“I’ve seen baseball change—I hate to say it like this—to a middle-class white-man’s sport over the years that I don’t think is fair across the board.” – Norm DeBriyn
Arkansas eked out a 5-4 win against Baylor on Sunday to set up a decisive Game 3 on Monday at 6:05 PM on ESPNU (or ESPN2, depending on the cable gods’ whims). If Arkansas wins, it heads out to Omaha for its second College World Series in four years. Despite a recent stretch of weak hitting, despite UA’s horrendous showing at the SEC Tournament and in Game 1 vs. Baylor, the Razorbacks’ season would gain instant salvation. With the increased media attention paid to Arkansas since its last CWS appearance (2009), it would be safe to say “Arkansas baseball has never been hotter than it is right now.”
Lost in the glare, though, would be some startling statistics: Five African-Americans started on the Hogs’ 1985 CWS team, but the numbers have dropped precipitously since then. In the last 14 years, there have been at most four black Hog baseball players. Moreover, in the SEC West in 2010, 2.3% of baseball players were black; that number was 72% in football, 80% in baseball.
Why has African-American participation in baseball nosedived in recent decades? I spent a few months exploring this question by talking with the likes of long-time UA baseball coach Norm DeBriyn, pitcher D.J. Baxendale, Democrat-Gazette writer Rick Fires, former Razorback Arvis Harper and Fitz Hill, a former UA football coach, and D’Vone McClure, one the first African-American Hog baseball signees in years.
My result is an article, which can be accessed in three ways:
1) Grab a Sunday copy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (June 10th) and flip to the Perspective section (Section H)
2) The original version published in Arkansas Life magazine a few weeks ago. In the lower left corner, click on “Vanishing Point: The [changing] face of baseball in our urban centers and colleges.”
3) For those with Democrat-Gazette subscriptions, here’s an updated version.
Plenty will be discussed this week at the Southeastern Conference’s spring meetings in Destin, Florida.
Thousands of articles, newscasts, radio interviews and blog posts will flow from the conference’s well-tanned powers-that-be, covering hot topics such as the SEC’s own distribution channel, its role in a proposed national football tourney and – gasp! – the possibility the Razorbacks will soon sport black uniforms on the gridiron.
One thing that won’t be discussed, however, is color beneath the uniforms.
Today’s African-Americans are playing less baseball than previous generations, and this is most visible through the increasing scarcity of blacks in Major League Baseball and power conferences like the SEC. Much has already been made about the MLB stats: In 1975, African-Americans comprised 27% of Major League Baseball rosters. That’s dropped to eight percent.
Less attention, however, has been paid to SEC baseball. The conference wasn’t thoroughly integrated until the 1970s, and black participation was never as prevalent on its baseball teams as in the pros. Still, African-Americans’ contributions were significant (Arkansas, for instance, had five black starters on its 1985 World Series team).
In the last 25 years, though, more and more blacks have chosen full football and basketball scholarships rather than accept the partial scholarships NCAA baseball programs must disperse. This is one reason for a widening disparity in participation among races in the major sports.
Naturally, I’m most interested in Arkansas, so I looked at its division – the SEC West. In 2010, the SEC West had 186 student-athletes in baseball. Six (3.2%) were black, according to the NCAA. Meanwhile, in this division blacks made up 72% of the football rosters and 80% of the basketball rosters.
Some people may ask: “Why does this matter? Why stir the pot by bringing up race?”
I would answer these numbers are important because if baseball is supposed to represent most Americans and our culture, then it should not be a sport leaving out entire demographics. “If baseball is going to be seen as the national pastime, you would hope it would reflect the diversity of the country,” Richard Lapchik, director of Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, told the Associated Press in 2005.
It wasn’t always this way. I explore the many reasons for the decline of the black baseball player in the SEC, with a focus on Arkansas, in this Sunday’s Perspective section [update: June 10] of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
I traveled to Fayetteville a couple weeks ago and sat down with Hogs pitcher D.J. Baxendale on the same afternoon the news broke that Petrino hadn’t been alone, and Razorback football changed forever … the baseball team isn’t as hot as it was a month ago, but fortunes can change in the crack of a bat. That could happen as soon as this weekend against Ole Miss on the road…
Courtesy: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Granted: if D.J. Baxendale had to choose a place to call home, it makes sense central Arkansas would be it. The preseason All-American pitcher graduated from a Sherwood high school and has lived in Vilonia, Conway and Jacksonville. He still visits plenty of friends in the area, and helps kids on his dad’s traveling teams based there.
That Baxendale considers any one area a home is a bit of surprise, though, considering this admission: “I probably lived in 50 or 60 houses throughout my life.” Mostly, his parents’ work caused the moving. D.J.’s father Greg Baxendale has been a Cleveland Indians scout, a recruiting assistant for Rollins College in Florida and the head baseball coach of Hendrix College in Conway. D.J. Baxendale says the moving – which included two stints in Arkadelphia and a stint in Massachusetts – didn’t faze him. He learned to easily make friends, to constantly adapt.
Few baseball players have adapted so well in an Arkansas prep career. At semester of his 10th grade year, Baxendale moved from Arkadelphia to a Jacksonville area just north of Sherwood, where he attended Abundant Life School, an affiliate of the Sylvan Hills First Baptist Church. He immediately helped the school make the 2A state championship game. “Even at a young age, he was not easily distracted,” says Wes Johnson, former coach at Abundant Life.
After Johnson left to coach elsewhere, Baxendale and two other players transferred to Sylvan Hills High School across John F. Kennedy Blvd. By the time the dust cleared on two seasons there, Baxendale had finished one of the state’s best careers in recent history with a 6A state title and 4.12 grade point average. The accomplishments stoked great expectations for the college level.