On Saturday when Hall of Famer Dave Winfield watches major leaguers take the field wearing No. 42 on their uniform jerseys to commemorate Jackie Robinson Day, it won’t fill him with a sense of pride or send chills down his spine.
“It’s good, but it’s largely symbolic,” Winfield said earlier this week. “Because Jackie Robinson opened the door for everyone of color 70 years ago, the players today are international and diverse and we should celebrate that diversity.
“But while the players on the field are diverse, and a full one third of them international talents, I’d like to see more African Americans on the field, in front offices and in managerial jobs. I’d like to see more substantive progress – hard, continuous, evident changes. I’d like to see numbers and percentages, more inclusion, more participation, more fans.”
In his current role as a special advisor to Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark, Winfield is playing an important part in what has become one of the union’s top priorities – reversing the disturbing downward trend in African American participation in baseball and keeping more young people involved in the game.
According to the Society of American Baseball Research’s annual integration spread study, the number of African American major leaguers is floating around its lowest level since 1957. SABR’s review concluded that just 6.7 percent of major leaguers were African American in 2016, down dramatically from 18.7 pct. during Winfield’s heyday.
“Baseball has always been the No. 1 game for me,” Winfield said. “But unfortunately, African American participation has regressed since I started playing. We’re going in the wrong direction. It’s dispiriting. Jackie Robinson wouldn’t be happy with where things are today. That’s a fact.”
Along with Clark and colleagues at the Players Association and Major League Baseball who have delved into the decline, searching for its root causes and solutions that can make an impact, Winfield acknowledges it’s a complex, nuanced issue that didn’t begin overnight and won’t be resolved overnight, either.
Many would agree the manner in which the sport has evolved at the grassroots level in the United States over the past several decades has played a significant part in the decline.
“There is this pay-to-play culture that’s becoming pervasive across the country. That tends to make the game exclusive rather than inclusive,” he said. “Pay to train. Pay to join a team. Pay for all of your equipment. Pay to travel. Pay to play in tournaments. Pay to play in showcase games. People are being sold on the idea that maybe if you spend all of this money you can make it to the top and be a professional player.”
Many of those studying the issue believe that part of the cultural evolution in baseball is leaving far too many kids on the outside. These are often poor kids in urban and rural environments whose potential will never be known.
“There’s very little encouragement and support for the kids who can’t afford all of these luxuries,” Winfield said. “What about the older kids and teenagers in the middle who might have wanted to play baseball for recreational purposes? That part of the youth baseball landscape is falling apart. We’re losing a lot of kids this way.”
The Players Association and Major League Baseball are beginning to address some of the issues through the joint Youth Development Foundation they launched in July 2015 with a $30 million commitment whose mission is to improving the caliber, effectiveness and availability of amateur baseball and softball programs across the United States and Canada.
The Players Association is putting an emphasis on better organizing the underutilized human resource of former players who are the game’s greatest ambassadors. Many former players are already working with young ballplayers in their own hometowns in a variety of capacities across the country. Many other former players want opportunities to be involved developing the game.
“We’re in the process of tapping into current and former players who are making a difference in the youth baseball space in their communities,” Winfield said. “I think a great deal will come from that in the short and intermediate terms. Another approach we’re taking is identifying and supporting independent youth baseball ecosystems – leagues and programs — around the country. There are so few of them, but we want them to survive and continue in those communities where there is a commitment to baseball.”
The Players Association is determined to ensure the resources coming together through the Youth Development Foundation and the developing network of former players in communities around the country are making a difference on the frontline – the ball fields where young people learn and develop a passion for the game — rather than for symbolic programs that have scratched the surface in the past.
The union believes that to reverse the trend the Major League Baseball community must engage, equip, coordinate and organize to change the narrative in the places where African American participation has dwindled most.
“The system is totally different than what it used to be,” Winfield said. “So we’re going to embark on efforts to save what’s salvageable and leverage those remaining organizations that need our support.”
Winfield believes these are the kinds of efforts that might make Jackie Robinson happy.