paradigm, a family's ability to contribute to a young player's growth makes all the difference. Unlike basketball or football, if you aren't scooping a ball by 3nd grade, your chances at major league play are small. So often, that begins with fathers.

(This has been a #breakingBLACK column. Goldie Taylor is a featured Grio columnist and her #breakingBlack columns will regularly appear every Monday. Follow Goldie Taylor on Twitter at @GoldieTaylor, and join the discussion at @theGrio with the hashtag#BreakingBlack.)

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