White players fill historically black schools' baseball rosters

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 2, 2012 

N.C. Central University's head baseball coach Jim Koerner talks with officials in 2011.

COURTESY OF NCCU

  • By the numbers The number of black players on NCAA Division I teams has steadily declined since 2000. Here’s a look at the racial makeup of Division I baseball teams since the 1999-00 academic year:
    Year% white baseball players% black baseball players% Hispanic baseball players% Asian baseball players% baseball players from other races
    99-00 83.0 6.6 4.3 1.1 5.0
    00-01 81.3 6.7 5.6 0.9 5.5
    01-02 83.4 6.9 5.2 1.1 3.4
    02-03 84.1 6.1 5.1 1.2 3.5
    03-04 83.8 6.1 4.9 1.2 4.0
    04-05 83.7 6.5 5.4 1.2 3.2
    05-06 84.6 5.7 5.0 1.1 3.6
    06-07 84.5 6.0 5.4 1.2 2.9
    07-08 84.4 6.0 5.5 1.1 3.0
    08-09 83.9 5.7 5.8 1.1 3.5
    09-10 83.4 5.6 5.8 1.0 4.2
    SOURCE: NCAA

— Jim Koerner can look up from his desk in the N.C. Central baseball offices and into an era that no longer exists.

Four pictures, ranging from the early 1900s to 1974, show a single white player on baseball teams made up of African-Americans at the historically black college.

That’s changed.

Nearly 80 percent of the 8,349 students at Central are black. On the baseball team, though, 14 of the Eagles’ 22 players during the 2012 season were black.

The number of black baseball players has been declining for some time now. At the start of this season, African-Americans made up 8 percent of Major League rosters, according to USA Today. In 1959, when the Boston Red Sox became the last Major League team to integrate its roster, the percentage was 17.25, according to the newspaper.

In Division I college baseball, which is nearing its annual conclusion with the College World Series, the NCAA’s most recent numbers (2009-10) showed 5.6 percent of players were African-American.

Koerner, who is white, never paid much attention to the declining number of black baseball players. Now he does. He recently completed his first season as N.C. Central’s head coach, and as the leader of a baseball program at a historically black college or university (HBCU), he has asked himself: What happened to the black baseball player?

“I guess maybe the cliché answer, or the popular answer, is there’s more options,” said Koerner, whose team went 19-32 last season. “And this probably has a lot to do with it. I don’t think baseball has the glamour it did back in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. I think it was more America’s pastime then.”

MEAC numbers

Last season, white baseball players outnumbered African-Americans at five of the nine HBCUs that play baseball in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — the league to which N.C. Central belongs. Bethune-Cookman, which won the MEAC and represented the league in the NCAA tournament, had just three black players.

There were 74 white baseball players on scholarship at MEAC schools during the 2010-11 academic year, according to data schools provided to the NCAA. Among all other men’s sports combined, there were 62 white scholarship athletes. Scholarship white baseball players outnumbered black players, 74-59.

Those numbers aren’t surprising to Troy Marrow and Tyson Simpson, both of whom play at N.C. Central. Before their college days, Marrow and Simpson, both of whom are black, played on AAU teams made up of mostly white players.

Both played in summer showcase events that allowed them to be seen by college coaches. Marrow, who said he came to N.C. Central specifically to experience the culture of an HBCU, describes his background as “country” and humble. There wasn’t much money for summer leagues and baseball equipment, he says, but his parents made it work. He knows of others who weren’t so fortunate.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids that I grew up with that can play baseball that just never got taught how to play the game.”

HBCUs were founded to provide blacks with opportunities that society once dictated they couldn’t — or shouldn’t — have. Now, though, the talent pool of black baseball players isn’t large enough to fill the rosters at HBCUs and some have dropped their baseball programs in recent years.

N.C. Central dropped its program in 1975. The university revived it in 2007, after Central decided to move its athletic program from the NCAA’s Division II to Division I.

Opportunities

The declining numbers of black baseball players has led to more opportunities for white players to play Division I baseball. Glenn Frye, who is white, was attracted to the university because it provided him with an opportunity he couldn’t find anywhere else — to play in Division I.

Frye, a junior pitcher for the Eagles, had never heard much about N.C. Central while he was growing up in Lillington, in Harnett County. And while he acknowledged that some of his white teammates found it uncomfortable — at least for a time — to attend an HBCU, Frye said he never felt that way.

“Some guys, it takes them a while to get used to it,” he said. “Some guys don’t notice it at all, really. I mean, baseball’s baseball.”

Keith Stubbs has been a scout for the Philadelphia Phillies for 13 years. A graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., he has taken a special interest in HBCU baseball. Stubbs, who is black, attends dozens of HBCU games per season, and he said he’s often the only professional scout at those games. He described the state of HBCU baseball like this: “Really, really, really, really bad.”

Stubbs has worked with Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities (RBI) program, and he recently launched the Urban Baseball Experience, an RBI-like program that he hopes will provide black players with a path to play in college. The programs introduce the sport to inner-city teens through the creation of youth baseball organizations.

He isn’t shocked at the number of white baseball players at HBCUs.

“(It’s) very, very difficult when you go out there and cast your net, you know what you’d like to see,” Stubbs said. “But if it’s just not there, you have to take the people (who are) willing and wanting to participate.”

Impact on recruiting

Dennis Thomas, the commissioner of the MEAC, does not see the relatively low number of black baseball players in his conference as a problem.

“It’s not an issue in our league,” said Thomas, who is black. “It’s an issue in terms of Major League Baseball and the decline of African-American players. We have diversity in our league, and we embrace diversity.”

Nobody has told Koerner to recruit a certain way, or to recruit a certain kind of player.

“But,” Koerner said recently, “if I have a player of equal talent, one black and one white, I’m going to recruit the black player, the African-American player, just because I think it goes along with the tradition of the school.”

Given the numbers, though, Koerner understands the challenge of finding black baseball players. The most elite black prospects either play at major-conference universities, or they’re drafted by Major League teams and never make it to college. HBCUs, then, have become places where white baseball players fill a void.

Koerner said he has found that the white players who ask questions about race and about how they might fit in at an HBCU often decide to go elsewhere. Those who do commit to play for N.C. Central don’t ask about race.

They are happy, it seems, to have a chance they otherwise might not have had.

Carter: 919-829-8944