On April 21 Bryant Gumbel aired a monologue by Chris Rock on his HBO show Real Sports. The comedian’s topic was the deteriorating relationship between baseball and African Americans. Rock played it for laughs, but it was clear he was serious about the subject.
Describing himself as “an endangered species — a black baseball fan,” Rock argued that the game of baseball has stubbornly alienated African Americans: “Every team is building a bullshit, fake-antique stadium that’s supposed to remind you of the good old days — you know, the good old days with Ruth, DiMaggio, Emmett Till.” Even as the world has sped up, he contends that the sport has slowed down, operating under an outdated unwritten code that discourages the kind of flamboyance exhibited in professional basketball and football, sports that are more popular among blacks.
And blacks are staying away in droves, on the field and in the stands.
“I don’t care about any of this as a black guy, I care about this as a baseball fan,” he said. “We don’t really need baseball, but baseball needs us. The fact is, black America decides what’s hot and what young people get excited about.”
Judging from the social-media shares and the YouTube views — nearly 750,000 of the latter at last count — Rock’s rant scored.
Something about the whole thing troubled me, though. Rock takes the position that baseball needs to change its ways. On that score, I completely agree. At the same time, his argument hinges on the fact that he needs baseball.
Baseball could certainly use him.
So I sat myself down and wrote him a letter…
Dear Chris Rock,
I saw you on YouTube the other day talking about how blacks and baseball aren’t a good match any more. I’m referring to the bit you did on Bryant Gumbel’s show, the one that starts, “I’m an endangered species: a black baseball fan.”
Vintage Chris Rock–true and sad and funny. (Granted, it’s no “Big Piece of Chicken,” but fatherhood will always hit closer to home than baseball.) And it nagged at me the rest of the day.
Then it dawned on me: You, Chris Rock, are in an ideal position to address baseball’s relationship with blacks–and, while you’re at it, give a huge boost to a hard-luck city.
All you have to do is…buy the Newark Bears.
True, purchasing a business in Newark, New Jersey, doesn’t exactly scream “Shrewd move!” But you have several things working in your favor here.
First and foremost, the Newark Bears are for sale. Just go to the team’s homepage (newarkbears.com) and see for yourself: “Serious inquiries only!” Fact is, the current owner folded his tent in 2013 after the team went 37-63, playing in front of 21,288 fans. That’s 21,288 total. I think it’s fair to assume we’re working with a motivated seller.
Speaking of motivation, Newark is the seat of Essex County, proud owner of Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium. When I say “proud,” I mean “desperate.” The county built the ballpark for the Bears back in 1999 for $34 million. Residents will be paying off the debt for the next fifteen years.
But the Bears haven’t always been a loser. Far from it. The franchise came into existence in 1917. In the early ’30s the club was purchased by Jacob Ruppert, a beer baron who owned another local team you may have heard of, the New York Yankees. As the Yankees’ top farm team, the Bears boomed. The ’37 squad is said to have been one of the best minor-league teams of all time.
And Newark saw its share of stellar Negro League ball. From 1936 through 1948 the Bears shared a stadium with the Newark Eagles. The great third baseman Ray Dandridge was an Eagle. So was Monte Irvin, the pride of East Orange. And Larry Doby, who grew up in Paterson, went on to break the color barrier in the American League. Hall of Famers all.
Did I mention you’re Chris Fucking Rock? You wouldn’t be the first comedian to own a ballclub. You wouldn’t even be the first Saturday Night Live alum. Bill Murray owns a piece of several teams. Do you know him? (I’d love to meet him!)
I’m not the preachy type. I’m not suggesting you invest in a baseball team in a downtrodden city to sell yourself as a role model. I’m suggesting you do it to make the kind of impact on baseball that you want to see. (It’s not like you haven’t done this before at your day job. Just ask Wanda Sykes, J.B. Smoove, and Leslie Jones.)
You want more black people to come out to baseball games? You get to map out the marketing plan–and you’re Chris Fucking Rock!
You want to see black people play baseball? There’s no better role model than the ’71 Pirates. Remember? Willie Stargell’s nickname was Pops.
You say: “Maybe if baseball gets a little hipper, a little cooler, just a little more black, the future can change.”
I say: Make it happen. Let’s talk.
In his monologue, Rock recounts growing up a Met fan in Bed-Stuy. During his baseball wonder years, he claims, nearly 20 percent of major-league ballplayers were African American. In 1986, when he was 21, the Mets won the World Series with a lineup that included black stars Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson, and Kevin Mitchell. Contrast that, he said, with last year’s National League Championship Series, in which the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals took the field without a single black player. The current MLB average, he says, is two black players per roster.
The numbers back up Rock’s claims.
The Society for American Baseball Research website, sabr.org, contains a report by Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt, who broke down the demographics of baseball from 1947 through 2012. The pair quantified major-league ballplayers according to four categories: white, African American, Latino, and Asian. The graphic below charts the Latino and African American player pool through those years.
I’ve also added, in different hues, data from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES). That organization, headquartered at the University of Central Florida, publishes an annual paper called the Racial and Gender Report Card. The authors of the RGRC, as it is known, cover a wide variety of sports and include hiring practices beyond the playing field (coaches, managers, front office, etc.).
Yes, the figures differ — that’s why I used both — owing to the data sources: The SABR report researchers compiled their own, while MLB supplied numbers to TIDES. Additionally, in an earlier iteration of his research, Mark Armour addressed the overlap between black and Latino players thusly: “[W]hen I refer to “black” players in this study, I am using the term generically to include any player who would have been prohibited from playing major league baseball before 1947.”
If the results of the research are discouraging, they do demonstrate that people are genuinely troubled by the dwindling number of blacks in baseball. TIDES founder and director and Richard Lapchick is committed to civil rights and diversity in all walks of life. (His bona fides date back to the 1970s; he earned his Ph.D. in international race relations at the University of Denver and was an early stateside crusader against apartheid in South Africa.) And while we may all question its accomplishments (and, hell, its motives), Major League Baseball operates the youth outreach program Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), which is aimed largely at African American kids.
P.S. to Chris Rock: I don’t bring up the work of people like Lapchick to imply that you’re full of hot air, only to emphasize — as a fellow New Jersey resident at that — that baseball and Newark could benefit from your passion.
A Bears uniform looks damned good on you. That’s a replica of the ’27 home jersey, by the way, which we ordered so we could Photoshop you into it. If you buy the Bears, I’ll happily give you the uniform.
You can even choose a number, and we’ll have it sewn on.