I have watched sports most of my life. I admittedly know next to nothing about baseball.
Growing up, my friends hardly if ever discussed “America’s Pastime.” I attended a Mets game last week and it was my first time in a Major League ballpark since 1992, when I caught my last Braves game at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. The Braves haven’t played there since 1997. Even before I headed to this Thursday night game versus the Miami Marlins, I had to remind myself that the Mets no longer play at Shea Stadium. Hell, I was almost thrown that they weren’t playing the Florida Marlins. I’m almost totally disconnected from the game. This isn’t new. The most baseball I played as a kid was in P.E.; my friends never gathered with mitts and bats and headed over to the baseball field. We hooped at the park. We played football in the neighborhood. We didn’t play baseball ever.
“I could actually have a conversation with other black people about baseball. Now, if I ask another black person if they saw the Mets game last night, they’ll say, ‘What the fuck’s a Met?’”
Chris Rock, in a segment for HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, shared his frustrations with baseball’s disassociation from black America. The comedian laments the fact that he’s one of the last black baseball fans that he knows and explains how the game has alienated black people over the years. And he’s largely right. This was, after all, a conflicted marriage to begin with—and Rock points out how so much of the history that baseball celebrates comes from an era when black people were routinely marginalized and terrorized. But black people loved baseball. Negro leagues existed for almost 100 years—from the end of the Civil War up until the late 1950s.
Rock’s takedown of baseball’s inability to connect with contemporary black audiences was pretty spot-on in assessing the impasse between the sport and black fans. And the truth is, this is a relationship that ended a long time ago.
When I was young, there were a number of recognizable African American baseball stars like Ozzie Smith, Darryl Strawberry, Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, and so on. Even though I wasn’t all that interested in following baseball, I knew who these guys were—they were among the most recognizable stars in their sport and in American major sports in general. But by the late ‘90s, there were a lot fewer non-Latino black players in the majors, and aside from the buzz generated by the McGwire/Sosa race for the single-season home run record in 1998, the casual interest was close to non-existent amongst my circle of friends.
Did black audiences turn away from baseball because of the decline in black players? Or were there fewer black players because fewer black kids had grown up watching the game? It’s a chicken or the egg sort of sports argument. The answer is probably a little bit of both. An acquaintance mentioned that there have consistently been black Latinos in the majors over the last several decades. But as Afro-Latino players became superstars of the game, black America didn’t seem to connect with them enough to regain their interest as fans. I’ve often felt that a similar phenomenon happened in the NBA; as white American superstars became few and far between and European players became more visible, white American viewership remained low compared to that league’s ‘80s and ‘90s heyday when there were white American stars like Larry Bird, Chris Mullin, and John Stockton. In the 2000s, fans didn’t exactly embrace Dirk Nowitzki with the enthusiasm of a Larry Bird—even after Nowitzki’s Mavericks defeated LeBron James and the hated Miami Heat in 2011. There typically has to be some element of cultural connection and relatability. It’s not just skin color.
The much-maligned hip-hop generation came to be represented by a certain swagger in American sports stars in the early 1990s. With the emergence of men’s college basketball teams like UNLV and Michigan’s infamous Fab Five, Deion Sanders’ flashy “Prime Time” persona, and the NBA’s already aggressive promotion of individual stars, the professional athlete-as-rock-star became a part of our culture. Meanwhile, ever tied to the rose-colored aesthetics of tradition, baseball carried itself as the quieter, more genteel sport of Middle America—even as it grappled with the backlash from the 1995 lockout. This was not a sport for showboating and grandstanding—this was still “America’s game.”
“It’s the only sport where there’s a ‘right way to play the game’ — and it’s ‘the white way,’” Rock said, “The way it was played 100 years ago, when only whites were allowed to play.”
As Rock notes, baseball’s love affair with history has turned it into the granddaddy game of American sports. It’s John Fogerty in the era of Drake, and the nostalgia that has largely fueled the game’s popularity and sustained its mystique has faded. For a generation who grew up with the specters of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson pushing the NBA to previously-unforeseen global visibility and with the Super Bowl as the biggest American sporting event of the year and the NFL commanding such a huge part of the public consciousness, baseball just seems like a sport that only matters because it’s been around forever. Most fans are into the game because of their parents or grandparents. But it’s hard to get excited about it if you have no tradition of loving it.
I enjoyed my experience at the Mets game (they won 5-4) and it reminded me how much fun it can be to go to the ballpark. The crowd was spotty but enthusiastic, and the arena kept blaring “Nothin’ But A G Thang” by Dr. Dre. They’re trying, I thought. Hip-hop is everywhere at this point, but the fans in attendance were largely white and middle-aged or older. There is no easy way to change that. And that does mean that baseball’s “America’s Pastime” tag is becoming more of a novelty title; sort of like a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug. Black people, by and large, have moved on from the sport, and it’s probably far too late to try and put this relationship back together. But don’t be mad at Chris Rock for telling the hard truth. We can still pretend to care about the game when something historic happens and we’ll always have love for great baseball movies. But don’t expect to keep coasting on history and nostalgia, MLB. Actually put in the work in the schools and the communities to draw interest to your sport. If you want black people in the stands and on the field, act like it.
It’s time to step your game up.