Baseball doesn’t sit atop the peak of the Mount Vernon sports scene. Ric Wright, the city’s Director of Athletics, never had any illusions. Kids know the names Ben Gordon, Gus Williams and Kevin Jones, and dozens of others who played in college or just the playgrounds. But name a current Yankee?
“They know Aaron Judge,” Wright said.
Representation matters. (So does general excellence.)
Wright is a point person for Mount Vernon’s RBI program, which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. Since partnering with MLB a few years ago to bring down fees, the local league has doubled in size to 350 players. Numbers are still down from where they were 20 years ago, and yet the RBI program has made the game accessible while granting major league access.
“What RBI has done with us and for us is give us tickets to the games and let us go down on the field for batting practice,” Wright said. “That lets us see, ‘He’s playing in the pros? Maybe I could do that!.’”
Wright doesn’t need these young girls and boys to get drafted after high school, he just needs them to see roads and possibilities open up. The baseball is the fun part.
Last week marked 100 years since Jackie Robinson was born and this spring it will be 72 years since he integrated baseball. It has long been part of baseball’s mission to see that black players still see the league as a place for them, both as players and fans. To that end, the league keeps the legacy of RBI in place, while reaching to see what more can be done.
“We do recognize that this is mission critical,” MLB’s VP of talent, diversity and inclusion Renee Tirado said. “We take pride in the fact that we are America’s pastime. We recognize that the face of America has changed and evolved so we have to make sure that the faces and complexions we see are represented A to Z.”
And that’s what has been complicated about the idea of diversity in baseball. As numbers of black players have dipped and fluctuated, players from Latin America and Asia have earned roster spots, meaning that translators are a staple of many locker rooms. It’s a cultural exchange in addition to a numbers game.
The number of African American players has dipped to 7.73 percent, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports annual race and gender report card for 2018. The percentage of African American players crested in 1981 at 18.7, according to Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt’s research published by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). If you include Latin and Asian players, the number of non-white players in baseball is 42.5 percent this year, the highest it has ever been.
“We have to stay relevant to a new generation of fans,” Tirado said. “This is not a one-off, this is not something we’re doing to check off boxes. This is to make sure baseball is a top global sport.”
What baseball has changed is the approach. The RBI program started in 1989, but more programs have been implemented since. These are designed to get diverse young front office candidates, men and women, into doors on local teams and in New York. Tirado was pleased that in the first year of the program the league had 1,000 candidates for 22 spots.
“Those are all candidates who wanted to be a part of baseball,” she said.
Baseball has improved its record in hiring diverse candidates according to TIDES, which gave it a B+, and its record on hiring women has improved to a C.
When David James was growing up in Williamsport, Pa., everyone played baseball. He remembers the sport as a source of pride for the black community; the legacy of Jackie Robinson lived and breathed in his time on the diamond during the late 1970s. The game was a magnet for the community — fields were plentiful and the cost of entry was little more than your own mitt.
Now James is the MLB VP of baseball and softball. The RBI program is under his umbrella, but it’s a much bigger umbrella. He works with school districts and independent little leagues, with major league youth teams – the Dodgers have 9000 kids in their program – and recreational programs.
“Baseball is hard,” James said. “We all say if we get more at the bottom of the pyramid, more are going to funnel to the top, but you don’t really know when that will happen.”
Like other sports, the pool of players is being siphoned by travel programs. A player who may have excelled at baseball might be kept playing hockey or basketball year-round. James hopes that making access to fields and equipment more affordable can bring players back.
“Back in the day baseball was a huge part of the African-American community and culture,” James said. “I think all of these initiatives combined can help move the needle.”
As much as the kids in Mount Vernon had all those NBA players to look up to, there was a stronger connection to Robinson than they might recognize.
When Robinson took Ebbets Field for the very first time, when some players tried to block his arrival and fans were booing him, his teammate Ralph Branca went over and stood next to him.
Branca was one of Mount Vernon’s own, too.