Color of America’s Favorite Pastime Changing

As Latino players become a prominent force in baseball, Texas Tech University experts answer why.

When Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers in April 1947, his appearance shattered an 80-year baseball color line that segregated the game as a "white only" sport. More than 60 years later, the number of black players dwindles and players of Latino heritage have become a major force on the baseball diamond in the United States. Issues from geographic location to social changes in America have played into the influx of Hispanic players, said Mike Schoenecke, an expert in popular sports culture and former executive director of the Popular Culture and American Culture Associations. He is author of the book "All-Stars and Movie Stars: Sports in Film and History." For starters, Americans have started to pay more attention to football and basketball during the past several decades, he said. White and African-American athletes in turn have followed the fame and the fortune of the more popular sports. Also, it's more difficult to build a baseball diamond in urban areas, where many top athletes get their start. But because of baseball's fame in Latin America, this has left a vacuum in the United States for Latino athletes to fill. "Baseball is very popular in Latin American countries," Schoenecke said. "Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Rican baseball legend, he did a lot to build baseball diamonds all over Latin America. He was also very popular because he was the first Hispanic Player to win an MVP award. "Because baseball is so popular in Latin America, players have moved into the major leagues here. And that's angered some of the African-American and Caucasian players because now they can't get into the show. Although, we know that if you're not good enough to play the Game, you're not going to play at all. I think a lot of Latin players have a lot more drive, and they want to succeed more." Jorge Iber, professor of history and associate dean of the college of Arts and Sciences, is editor of "Mexican Americans and Sports: A Reader on Athletics and Barrio Life." He has written extensively on Latino athletes and said that baseball is the biggest U.S.-based Hispanic sport. Although there have been Hispanic players in the majors since the 1870s, the current trend of recruiting Latino players started in the late 1930s and early 1940s when the then Washington Senators, who eventually became the Minnesota Twins, were both a bad and frugal team. Senators owner Clark Griffith began using Joe Cambria to recruit players in Latin America - particularly in Cuba. The trend continued and really picked up speed in the late 1970s and '80s. "There is an increase of Latino fans because they see more players like them out on the diamond so they start to come," Iber said. "Black players, however, are dwindling." In 1997, 17 percent of baseball players were black. The University of Central Florida's Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports' 2007 study showed that only slightly more than eight percent of major leaguers players were black. Iber said that he feels the exodus of black baseball players can be attributed to the fact that baseball facilities are difficult to find in the inner city. Major league baseball teams are aware that black athletes are more attracted to both basketball and football, and because of the lack of baseball players they began a program called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI). Iber said the program was implemented as a way to try and bring blacks back into the game of baseball. Players from major league teams go into the inner city and work diligently to try to reach out to a group of athletes who have nearly abandoned baseball. "I think that to older African-Americans who can remember back to Jackie Robinson in 1947 breaking the color barrier, baseball is still important," Iber said, "but, the younger African-Americans are no longer as much into baseball." CONTACT: Michael Schoenecke, associate professor of literature and popular sports expert, (806) 742-2500 ext. 278 or; Jorge Iber, associate dean, College of Arts and Sciences, Texas Tech University, (806) 742-3831, or