Why is recruiting minorities for baseball programs becoming more and more of a daunthing task for college coaches? Doug Newhoff, a respected sports reporter in Iowa, has a great article that tries to address that question, and looks ahead to what the sport needs to do to increase minority participation.
David Price was the No. 1 pick in the Major League baseball’s amateur draft in June.
Two years ago, Justin Upton was taken first overall.
Both are African-American, and they serve to illustrate an issue that’s affecting college baseball dugouts across the country.
Despite the obvious opportunities that baseball offers minority athletes, the numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians are declining quicker than Randy Johnson’s fastball.
In fact, minority participation in both college baseball and fastpitch softball is nearly non-existent.
The numbers paint a black and white picture:
- Based on information collected from the Web sites and media guides of the respective conference institutions, less than 1 percent of the baseball and softball players on Big 12, Big Ten and Missouri Valley rosters in 2007 were minorities (African-American, Hispanic or Asian).
- Four of the 29 schools in those leagues offering baseball and seven of the 31 colleges offering softball had no minority players.
- In softball, there were just three African-American women on Big Ten rosters, seven in the Big 12 and three in the Missouri Valley. In baseball, there were 11 black players in the Big Ten, nine in the Big 12 and six in the Missouri Valley.
It’s a trend that’s been circling the basepaths for several years.
An NCAA survey compiled in 2003-04 showed that only 6 percent of approximately 9,800 Division I baseball players were African-American. In 2006, just 2.6 percent of the athletes in 29 major DI conferences were black.
"I’ve noticed it for the last 10 or 12 years," said University of Northern Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller, whose 2007 team reflected a diversity unique to the college game today with two African-American players and five additional minority student-athletes.
"The number of minority players in my eyes has steadily dropped. Do I know the reason? No, but somewhere along the line baseball has lost its appeal.
"It’s a topic that’s been talked a lot about in college baseball the last five or six years."
Heller said two factors are definitely affecting minority participation at the college level.
"One thing I’ve noticed recruiting in Chicago and even California is that there’s not a lot of money in scholarships out there for baseball players," he related. "Everyone’s on a partial (scholarship), and with a lot of minority kids I think that hurts."
A fully funded Division I baseball program can offer the equivalent of 11.7 full scholarships. Many programs, like UNI’s, aren’t fully funded, but like those that are, they still need 25 to 30 players on their roster.
By comparison, Division I men’s basketball programs have 13 scholarships to offer and rosters that seldom exceed 15 to 18 players. Football teams at the I-A level work with 85 full rides among 100 or so players. In I-AA football, coaches have 63 scholarships to distribute among 80-90 players.
"Why shouldn’t they go with a sport where they’re going to have a chance to get a full ride, like football or basketball?" asks Heller. "In baseball, they’re going to get a couple thousand dollars or maybe 30 or 40 percent.
"To me, it’s crazy that as popular as baseball is and as well as our kids do academically it still seems like baseball is the sport that continually takes the hit."
In addition, Heller continued, professional baseball casts a long shadow.
"If a kid’s good enough to play Division I baseball, that means he’s probably good enough to be looked at or drafted by the pros, so rather than pay for part of their college they get into the pros right away," he explained. "And in some cases, they’ll just go to a junior college where they can go for free and improve their position for the draft."
In softball, the overall minority numbers are better, but still low. In the Big Ten, Big 12 and Missouri Valley, almost 1 percent of the 2007 players were minorities.
The availability of scholarships is still an issue but not as big a factor as it is with baseball. Division I teams are allowed a maximum of 13 full scholarships, which they use to build rosters that seldom number more than 18 to 20 players.
The makeup of the regional population is another factor. Most Midwestern programs like to build their teams around a core group of homegrown players who take ownership in the program. And because the minority population isn’t strong in most Midwestern states, there aren’t many minority student-athletes participating in either softball or baseball.
"The Big Ten is largely based on where we’re recruiting from and what our population is in those areas," noted longtime University of Iowa coach Gayle Blevins. "If you get into different parts of the country, you will see better minority participation."
The recruiting landscape is even more of a factor for college softball coaches. In most states, high school baseball and softball are played at the same time the college seasons are under way. That makes it difficult for coaches to see many prep prospects in their own geographic regions.
So, a significant percentage of the scouting takes place at youth tournaments that occur in the summer months outside the college seasons.
In softball, there are hundreds of "travel" teams based in states like California, Arizona, Texas and Florida where there are significant minority populations and dozens of high-profile, gold-level tournaments around the country.
"We were in Colorado for a 4th of July tournament, and there were tons of students from all over the country," related Blevins. "Geographically, a lot of those teams were from areas with greater minority populations, so there were more minority students participating.
"I had a conversation with one of my assistants while we were in Colorado that we needed to be real sensitive to minority students. It’s something we’re committed to, and something our university is committed to, as well."
There just aren’t many from which to choose. While Blevins and coaches from other top programs can find the occasional diamond in the rough at such events, hundreds of other prospective student-athletes never get that opportunity.
"You have to have some resources to get into travel ball because you have to travel," added Blevins. "If you don’t have the resources, maybe that’s not even an option. It’s unfortunate to think that we have students who simply can’t be in our sport because they don’t have those resources or don’t have access to a team that’s relatively close to home.
"In California, it’s such a huge state they don’t have to go any great distance to have a chance to find a halfway decent travel ball team. That plays to the advantage of the students there. In Iowa, you would have to travel a much greater distance to play."
Blevins suspects that specialization is keeping many Midwestern kids out of sports like softball. Her own niece, for example, is being pressured by both her soccer and basketball coach to focus year-round on their sport.
"I think it’s unfortunate that it’s evolved to that, but that’s probably what’s happening," she said. "I’m of the opinion that it helps students to be multi-sport athletes."
Heller pointed out even more potential influences that may be keeping young players out of baseball and, ultimately, out of college programs.
"I see the (Los Angeles) area and a little in San Diego and up the coast," said Heller. "I’ve had scouts in L.A. tell me that gang issues have really hurt youth baseball because kids are afraid to cross color lines to go play. They can’t get kids to go to road games and cross the lines.
"I honestly think the whole Michael Jordan phenomenon has a lot to do with it, too," he continued. "I think a lot of minority kids have turned to basketball.
"I don’t think parents are pushing their kids toward baseball, either. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, there were a lot of black players in baseball, but it hasn’t carried over to their sons. They play a big role because they have to get them to the games and support them."
Both coaches believe their games would be even better with greater minority participation.
"I would love to see more minority students playing in Iowa high school programs," said Blevins. "I think they are missing out."
"We’re losing a lot of good athletes," added Heller. "Any time we can get better athletes into our sport, it’s going to make it better. I think it’s really pretty political and probably much deeper than we could ever get into."