Remembrance of Sports Heroes Past: America's Inner Cities are Too Disintegrated to Create Baseball Players

In honor of the Irvin brothers

Remember when African-Americans playing professional baseball was the cutting-edge civil rights issue in America? I lived across the hall from the brother of one of those pioneers, Hall-of-Famer Monte Irvin. Milton Irvin frequently regaled me with stories about the black baseball experience - especially which white stars were supportive of, and which antagonistic towards, black ball players like his brother.

Monte (at 91, one of the oldest living members of the Hall) only joined the major leagues as a New York Giant in 1949. In 1951, he became the first African American to win a major league RBI title. Before that, at age 18, in 1937, Irvin played for the Newark Eagles of the Negro League, and quickly became it's leading hitter. In 1946, after serving in World War II, he returned to lead the Eagles to the Negro League championship.

Milton and Monte grew up playing sports every day in the Orange communities that ring Newark. Indeed, Orange Park is now called Monte Irvin Orange Park as a testament to his legendary playground and subsequent career. That kind of ball playing doesn't happen today. Nowadays, Newark and other urban environments are too far gone to permit such positive, beneficial activities as playground baseball.

In 2007, Yusuf Davis asked in Ebony: "Where are the African-American baseball players?":

From T-ball fields to Major League parks, African-Americans are becoming increasingly rare on baseball diamonds nationwide. Since 1975 professional baseball's African-American population has declined from 28 percent to 8 percent. That figure represents the lowest percentage of U.S.-born Black players in baseball since the sport was fully integrated in 1959.

I was surprised when I learned that Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano - who was in the top ten in the American League for 2010 in hits, home runs, R.B.I.s, and batting average - came from Newark - sort of. His story is actually an illustration of the decline of baseball playing - the social fiber - in American inner cities.

Cano is not African-American. He is a Dominican immigrant whose father, Jose, was an international professional player who revered American baseball - note Cano's first name.

But, after moving to the U.S., Cano never played baseball here. According to Harvey Araton, of the New York Times,

Cano finished eighth grade and enrolled at Barringer High School, but he failed to make it through his freshman year or to play an inning of high school baseball in New Jersey.

"He was having a lot of trouble," Jose Cano said in a telephone interview from Puerto Rico. "They had fights, turf wars, Dominican kids against black kids, and he started to have all kinds of trouble."

And so Jose shipped his son back to the Dominican Republic so that he could play baseball.

Whereas once the obstacle to great athletes like Monte Irvin playing major league baseball was discrimination, inner city kids now are kept from excelling in the sport by the disintegration of their communities. What a shocking reversal of America's image of itself as the land of opportunity - Newark and other cities have self-destructed to such an extent that a kid talented enough to become a major league star is incapable of playing baseball there!

It is worth keeping Cano's experience in mind when considering whether Mark Zuckerberger's $100 million gift, in itself, can dramatically improve the Newark School System.