LaTroy Hawkins, the 41-year-old veteran who will start his 20th major league season next month, appeared Tuesday January 20th on the MLB Network Radio to discuss his views behind the decline of African-American players in the majors.
“I think the numbers are down every year simply because inner city African-American kids, they know going to college on a baseball scholarship is almost extinct for them,” said Hawkins, who pitched most recently for the New York Mets in 2013.
Tim Keown, senior writer for ESPN Magazine, pinned the impact of declining African-American participation in an April 2013 article for ESPN.com, not on the lack of recognizable black stars, but the rising industry surrounding youth travel baseball. The proliferation of expensive summer teams and the increasing commitment to year round training have priced most African-American youths out of the game.
“The game of baseball for the amateurs, for the young kids has gotten so expensive,” Hawkins said. “Travel ball teams are $1,500 to travel for the summer. If would have went to my mom and would have asked her, ‘Mom, I need $1,500 to play on this travel team with the best players in the state, she would have looked at me [and said] – Hey, little league is $35 … and its $50 for you and your brother. I think I know where you’ll be playing at.’”
Often, those exorbitant fees are just for the costs associated with running the programs – umpire fees, league fees, tournament fees, baseballs, field rentals, and in some cases, the salaries of the coaches. Families are still responsible for durably equipping their kids with gear that continues to increase in price.
“In baseball, you need all of the equipment – glove, bat, spikes,” Hawkins said. “[Basketball] all you need is a pair of tennis shoes. You don’t take that for granted, but a majority of kids have a pair of tennis shoes that they wear to school.”
According to a study by Mark Armour and Dan Levitt of the Society for American Baseball Research, African-Americans only comprised 7.2% of all major league baseball players in 2012. Rates of African-American participation in the major leagues once were stabilized between 16% and 19% for a 25-year period from 1972-1996, but have now fallen to less than half that number.
One of the conclusions from the SABR study was that the steep decline was due in part to the expansion of roster spots in pitching and catching, two positions where African-American players have been grossly underrepresented.
Ironically, Hawkins, who is a member of the small fraternity of African-American pitchers in MLB, is one of the most vocal when it comes to this complicated subject. He has used his position to urge more teams to take a flyer on the raw talents that exist in the urban areas.
“I think teams need to take more chances on African-American kids from the inner city who hasn’t played as much baseball as the kid in the suburbs,” he said. “Get them in the system. Let them get on a minor league schedule where they’re playing baseball every day, all day long, [where] they’re learning, and getting professional instruction from your coaches in the minor leagues. That would mean the world in the percentage of African-American baseball players in the big leagues.”