Baseball's New Color Barrier

Dave Winfield played in 12 All Star games, won seven Gold Glove titles and helped power the Toronto Blue Jays to a World Series win during his 22-year career in Major League baseball. He won the game’s ultimate accolade as a first-ballot Hall of Famer—but his love for the game has been tempered by some profound concerns about the way the ball is bouncing. In his new book, “Dropping the Ball: Baseball’s Troubles and How We Can and Must Solve Them,” Winfield (along with coauthor Michael Levin) voices his view that baseball has been steadily losing its appeal among African-Americans—both on the field and off. If this problem isn’t addressed, Winfield and Levin write, there may soon be no more black players in the big leagues. Winfield, who now works as an executive with the San Diego Padres (the first of six teams he played for over the years), spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Jamie Reno about baseball’s fading fortune among blacks, and what can be done about it.

NEWSWEEK: Baseball’s revenues have never been higher and attendance has never been greater. But you say baseball is in trouble. Why bite the hand that still feeds you?
Dave Winfield:
I don’t look at it that way. Don’t be fooled by the title. This is a positive book with recommendations for a sport that I love dearly. It’s about offering up solutions to some of the problems. It’s not a matter of hurting baseball, it’s about enlightening people and saying, “Here are some things we can do to make it better.”

You attribute African-Americans’ fading interest in baseball to a number of economic and cultural factors, which you refer to as the Three C's: cost, continuity and competition. Can you briefly explain that?
There are scores of reasons why African-Americans have set the sport aside to a large extent—and I’m talking about fans as well as players. But most of these reasons fall under these three categories. I’ll start with competition. When I grew up, baseball was No. 1. There was a glove in everyone’s crib. No one thought football would have such a huge impact on society. Young people didn’t aspire to be NBA players when [Bob] Cousy and [Bill] Russell were winning championships. These sports have done a good job marketing players and their sport. As for cost, baseball was free when I was a kid—in every park and “rec,” every school system. Now it costs money. And to be good at it, parents have to pay for training, for travel, etc. Can a single parent in an urban setting on a fixed income pay for that? No. And then there’s continuity. Used to be, baseball was a constant from age 8 to 18. There’s a disconnect now in the neighborhoods.

How do you make baseball “cool” again among today’s inner-city youth without too much pandering and/or compromising of the game?
It’s a complex issue. But it won’t happen until players’ associations and Major League Baseball’s central office have a better working relationship—and their promotions and marketing departments find better ways to market the game to kids the way the NBA has, to make sure that urban kids know today’s baseball players by their first name like they do in basketball.

You say in the book that if the trend continues, the “last” African-American major leaguer is age 12 as we speak. Your son is 12 and a reportedly very good young baseball player in Los Angeles. What does he think of the book? And have you tried to get his friends to read it? 
I know his coaches and the parents of the kids he is playing with are reading it. At one of his games the other day, I was signing books and I’ve been doing so around the country. But these are 12-year-old kids. Are they reading it? Well, my son hasn’t done a book report yet. But he’s nearby right now, and I’m hoping he’s listening to this interview. If you look at the trend line, since 1975 we’ve gone from having from 29 percent Africa-American players in Major League Baseball to 8 percent. All you have to do is follow the trend line.

One of your ideas is the creation of corporate-funded “Jackie Robinson Grants” for inner-city youths to play baseball because there are so few baseball scholarships in the NCAA. Sounds great, but wouldn’t participants in other sports complain if these were given to baseball players only?
These grants are just one example of ways in which we have to think creatively to solve baseball’s problems. There’s an interesting dynamic going on between baseball and the NCAA. Professional baseball has taken a lot of student athletes away, and a lot of colleges don’t appreciate guys signing contracts instead of going to school. It’s a real stumbling block for kids who want to play baseball, because you typically only get half a scholarship in baseball. College is very expensive now, obviously, so when you’re going to high school and you look at your options and you see that you can get a full scholarship in basketball or football or many other sports, but not in baseball, your parents will say take the other sports. We have to find new ways to leap that hurdle.

In the “Baseball United” plan outlined in the book, you suggest that owners need to spend more money to make baseball readily available for kids in their area. How will you convince owners to do this?
I want to be careful here. I’m not telling baseball owners what they have to do, I’m just pointing out what may be interesting and effective ways of doing business. The way the sport operates, it’s up to every club to decide how they want to reach their community. Teams support everything from cancer organizations to scholarships. But every team strategy is different; there is no continuity, no requirement, there is no mandate from the top. In my plan, the league and owners would work together on a jointly agreed-upon campaign to reach communities. It would be a mandate of sorts, but really just another way of doing business.

You refer in the book to today’s typical professional player as being rich, pampered and disconnected from the fans and the communities in which they play. What kinds of reactions are you getting to the book among today’s players?
The reaction has been positive; players have been fine with it. They know it’s a privilege to play the game, not just a right. They know you have to respect the game, the fans, your organization. But part of what I mean when I say dropping the ball is that the public perception now of players is not what it used to be. We’re breaking records with income, but ask anyone if they feel the same way about the sport and its heroes as they used to. Most people will say they that while still love the game, they feel differently. The strikes, the Pete Rose gambling stuff, the steroids—all these things that have cast a pall over our sport over the last decade or so. Players used to come out after batting practice and talk to fans right before the game. That doesn’t happen any more. But if you talk to players about this, they’ll tell you they miss the way it used to be, too.

Your book touches on many aspects of modern life, including parenting. What are some ways you can get parents to “clean up their act,” as you say in the book, with regard to setting a better example to their kids in youth sports?
A lot of parents are doing great things. Anyone who volunteers as a coach, raises money, works with kids, is going great. I’ve said sometimes that kids will remember their coaches but they won’t remember all their teachers. It’s not a knock on teachers, it’s just true. You can make a wonderful impression. There are a lot of great parents out there working with kids in sports, but we’ve all seen and heard the horror stories. Do it right and you turn them on to the sport for life. Do it wrong, you turn them off for life. Kids have so many more options today, you have to do it right. My son ended up liking the sport, he has skills. But generally kids aren’t learning the game the way we did by playing for hours unsupervised. Strengthening arms, legs and lungs, they don’t do that any more.

Your book is implicitly and at times explicitly critical of Major League Baseball. But you’re still working in professional baseball as an executive with the Padres. Are there things you wish you could say but can’t? Are you holding back at all?
I didn’t hold back. I wrote what I felt, saw, know … I wrote it all. I think you always have to be cautious, to be sensitive as far as how you try to motivate people to embrace the concept of change and do what is right. But my very first sentence in the book is that I love the game of baseball. I took a positive approach. On the other hand, there is frustration sometimes when people see 100 reasons not to do some of these things. My feeling is, why don’t they just do it?

Have you heard from baseball Commissioner Bud Selig’s office since this book was released?
Yes. I won’t go into detail, but there are ongoing discussions. Nothing negative. They are very familiar with the book. They saw it before it came out. So did the Padres. So did the players’ association. But it’s all been very positive.

How many of the ideas conveyed in your book have you already been able to implement as an executive with the Padres?
They’ve been very supportive. We’re working on a campaign internally that includes players that conveys positive message for our target market. We’re also working on a positive relationship with players from the Negro Leagues. When I got there, we started an urban marketing program, we were not reaching that demographic. I’m a senior adviser—a VP; there are things I can do and I have done. But ultimately it’s up to the people out there, from youth baseball coaches to parents to fans to the players to the owners. It’s up to them. I wrote this book because I don’t know all the answers.

How long have you been thinking about these issues?
When I left [the] game in 1995, I had 70 ideas that we could do at a team level or Major League Baseball level to improve the sport. I helped many people with their 501c3 foundations and with other positive things. But when I left the game, the relationship between the players’ association and the league was very bad, and it’s still not as good as it should be.

In the book, you call the problem of steroids in baseball one of the worst scandals to hit any sport since the White Sox threw the World Series in 1919. Where do you think the current steroids probe is going? And when all is said and done how widespread do you think the toll will be?
I really don’t know where it’s going, but it’s creating lot of tension and friction. I don‘t want to speculate. All I can say is that there is a strong policy in place now to prevent performance-enhancing drugs from being used, from the majors to the minors. I’m very glad it’s in place now. But 10 years from now, people will look back on this era in a certain way. A lot of people, and the inflated numbers, will be looked at in suspect ways.  We may never know answers [about] what went on.

How closely have you been following Barry Bonds’s pursuit of Hank Aaron's home-run record? Do you think his inevitable breaking of this record this summer will be good for baseball, or bad?
I’m not going to answer that question the way you asked it, because I know both of them. I know Hank well, and I know Barry well. I don’t know what anyone did. My take is that it’s just really unfortunate that the entire nation isn’t following this home-run story, that baseball fans are split. Some are supporting it, some are not.

Is your vision for baseball’s future realistic or idealistic?
This sport can and must improve and advance itself and be more respected, and it can do this and still prosper even more so. I will use a lot of energy to make these improvements in local, regional and national environments. This is not idealistic. Yes, it can and will happen. Baseball used to be like a vast ocean, it was broad, deep and connected to everything. Today it isn’t like that. There are many big lakes, rivers, tributaries, ponds, streams, you name it, but it’s not all connected. But if you go to a Southeastern Conference baseball game, look at the ballpark, look at the enthusiasm, Go to Omaha and check out the College World Series. Go to Williamsport for the Little League World Series. There are a lot of places where baseball is still very strong, in big cities and small towns. It’s up to people to make it strong again everywhere. We just need leadership, and the will. It will be different in every city in terms of how they protect baseball and how they grow baseball. No one size fits all.

Is baseball still America’s pastime?
Depends on how do you define pastime. It’s the most important sport in America, It was developed here and was around 50 years before some of the other sports. But the fact that it’s been around longer doesn’t matter now. We can’t sit on our laurels, the numbers are changing and we can’t think the way we used to. It’s like the American automotive industry. They turned their heads, they took their eye off the ball. They thought people would keep accepting the way they built cars, but competitors started creeping in with better fuel efficiency, different designs. We invented cars in America, and we don’t even own 50 percent of the market share anymore. Baseball has to pay attention, we have to be more nimble, we have to think out of the box and be proactive. If we don’t, we, too, will get left behind.