K.J. McAllister has a pretty similar background to most other future Division I baseball players. McAllister, a North Hall High senior who is already committed to Coastal Carolina University, was flinging around a whiffle ball as soon as he could grasp it in his hands.
He joined his first tee ball team around 5, the same age as most other kids. Once McAllister made up his mind that baseball was going to be the sport he’d pour all his efforts into, it became a year-round dedication, including playing summer travel baseball and a total of 60-70 games each season.
But there is one difference between McAllister and most of his playing partners — he’s an African -American playing a sport played predominantly by white players.
Despite the fact that diversity is encouraged from the professional game all the way down to little leagues, fewer and fewer African-Americans are choosing to take part in America’s pastime. That point is made perfectly clear on a local basis by the fact that only a handful of black players were part of the nine Georgia High School Association teams in Hall County this past season.
“There are very few African -American players that want to play baseball basically because it doesn’t appeal to them,” McAllister said. “Baseball is such a tedious game and it takes so much time and effort, and it’s something that you constantly have to work at to get better.
“Hitting a round ball with a round bat is the hardest thing you can do in sports.”
Even at schools such as Gainesville High, which is made up of 16 percent Caucasian students, the 2009 Red Elephants fielded a team that was almost exclusively Caucasian.
And that’s not the exception to the rule. Diverse student populations, and the nine percent of students in Gainesville and Hall County high schools that are African -American, doesn’t translate to diversity in the dugout.
Major League Baseball is making an effort to address this issue. Programs like R.B.I. (Reviving Baseball in the Inner cities), Little League Baseball’s Urban Initiative, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America have all been the beneficiary of resources devoted to promoting the game to African -Americans across the country. Major League Baseball also recently hosted its Civil Rights game between the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox to honor the past achievements of African Americans, as well as promote interest among young black people.
The Little League Urban Initiative is currently working with more than 200 leagues in 85 cities. This component has reached 3,900 teams and approximately 50,000 kids to increase access of baseball for African -American children. Program director Demiko Ervin said the program has largely been successful in the cities where it has gained access. He added that the response by black players has been overwhelmingly positive.
“For the most part, it’s not that black kids don’t want to play baseball, it’s just that it takes so much more equipment to play,” Ervin said. “It’s similar to golf in that aspect — to the need for so much more equipment and if you don’t have that access it just kind of gets put on the back burner.”
On a promising note, the number of African -Americans in Major League Baseball is on the rise — 10.2 percent of the league is made up of African -Americans, up from an all-time low of 8.2 percent in 2007. Major League Baseball also has five black head coaches.
“This was the first season since 1995 when the percentages of African -American players increased,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, author of the 2009 Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball. “The decline of African-American players has been a big story and this may represent a halt in that slide.”
Still, the trend continues locally for black high school players to stay away from baseball, opting instead to play football, basketball and track & field. Johnson High coach Tony Wilson, the only African -American head baseball coach in Hall County, has noticed a trend during his career that includes 15 seasons coaching at Stephens County High.
“Right now, I just think we’re in a down swing with African -Americans playing baseball,” Wilson said. “I think this is a nationwide trend.”
Wilson sees four key reasons that African -American players are staying away from the sport:
1. There is a perception that baseball is a boring sport, says Wilson. African -Americans haven’t been exposed to the game early enough to have the skills developed in time to be ready to play once they reach high school. Compared to other sports, it’s more difficult to get by in baseball strictly on raw talent.
“You can just be a flat-out athlete and play football,” McAllister said. “To play baseball you have to learn the tools of the game and be willing to work very hard.”
2. Money. The Knights’ coach says that baseball is the most expensive sport on campus with a price tag at around $350 for the season to cover cleats, glove, bat and uniform. That’s easily double the fee for playing football and basketball, where footwear and workout gear is the primary cost to play.
3. Scholarships. Many high school athletes are specializing in one sport in high school to earn a college scholarship. Football scholarships are easier to come by with most colleges awarding anywhere from 20-30 full scholarships each season. However, it’s rare for a college baseball player to earn a full scholarship. Colleges traditionally award 11.7 scholarships for baseball and usually opt to divide those up to bring more players into the program. McAllister jumped at the 75-percent scholarship he was offered at Coastal Carolina.
“I don’t know of anyone with a 100-percent scholarship offer to play baseball,” McAllister said.
4. Lack of interest. The lack of interest in baseball among African -Americans primarily starts at home, Wilson said. If a father or older sibling didn’t play baseball growing up, then the odds are that baseball isn’t going to be encouraged for the next generation. Tallulah Falls baseball coach Patrick Mayfield, also an African -American, says that most black kids are programmed to play football, basketball and run track. Mayfield, who coaches with USA Baseball during the summer, says that baseball is too hard to learn the ropes if a player waits until high school to pick it up.
“I wish there were more African -Americans playing baseball,” Mayfield said. “Every chance I have to promote the sport, I do.”
If African-American players are looking for examples of successful black players in recent years, they need look no further than the MLB amateur draft. In two of the past three years, a black player was the first overall selection, including Griffin High’s Tim Beckham, who was selected No. 1 overall by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008.
It’s only a matter of time to see if that trend translates into more black players taking baseball to heart.