According to Satchel Paige, James “Cool Papa” Bell was so fast that he could turn off the lights and be in bed before the room got dark. As for Satch, when he was on the mound, he once told his infielders and outfielders to lie down on the grass and relax while he struck out the side. And then he did.
Those were the stories that kept me reading into the night when I was eight years old. I liked Major League heroics too, but the Negro leagues’ carnival atmosphere fascinated and delighted me. It was renegade baseball — star-studded talent plus personality. They weren’t permitted to compete against the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. So what? They had John Beckwith and Josh Gibson.
Being shut out of the glitz and glamour of big league cathedrals gave black baseball an element of righteous nobility. It was beyond civil rights. These were great ballplayers being denied the chance to compete. I reveled in the tales of bravery when Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby integrated the Major Leagues. There was something transcendently awesome about two men — through personal excellence and good sportsmanship — proving the entire world wrong.
I used to think that baseball was passed in the blood from one American generation to the next. Some boys were born with it. Some weren’t. But I thought the game was eternal.
I was wrong.
As it turns out, baseball is a weird, unintuitive game that, unlike other sports, doesn’t necessarily reward natural athletic ability. Baseball requires unique, specialized skills — an unnatural throwing motion, a sculpted swing, a fearlessness at the plate as fastballs are thrown directly at you, and the mastery of at least one complicated position. Each skill requires development over hundreds of hours of practice. There are also rules galore that a player must learn to be able to make split-second decisions in the field. In short, a six-year-old American boy only becomes a baseball player if it’s important to him. And it’s only important to him if it’s important to his father.
And that’s why, season after season, the number of black baseball players drops.
As a Cleveland Indians fan, October is generally my most tragic month of the year. I’ve always loved the clean slate offered by April. But for the past several years, even April has been tinged with a sense of loss. In the 1970s, one in four big leaguers was African-American. Last April, just 8.5% of ballplayers were black. This year, there are likely to be even fewer.
Some admirable efforts have been made to start urban leagues in the hopes of recruiting young black kids to the game. It won’t work. Black kids don’t need gloves, bats and balls. They don’t need lessons on the fundamentals. What they need is a reason to care. Black kids need fathers, and most don’t have one. Without fathers, baseball dies.
Since the 1970s, fatherlessness in African-American homes has been on the rise. Last year, over 70% of black children were born out of wedlock. If black men and women start getting married and staying married tomorrow, the situation could theoretically begin to correct itself in 20 years. Of course, that’s probably not going to happen.
The odious term “baby daddy” has been unleashed on our culture, but it’s not race-specific. At 70%, blacks have the highest unmarried birth rate, but the situation is dire across the board. More than half of Hispanic children were born out of wedlock last year, and over 40% of all babies born in America in 2011 lack committed fathers.
That’s tragic for America’s pastime and a generational catastrophe for America. (Yet still — out of superficial magnanimity and profound stupidity — we subsidize and encourage out-of-wedlock births via welfare. But I digress.)
If the fatherlessness trend continues, and there’s no reason to think it won’t, the baseball universe will continue to shrink. Our “national pastime” has already slipped to fourth on the list of America’s most watched sports. Most baseball fans were once baseball players. With fewer six-year-olds on the ballfields, baseball could return to its beginnings as a regional game in a few generations. The tragedy within a tragedy is that the loss of baseball’s future is also a loss of its past. When a game is no longer played, its heroes don’t matter.
Baseball is a romantic game, full of drama, confrontation and long odds. When a batter steps up to the plate, it’s him against nine, and he will succeed or fail on his own. That’s what makes baseball so deeply American. Ours is a culture that champions the individual’s right and responsibility to make it on his own. If we lose baseball, we’re losing a bit of that ideal as well.
Yates Walker is a conservative activist and writer. Before becoming involved in politics, he served honorably as a paratrooper and a medic in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He can be reached at email@example.com.