PHOENIX — With Jackie Robinson Day upcoming Monday, 66 years after Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, and the movie “42” opening nationwide Friday, the spotlight will be aimed, as it is annually, on Robinson’s legacy and the players carrying it on today.
In the Diamondbacks clubhouse, that spotlight will capture just reliever Tony Sipp, who doesn’t need to be told he’s the only African-American player on the team’s major league roster.
While Sipp says he does not think much about his or other players’ race, he acknowledges the drastically reduced presence of African-American players in Major League Baseball is obvious.
“After you get past a certain time in your life, it’s no longer about black and white,” Sipp said. “That’s more of like a prison a lot of people keep themselves in. You can just go out there and be yourself. I try not to be ‘black Tony Sipp.’ I’m just Tony Sipp. That’s never really been a part of me, but you see the reality.”
The reality is alarming enough that MLB commissioner Bud Selig has formed a task force to address diversity on the field. That 17-person committee met for the first time in Milwaukee on Wednesday, with D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall among those present.
With the percentage of African-American players in the majors on Opening Day this year at 7.7 this year according to a USA Today study — down from 8.05 percent in 2012 and the lowest it has been since 1959 — Hall believes something has to change.
“The numbers are obviously a concern of mine,” Hall told FOXSportsArizona.com before traveling to Milwaukee. “And we can look in the mirror and as well. I know it’s something that was a point of pride here just within the last couple years, and now we’ve dwindled down to one (African-American) on our major league roster. I think, obviously, that number needs to grow.”
The issue is two-fold. The lack of African-Americans in the game could lessen the appeal to a significant segment of the fan base and have negative consequences at the turnstiles. And then there’s the matter of thinning out the talent pool. Baseball doesn’t want to lose the next generation of Henry Aarons, Bob Gibsons, Tony Gwynns and Ozzie Smiths to other sports.
“We would like our fan base to represent the demographics of our market,” Hall said. “I think every market should do that. With that you want to appeal to Hispanics, you want to appeal to African-Americans, Native-Americans in our case, Asians. It should be a top priority of everybody’s to make sure that we increase and improve the diversity in the stands, in our workplace and on the field.”
The D-backs had two African-Americans on their Opening Day roster last year and the year before, and three in 2009. Both players from last season, Justin Upton and Chris Young, were traded. This season, four teams — the Giants, Mariners, Rangers and Cardinals — opened the season without a African-American player on their major league roster.
Hall and others will try to figure out how to facilitate an increased presence of African-American players in baseball, but whatever efforts they come up with will not be the league’s first. MLB started the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) in 1989 in an attempt to reinvigorate interest in baseball within African-American communities and also operates MLB Urban Youth Academies.
Those efforts have yet to yield noticeable results. The presence of African-American players in baseball has been declining since hitting 19 percent in 1975. The drop has been especially rapid since the mid-1990s. Sipp believes one of the biggest reasons for the decline is the often-prohibitive cost of playing baseball.
“Baseball is not a cheap sport,” Sipp said. “You need a lot of equipment. I know in a lot of inner cities it’s just not feasible to buy cleats, gloves, batting gloves, bats — there’s a lot of equipment that goes with the sport. Until there is more (financial) help in the inner cities, the number will continue to dwindle.”
Sipp can speak from experience. Growing up without much money in Moss Point, Miss., he and his friends often struggled to find a baseball bat or enough gloves to go around. Sipp found ways to keep playing, but at one point thought he’d be a football player. That wasn’t because it was cheaper than baseball, but rather because it — along with playing basketball — was the “cool” thing to do among young black athletes.
“Baseball, in comparison to basketball and football is kind of a slower sport,” Sipp said. “People tend to be attracted to the ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ of fast-paced sports.”
Sipp, though, realized his future was in baseball and was drafted three times before signing with the Cleveland Indians. He admits he witnessed some racism coming up through the minors, but it never escalated much because his teammates wouldn’t stand for it.
“In baseball, a lot of people would expect me being the only black guy on the team that you would go through that, but I’ve had really good teammates,” Sipp said. “You’d never feel black, white, anything. You felt part of the team, and that’s how it’s always been with me.”
Now with the D-backs after being traded in the offseason, Sipp says he has never felt any different as the lone African-American player in the team’s clubhouse. Race may no longer be an issue in big league clubhouses, but the demographic imbalance remains.
Hall theorized the decline in African-American major leaguers has had a good deal to do with teams’ greatly increased focus on international player development over the last decade or more. He hopes efforts will begin to turn back toward encouraging African-American players to take up baseball early and stick with it. The NCAA, which is represented on the commissioner’s task force by Southern University coach Roger Cador, could help that cause.
The challenge the D-backs and the rest of the league face, though, is balancing a commitment to diversity with a commitment to winning. Teams cannot place roster demographics above results.
“You want to be competitive and you want to sign or draft the best players available,” Hall said. “The simple fact is the percentage isn’t there right now. We need to increase the percentage of players available that are African-American.”
Added Sipp: “You have to put your best team together. If your best team is all-white or all-Dominican or whatever — whatever fits.”
MLB hopes the task force and other efforts will change the dynamic eventually, but it certainly won’t be a swift process. But the fact that baseball is taking up the challenge isn’t lost on the likes of Sipp, who’s grateful to those who took up like-minded and much more arduous causes to allow for his career. As little time as Sipp spends thinking about his race, he knows his path was paved by the struggles of what Robinson and others went through.
“Every comment, every thing they swallowed was one less thing I have to swallow today,” Sipp said. “Everything they went through, they didn’t know it at the time, but they were going through it for everyone after them. They paved the way. They didn’t have that road to walk on. Now we have a blacktop-paved road.
“All their blood, sweat and tears and everything they endured was just one more piece of construction to the road we have right now.” Follow Tyler Lockman on Twitter