Frank White once lived within walking distance of Municipal Stadium in Kansas City. He attended Negro Leagues games regularly and brags about the time he saw Satchel Paige pitch.
The stadium is long gone now, and the memory is slowly fading, too, for the Royals’ Hall of Fame second baseman.
Nevertheless, White shared a few of his childhood stories Thursday prior to the Kansas City-premiere of the movie “42” depicting the life of Jackie Robinson — the man recognized for breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
White credits Robinson’s journey with the reason he was able to enjoy an 18-year career with the Royals. It remains a reason many black players are able to play today, White says.
Except fewer and fewer of them are opting to play. MLB says about 8.5 percent of players on this year’s opening-day rosters identified themselves as African-American or black. That’s around half the number from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s.
“It’s falling off because black athletes don’t have the funds to go to the academies and develop and play on traveling teams,” White said on the red carpet prior to Thursday’s movie premiere at AMC Barrywoods 24. “What happened with me was I was going to a baseball academy and doing fundamentals day in and day out.”
There are a variety of reasons for the decline, others say, and MLB commissioner Bud Selig seems determined to find out exactly what they are. He announced Wednesday a new task force will study how to best increase diversity in the game, especially among black players.
Those, after all, are the players Robinson once fought for.
“It’s troubling,” former Royals player Willie Wilson said of African-American’s declining numbers in baseball. “When you think about all the struggles Jackie went through to get us to play this game. If we don’t have people play, it almost makes it not worthwhile. I hope this film brings it back and gets more people involved.”
The timing of the film and the announcement of the new committee is no coincidence, says former MLB first baseman Tony Clark, a member of the 18-member committee, which also includes representatives from club ownership, the players’ union, minor league and college baseball, the MLB scouting bureau and other areas. Detroit Tigers president Dave Dombrowski will serve as the chairman for the committee, which also includes Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and former major-league manager Jerry Manuel.
Clark said urging more black athletes to play baseball requires a long-term outlook.
“It’s a multi-faceted issue, and it’s not a quick-fix issue,” Clark said. “We’re hoping on the heels of a night like tonight, we can get excited about what Mr. Robinson did and that can make an impact going forward.”
MLB has tried in the past — and continues to do so — to garner more interest its baseball among young black athletes. It runs the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and has seven Urban Youth Academies that are either running or are in development.
“'I am proud of the work we have done thus far with the RBI program and the MLB Urban Youth Academies, but there is more that we must accomplish,” Selig said in a statement to the Associated Press.
The focus of the task force will be diversity, Selig said, but it appears the primary target is black athletes — and with good reason. While the percentage of African-Americans has dropped over the past two decades, MLB is thriving in Latin America communities. Latino players make up nearly 30 percent of the league.
Those inside baseball provide a simple answer for that: Latino athletes are allowed to sign with teams as early as 15 years old and benefit from academies targeting those countries’ top players. Americans, meanwhile, must wait until their graduating class completes high school.
“They get in at an earlier age, so by the time blacks get into the game, they’re four or five years behind,” said Lou Brock, a Hall of Famer who played with the St. Louis Cardinals. “Bring the academies back in the country, and that will give us a shot.”The Associated Press contributed to this report.