The stars of this year’s Dodgers Alumni Game spanned decades. Steve Garvey, Orel Hershiser, Davey Lopes, Fernando Valenzuela and Maury Wills were among dozens of former players at Dodger Stadium on June 1 to celebrate the franchise’s deep history.
But it was impossible for former Dodgers center fielder Kenny Landreaux and some of his peers to ignore the difference between the numbers in the nostalgic exhibition and the lineup the Dodgers fielded that night for their 59th game of the 2019 season: while the former game filled with African-Americans, the Dodgers, the franchise that signed Jackie Robinson to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 and remained the preferred destination for black American players for decades, did not have a single African American player on its roster.
“We were like, ‘Wow, man, this is getting a little rare around here,'” Landreaux said.
This match was not an anomaly. For the first time since 1946, the season before Robinson made his debut and changed the course of American history, an African American did not appear in a Dodgers game for an entire campaign. For Landreaux, it was surprising but not surprising.
“I had noticed it before,” Landreaux said at a recent charity golf tournament to benefit the community. Major League Baseball Youth Academy in Compton. “Even though there were no more black people on the team, I remember when it was reduced to six, then five, then four, then three, then two. I just saw it keep going down and down and down.
The shortage of African Americans on the Dodgers is just the latest example of a problem vexing a sport that has diversified in other ways, with a growing presence of Latin American players (many of whom are blacks) and Asia.
Of the 882 major league players signed for opening day in 2019, 68 were African-American, or 7.7%. Eleven teams had no more than one African-American. The Angels had four African-American players last season: outfielders Justin Upton, Brian Goodwin and Michael Hermosillo and relief pitcher Keynan Middleton. Their top prospect, Triple-A outfielder Jo Adell, is also African-American.
The percentage of African-American players peaked in 1981 at 18.7% and only fell below 16% in 1997, according to American Baseball Research Society. The 1989 All-Star Game alone featured 15 African-American players.
By 1993, the number of Latin American players exceeded that of African American players. In 2017, 27.4% of major league players were Latin American. At the same time, the decline of African American players has accelerated, reaching a low of 6.7% in 2013. About 70% of NFL players and about 75% of NBA players are African American.
Major League Baseball has spent most of this century battling the declining presence of Black Americans in the sport. This effort has spawned initiatives aimed at introducing baseball to children in diverse and underserved communities, like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), keeping them invested in the game throughout their adolescence, and providing them with training and exposure needed to play college and professional baseball. .
MLB recently began tackling this latter step with the annual Hank Aaron Invitational, a collaboration with the MLB Players’ Assn. and USA Baseball, established in 2015. The event, held in Vero Beach’s historic Dodgertown neighborhood in July and August, is designed to put high school players in front of college and professional scouts.
The league says 192 of the approximately 220 participants who have graduated from high school since 2016 are playing college or professional baseball. Alumni include right-handed pitcher Hunter Greene, a Sherman Oaks Notre Dame High School product and second overall pick in the 2017 draft.
“I think it’s a long-standing challenge in baseball since I’ve been a part of it,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “I know there are a lot of people thinking about this and initiatives such as the RBI program are being put in place to try to change that. Hopefully we’re making progress, but, as with most things, we probably all can and should do more.
On other fronts, Friedman’s 2019 Dodgers reflected diversity. Dave Roberts was the only African-American manager in the majors. Receiver Russell Martin is an African-Canadian from Montreal. Closer Kenley Jansen is from Curaçao. Pedro Baez and Yimi Garcia are from the Dominican Republic. Julio Urias represents Mexico, Hyun-Jin Ryu arrived via South Korea, Kenta Maeda is from Japan and Enrique Hernandez calls Puerto Rico home.
But the Dodgers went a full season without a single African-American on their 40-man roster after outfielder Andrew Toles did not report to spring training for a personal reason and was placed on the restricted list.
“When you hear that, when the legendary Jackie Robinson, the iconic figure goes through this particular system, it’s somewhat disheartening to hear,” said Jerry Manuel, a former major league player and manager who founded a school in charter in Elverta, California. who teaches baseball to African-American children.
During this time, Landreaux dedicated time to his hometown. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, played the last seven of his 11 major league seasons with the Dodgers in the 1980s and has been an instructor at the MLB Youth Academy in Compton since it opened in 2006.
The program is aimed at middle school tee-ball players. Landreaux said talent is dwindling at the high school level. He highlighted the reasons for this decline; travel ball is expensive, role models in baseball are rare, and other sports are more attractive.
“I see times where we had players talented enough to make it to the professional ranks,” Landreaux said. “And for one reason or another, they never make it to the finish line.”
Dominic Smith was one of the teenagers under Landreaux’s leadership to reach the pinnacle of baseball. The New York Mets drafted the Gardena Serra High graduate 11th overall in 2013. He made his major league debut in 2017 and established himself in 2019 with an on-base plus slugging percentage of .881 in 89 matches. Smith, 24, began attending Compton’s academy at the age of 12 and remained there until he was drafted.
“They’ve done so many good things in my life,” Smith said, “and I can give them all the credit for getting me to the big leagues.”
In 2017, Smith and two friends founded BaseballGenerations, a Los Angeles-based organization aimed at helping the development of young players in Southern California. Practices and clinics take place throughout the week. Major leaguers visit there periodically. An all-star game featuring some of California’s top sophomores was recently held at St. Bernard High School in Playa Del Rey.
It’s a new effort to reverse a trend that even the Dodgers franchise Jackie Robinson And Roy Campanella And Don Newcombe And Maury Wills and so many other African-American stars of yesteryear, were not immune.
“It should matter,” Landreaux said, “and I think it does.”