Baseball is the hurrah game of the republic . . . America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere—belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life. —Walt Whitman

Once upon a time, there was a fifth-grade boy whose sixth-grade friend, in the absence of the boy’s father, marched him to the local community center and signed him up for a youth basketball team. Just a few months later, the same sixth-grade homie marched that fifth grader over to a local park and signed him up for a Little League baseball team. That fifth grader was me. The sixth grader was the homie Stevie.

From then until I graduated from Portland Community College, I played on an organized basketball team. (All-league, too.) But beyond that one season, I never again played organized baseball.

For one thing, it felt like baseball never needed me, to say nothing of wanting my presence. For two, I couldn’t practice it alone the way I could basketball. Not to mention, the truth that I never saw baseball players as aspirational—that far as I could tell, they failed to transcend their game, or even their teams, to become stars in the culture. Sure, there was Rickey Henderson, and Darryl Strawberry, and Dwight Gooden, but none of them reached the cultural coolness of Magic Johnson, no baseball player celebrated their feats with the panache of Air Jordan at mid-court (go ahead—name a kid who ever begged his parents for baseball-player-shilled kicks to wear to school); and even two-sporting Prime Time styled different in an end zone than he did after crossing home plate.

Research into the dearth of U. S.–born Blacks playing in the MLB turns up a few well-worn (albeit reasonable) theories.

It was—and remains—as if baseball strove to make its players automatons, on and off the field. Say what you will about Dennis Rodman, but dude was nobody’s snooze.

No one I knew attended high school baseball games. But damn near everybody I knew (they were Black, too) attended big high school hoop games, support that turned the city’s rivalries into community events replete with raucous crowds, school bands, and hella hyped cheerleaders.

To keep it a buck, baseball has never been the hurrah game of my republic, has treated Blackness as little more than a symbol.

No wonder—according to a report released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), Major League Baseball has a smaller percentage of Black players now than it has had in any year since TIDES began assessing the demographics. American Black players made up 18 percent of all MLB rosters in 1991; on opening day in 2022, they composed a paltry-ass 7.2 percent. (And 28.5 percent were Hispanic or Latino.) The situation is so flagrant that last year, for the first time since 1950—mind you, just three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier—there was not a single American-born Black player on the roster of either team in the World Series.

Last year, for the first time since 1950—mind you, just three years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier—there was not a single American-born Black player on the roster of either team in the World Series. Photographed above, the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays.

Research into the dearth of U. S.–born Blacks playing in the majors turns up a few well-worn (albeit reasonable) theories. A lack of diversity in management and ownership. The economic advantages to culling players from Latin America rather than developing them on home turf. The whiteness of college baseball. The expensiveness of training and travel ball.

Dusty Baker, a 19-year MLB veteran as a player and the manager of last year’s world-champion Houston Astros, tells me a story about his father once scraping up $125 for him to attend a high school basketball camp hosted by NBA stars Rick Barry and Al Attles. Baker was one of a few Black boys there, so high was the entry fee. The camp helped him. “I was shooting across my face, and they straightened my arm out,” he says. “They did one adjustment. I went from 12 points a game in my junior year to like 23 points. The same thing could happen to another kid in baseball—if they could afford to go to a camp.”

To blame structural socioeconomic issues sounds like a convenient alibi. Forbes reported that MLB set a record in revenue last year, grossing almost $10.9 billion. I find it unfathomable that a league in which teams have spent more than $3 billion on contracts this off-season alone can’t muster the resources to develop more than a scarcity of Black players if it so chooses.

Do remember, MLB makes a whoop-de-do over the great Jackie Robinson breaking its color barrier. But that was part of the broader, do-or-die civil-rights movement. The contemporary lack of American-born Black players has sparked nothing close to a collective effort, has been treated as little more than the confluence of unfortunate exigencies.

Back in 1989, former major leaguer John Young formed RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), which MLB took over in 1991. Today, MLB and USA Baseball host something called the Dream Series during MLK weekend, an event that develops the pitching and catching skills of elite, mostly Black players while affording them a platform to perform for scouts. But while the Dream Series is less than a decade old, RBI has been run by MLB for 32 years, which means the league identified the dearth of Black players decades ago and hasn’t cared enough about it to fix it.

The league wants to appear as if it’s trying.

And why would it try forreal when, unlike the NBA and NFL—which couldn’t survive without us, which let their Black players be Black heroes, which allow their players to have personalities, for better or worse—baseball seems not to need American-born Blacks to thrive?

Why would a league predominated by white men at the levels of ownership, management, and players put in the effort to change the status quo? And before you answer, add to your consideration the fact that, on top of record revenues last year, the World Series that Dusty and his Astros won averaged 11.78 million viewers on Fox. While that ranks as the second-least-watched World Series on record, it was on par with other major televised events. (The NBA Finals averaged 12.4 million.)

In 1857, a newspaper contended that America should have a sport of its own. And it didn’t get much more American than Civil War soldiers playing baseball and spurring its popularity when they returned home. The mythologizing of baseball as America’s game has included playing the national anthem and the presidential first pitch. All this “America’s game” propaganda at a time when Blacks were barred from playing in the majors.


Maybe the heart of the issue is whiteness itself. Baseball is a nationalist project. And don’t hurl a fastball at the messenger, but the idea of a true American has always been conflated with whiteness. America’s sport is part of that conflation.

On the other side of this are Black boys and their dreams of fame. For MLB to attract Black kids living in the “inner city,” it would have to treat Black culture as something more than symbols of a man who broke the color barrier 76 years ago. “It’s harder for these kids now,” says Baker, 73, a former four-sport athlete who admits basketball was his first love. “You don’t see the heroes on the baseball field, because they are very few. Most of the heroes are either football, basketball, entertainment, rapping.”

Why would a boy gifted with the talent of Robinson or Baker or Sanders or Jordan choose a game for which the necessary training has been made harder for him to obtain, a game that looks elsewhere for the talent he possesses? Why would that Black boy choose a sport that appears to care little for his culture (MLB was the last major sports league to make a statement supporting Black lives during the George Floyd protests), a league that has proven itself less concerned with and/or adept at marketing him into the kind of star who makes his community, his people, proudest?

Now, I don’t know about you, but I ain’t holding my breath for baseball to do the long work of developing Black stars, creating a culture that accepts them, and promoting them—and their Blackness—as an essential part of its game.

Not only did I quit playing baseball for good after one season as a Little Leaguer, but I also didn’t attend a single major league game as a kid. Hell, as an adult I lived in baseball-crazed New York for almost 20 years and still didn’t go. Except this one time in 2016 when I scored last-minute free tickets to a Yankees game. I couldn’t find a friend to accompany me, so I went solo-dolo. The tickets came with a VIP pass, and I ended up spending most of the game in the lounge—for what stake did I, who couldn’t for sure name a player and knew nothing of the standings, have in what happened on the field?—partaking of the free food and drinks while stealing glimpses of the game on the TVs.

Around the seventh inning, I decided that the least I could do was bop down and check my seats. Lo and behold, they were second row. From that prime roost, I heard the up-close crack of a batter swatting a big-time fastball; saw (mostly white) tykes beaming beneath the brim of their Yankee hat; whiffed the peanuts, beer, and hot dogs of my (mostly white) neighbors; and almost (let’s not go too far) sang along to the snatch I knew of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” It was a gorgeous gift of a New York summer day beholding the world’s most famous baseball team. And yet it wasn’t near enough to turn me into a fan, was also insufficient in inspiring me to attend even a single game beyond that one.

At bottom, I didn’t know the game, and it didn’t know me.

Hey, baseball: You want me or nah? How about you tell the truth, now.