College, pro ranks reap bitter harvest of three-decade trend

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The greatest day in the history of black-college baseball took place during the winter at a school that did not have a team.

On Jan. 9, 1975, South Carolina State’s Gene Richards and Willie Aikens were the top two selections of that year’s Major League Baseball draft. Never before or since have two players from a historically black college or university (HBCU) been selected with the first two picks of the draft.

Richards, from Blair, and Aikens, from Seneca, were teammates at SC State until the spring of 1974.


That was the year baseball ended at the state’s largest and most successful HBCU.

“It was a shock to me,” Richards said this week. “Don’t laugh, but I think I really was the last to know about it.”

In the years since, interest in the sport has eroded in black communities statewide. The numerous reasons range from the simple — television highlights — to the unquantifiable, such as congressional acts, marketing campaigns and lack of early exposure.

In the case of SC State, progress, of all things, delivered the final blow.

STRIKE ONE

Thirty-seven words ended five decades of baseball tradition at South Carolina State.

On June 23, 1972, Congress enacted a simply worded law known as Title IX of the Education Amendments. Meant to halt discrimination based on gender at federally funded institutions, its impact on college sports was immediate.

Like most schools, SC State scrambled to add women’s sports. After starting women’s basketball and tennis programs, the school faced a budget crisis. In addition, the school remained far short of achieving the scholarship balance required.

The solution — axe baseball in favor of a softball program

“It was the funding,” SC State athletics director Charlene Johnson said. “We just couldn’t afford to have both baseball and softball.”


There was another, much darker cloud looming. The growing popularity of basketball and football among black youngsters had yet to appear in the numbers, but within five years, black-college baseball programs began to notice a talent drain.

In Columbia, interest in basketball surged in economically challenged black communities as the cost to play baseball increased and the number of available baseball fields dwindled.

“Where you find the large population of blacks is on the basketball courts,” Benedict College coach Derrick Johnson said. “There are no baseball fields within the city limits. We’re not playing. You look at the history of South Carolina, and the pastime was baseball. In the backroads of the county, in Hopkins, Eastover or Gaston, everyone played the game.”

As Major League Baseball found out, that no longer was the case.

STRIKE TWO

By the time Major League Baseball launched its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program in the late 1980s, its goal of identifying teenage blacks in disadvantaged environments and give them the tools to succeed in the sport was too little, too late.

What the program discovered shocked its founders: There were not many blacks to nurture because few were playing.

Voorhees College baseball coach Adrian West became involved with RBI program in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., in 1993. While he fielded a couple of teams that year, he sensed a change had taken place.

The future, in the minds of most kids, was on the basketball court or football field.

“Kids that may have come out playing baseball saw the highest-profile black athletes were in basketball and football, and they began moving in that direction,” West said. “I don’t understand it because, if you look at the situation, in basketball and football, all you have is the NFL and NBA. Baseball has farm systems. It seems logical to me that if you wanted to be a professional athlete, you have a better chance of doing that in baseball.”

The NBA, in particular, with stars Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan leading the way, experienced a massive boom in riches and popularity.

“The black community was overridden by the marketing of basketball and football,” West said. “They show the glamorous lifestyle of basketball players and football players. When you see ‘SportsCenter,’ you always see the slam dunks, the fancy passes, the dribbling. In football, you see the touchdowns, the powerful hits, the running, the catching.”

As football and basketball captured the hearts and minds of the youngest generation, historically black college and university programs were forced to look beyond their traditional talent pools to stay afloat.

STRIKE THREE

A 2002 study of participation in NCAA sports revealed baseball was, by far, the least-played sport among blacks: They accounted for 6.7 percent of players at Division I programs.

The study also revealed many Division I historically black colleges and universities had diversified. Forty percent of Florida A&M’s roster was white or hispanic. Delaware State’s mix of blacks and other races was 50-50. Four-time MEAC conference champion Bethune-Cookman’s roster was 33 percent hispanic.

Smaller programs increasingly found themselves pushed to the fringe. At Division II Benedict and NAIA member Voorhees, Johnson and West struggle to find black players with sound fundamentals.

“You can’t survive on potential at the college level,” Johnson said. “Its about winning games. I have to look for players who are ready to play college baseball. I don’t look for potential players. I need guys ready to play baseball.”

With modest facilities, the program at Voorhees has wilted.

This past season, its team did not lack enthusiasm, but it led the nation in average errors per game (4.027) en route to a 14-21 record. Curtis Hills led the team with a .360 batting average and 23 steals but revealed a steep learning curve: He ranked sixth nationally in times caught stealing.

“I look for talent,” West said. “I don’t care what form or fashion it comes in. In a couple of different instances, baseball wasn’t the first thing on their minds.”

Hampering a player’s ability to learn fundamentals is the cost of equipment.

“Look at the cost,” Johnson said. “You have to have a glove, cleats and a bat. The glove alone can run you $50.”

Benedict’s program remains robust. With no field on campus, the team practices and plays its games at Capital City Stadium.

“It’s by far the best facility in our conference,” Johnson said. “We play a majority of our games at home because most of the teams we play want to come and play there.”

Benedict is building its own stadium, though it will be modest in comparison to Capital City, which Johnson finds bittersweet.

“Although we’ll be able to call our own shots, I doubt our facility will be as good as Capital City Stadium,” he said. “Right now, recruits can go online and see how nice Cap City is and they say, ‘I want to go there.’”

Despite the best of intentions, a school’s attempt to look forward could result in a step back.

NEXT BATTER

When he hears statistics about the low number of blacks in baseball and the conspiracy theories that the sport is prejudiced, Johnson sighs.

“We are playing less. It’s a shame, but that’s where it is,” he said. “I don’t think we’re being passed up. ”

Richards admits to being flummoxed at the attitude of blacks toward the game.

“Here’s what I don’t understand — baseball is the only sport I know of that’s totally unbiased,” Richards said. “Baseball doesn’t care how tall you are, how fat you are, any of that.”

In football, a player’s position is determined by specific factors.

“If you weigh 300 pounds, you have to be a lineman. If you’re fast, you have to be a wide receiver. You need to be 6-foot-5 to play quarterback,” Richards said. “Basketball is the same way.

“In baseball, you can be 6-9, 6-10 or 5-5 and play any position you want because all the positions require the same skills.”

Richards does not blame football and basketball for siphoning the black talent pool.

He blames coaches.

“That’s what gets me. Don’t be so selfish if you’re a coach,” Richards said. “Let the kid make the decision. Let him play another sport if he wants to. The University of North Carolina let Julius Peppers do that, and what happened?”

Peppers was a standout in football and basketball for the Tar Heels before deciding to stick with football. Now, he is a star in the NFL. There are other examples. Dave Winfield was a star football player at Minnesota before his Hall of Fame career in baseball. This past year, Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardziya announced he would forgo the NFL draft in order to focus on his baseball career with the Chicago Cubs.

Once, South Carolina State required its athletes to play a minimum of two sports in order to receive a full scholarship.

“You see it a lot, especially with football,” Richards said. “You force a kid to stay with one sport and he never gets off the bench, but who knows? If the kid had a lot of tools for baseball and was afforded a chance to play it as well? Maybe he would have been a star. Instead, you’ve taken a life from a kid. “

GETTING ON BASE

Progress has been made in terms of equality and financial gains in college and professional sports. Yet in baseball, that progress has worked against blacks.

What is the answer?

Richards said to look at what baseball is doing for Latin America.

“You see Major League Baseball setting up these academies in places like the Dominican Republic,” he said. “Do that here. Here, scouts and coaches have become lazy. They just show up to these mass tryouts and camps. They don’t go into the woods anymore.”

The RBI initiative is attempting to change that. After discovering the lack of teenagers playing the game, RBI turned its attention to the 12-and-under set.

Richards considers himself a guardian of the game. After a successful run as a manager and instructor in the minor leagues, he opened a baseball school last year in Reno, Nev., where he spent his first professional season in the Padres’ farm system.

His philosophy — baseball is a game based on failure. Success in baseball comes from failing less than the players around you.

“Baseball takes a lifetime, and a lot of black ball players don’t want to give their time to it,” he said. “Football and basketball are easier skills. Hitting a baseball is a difficult thing, and there are no shortcuts. If you take a shortcut, you’re going to be short-cut by baseball.”

Richards said there remains hope for the sport’s future in the black community. If schools such as SC State and its financial backers can see the potential rewards from taking the risks inherent in backing a nonrevenue sport, then perhaps days like Jan. 9, 1975, will come again.

Reach Patrick Obley at (803) 771-8473.

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