It was Jackie Robinson who famously destroyed the color barrier in professional sports by suiting up for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Nearly 80 years before, shortly after the end to the Civil War, the Philadelphia Excelsiors went up against the Brooklyn Uniques in the first-ever public game between two all-black baseball teams.
Today, however, the connections between African-Americans and the nation’s past-time have begun to wane as fewer young blacks choose to play the sport.
According to a report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 19 percent of Major League Baseball players on opening day rosters in 1995 were black.
After 17 years that number has fallen precipitously. Last year, a mere 8.5 percent of all MLB players identified themselves as African-American. Other minority groups, such as Latinos and Asians, meanwhile, have maintained a steady level of participation in MLB—roughly 25 percent for Latinos and 2 percent for Asians.
The Hunting Park Indians, a youth baseball organization for kids ages 5 to 17, provides an outlet for young African-Americans to play the game and learn the history between their ancestors and our nation’s past-time.
“It’s like a whisper,” said Barry Salow, a member of the Hunting Park recreation leader board. “It’s not a black sport they say. But some of the greatest ball players ever were African-American and we wanted to end that phony whisper.”
“We don’t look for any specific ethnicity,” said Wessie Quiles, who helps with registration and coaches the T-ball team. “We just want to get the kids off the streets. I just want to give the kids in Hunting Park a chance.”
Members of the team represent the various ethnicities that make up Hunting Park. A majority of the team is Latino while roughly 10 percent of the team is African-American, according to team director Steve Irving.
The Indians are sponsored by the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which was initiated by MLB to bring baseball back to cities across the country. The Philadelphia section of the program was initiated in 1989, which was well before the drop in Africa-American participation began.
John Joaquin, manager of fan development programs of the Philadelphia Phillies, said that a lot of the coaches in the RBI program are a liaison between the rich history of black baseball and today.
“A lot of these coaches laid during the ’70s and ’80s and they saw [participation] stop,” Joaquin said. “There’s no exact pinpoint moment where it stopped and a lot of these coaches were these kids back in the day. They have the ability to bring this game back to the kids.”
Indian’s Assistant Coach William Travis Jr. has been around baseball his entire life. After ending a career coaching high school baseball he said he was looking for a way to get involved again. After seeing an ad in a local newspaper looking for volunteers for the Indians he said he knew he wanted to help teach the game to kids again.
In his own youth, Travis said African-Americans were more interested in baseball.
“I think a lot of them are playing basketball now,” Travis said. “They see all the hype that surrounds [the NBA] and their players and they want to be them. All the kids get together and play pick-up basketball now. When I was younger we did that same thing, except it was in the sandlot.”
Travis said he does see more kids participating.
“When I was coming up in West Virginia there were more [African-American baseball players] then,” Travis said. “And it really seemed like it faded out. But look around, they are starting to come out now.”
Joaquin said that a lot of bringing baseball to inner-city African-American communities is providing the supplies to play. It is much easier for a youth to pick up a basketball and start shooting around than to gather eight of his or her friends and play ball.
“We try and provide the resources,” Joaquin said. “The hats, the gloves, the equipment, the uniforms, you name it. Whatever these kids need to go out and play.”
Practices take place in a field right across from the Hunting Park Recreational Center. The baseball diamond is just enough for the tri-weekly practices, but coaches and players of the team said they can’t wait to move into their home about 100 yards across the park.
The Hunting Park Baseball Field is scheduled to open just in time for the new season to begin April 21. The stadium is part of the Fairmount Park conservancy’s Revitalizing Hunting Park program, which added several amenities to the area including improvements to the football field, playgrounds and additional lighting.
With the new stadium, Salow hopes that more black kids will come and play and end the whisper that African-Americans can’t and won’t play baseball.
“A lot of kids decide they don’t want to do something because they feel they might fail at it,” Salow said. “They say its not for them or they shouldn’t play so they don’t play. If they come and play they’ll see they can actually be pretty darn good.”