(Photo: Rick Osentoski, USA TODAY Sports)
(USATODAY.com) - Major League Baseball, alarmed by its historic low 7.7 % of African-American players on opening-day rosters this season, will announce the creation of a formal task force Wednesday to help reverse the decline, three MLB executives told USA TODAY Sports.
The executives spoke on the condition of anonymity because Commissioner Bud Selig has yet to announce it.
The 17-member committee will consist of owners, executives and coaches, including Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, Chicago White Sox vice president Kenny Williams, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg and Southern University baseball coach Roger Cador.
CHEMISTRY: It's a valuable thing in baseball
Selig is urging them to find ways to increase the pipeline of diverse athletes to baseball, particularly African-Americans.
The African-American percentage in baseball this season is the lowest since the Boston Red Sox became the final team to integrate its roster in 1959, according to a USA TODAY Sports study that includes major-league players on the opening-day disabled lists. It's a drop from 8.05% last season, a dramatic decline from 1995 when 19% of the rosters were African-American players, and far from the peak of 27% in 1975.
"I never thought I'd see anything like this,'' Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan told USA TODAY Sports in a telephone interview from Los Angeles on Tuesday. "But I've seen it coming. There, for a long time, there were a lot of African-American players to look up to and emulate, but there's not enough big stars now to dissuade them from basketball and football.''
UH OH: Doors slamming quickly on closers
While Hollywood celebrated the premiere of "42'' Tuesday night, the story of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947, four teams opened the season without a single African-American player on the opening-day roster - the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. The Giants, who have won two of the last three World Series championships, did not have a single African-American player in their major-league camp. There are 18 teams who have two or fewer African-American players, with the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees accounting for nearly 17% of the African-American population in baseball.
"I'm not sure there's a way to stem the tide,'' said Morgan, Cincinnati Reds senior adviser. "There has to be more involvement to attract athletes to come here. Let's hope this committee will help. There's no doubt the movie will open eyes, but after that, let's wait.''
Major League Baseball launched its RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) in 1989 and has built four urban academies with three others being developed. MLB rosters are comprised of 28.2% foreign-born players - the fourth-largest total in baseball history - but still struggle to attract many of the best athletes in the United States.
There were seven African-American players selected in the first round of last year's June draft, the most since 1992.
One factor that could reverse the trend in the long term: Concern over head injuries in football. Tuesday, a class-action lawsuit was brought forward by about 4,200 former NFL players in federal court alleging negligence and fraud in handling concussion-linked injuries.
"You look at those kind of things, and that's why I talk to guys trying to get them to play baseball,'' said Reds outfielder Derrick Robinson, 25, who spurned a football scholarship in 2006 to play alongside Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin at the University of Florida. "Some of them say it's boring, but hey, I love it. It's so much better on the body and for longevity.
"Besides, you look at this game now, and it's changing. The game's being revolutionized now with speed and defense. We need all of the great athletes we can get.''