Decades After Robinson, Blacks Dismiss Baseball

Jackie Robinson first broke baseball's color barrier not on Ebbets Field but on a diamond in central Florida.

On March 17, 1946, more than a year before he debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson took the field in Daytona Beach with the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' farm team.

Bethune-Cookman College is a historically black school, and its baseball team, the Wildcats, plays its home games at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, the very stadium where Jackie Robinson made history.

Today, Bethune-Cookman planned to start the same number of African-Americans that started on Robinson's team 61 years ago -- one.

Mervyl Melendez is in his eighth season as Bethune-Cookman's head coach. He says his foremost obligation is to recruit African-Americans, but that he sees few of them playing baseball.

"We went to a national showcase, it's actually a tournament, and I'm not lying to you if I tell you that I saw probably about 15 to 20 African-American kids out of about 2,000," says Melendez.

Bethune-Cookman has dominated the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, winning nine out of the last 11 conference titles and making six trips to the NCAA Division I tournament. Like most historically black colleges and universities, more than 95 percent of Bethune-Cookman's student body is black. But this season, 19 out of 30 players on the baseball team are white or Hispanic.

"The bottom line is that we must field the most competitive team that we can -- and we will not stop looking for kids from every ethnic background," says Lynn Thompson, Bethune-Cookman's athletic director. "We are a proud historically black college. We're historically black, but not exclusively black."

At Daytona Beach's Mainland High School, the football team reigns supreme, reaching the state semi-finals last season. As for basketball, every night a life-sized statue of alumnus and NBA star Vince Carter casts its shadow on the school gym, the Vince Carter Athletic Center.

But many of the school's black athletes say they have no interest in baseball.

"To me baseball, it's like predominately for white athletes, and basketball and football is dominated by blacks," says Orkeys Auriene, who plays both football and basketball at Mainland.

In fact, while more than a third of Mainland's 2,000 students are black, only two, John Theodore and Zachery O'Brien, play baseball.

"They feel that because you're black you usually play more of a contact sport," O'Brien says, "and they think baseball is more boring to them. So they're like, 'Oh okay, well maybe that's just a white man's sport.'"

Percy Williamson is in charge of parks and recreation activities for the city of Daytona Beach. In 2005, Williamson's department tried to start a city little league, reaching out to schools and churches in the black community. The turnout was dismal. According to Williamson, the popularity of baseball among young African-Americans lags far behind that of other sports.

I'd say baseball, and I even hate to say it, is probably fourth behind football, which is king, basketball, and then you've got video games, and then you've got baseball," says Williamson.

The cumulative effect of African-Americans' dwindling interest in baseball is evident not just at Bethune-Cookman, but in dugouts and on diamonds at many other historically black Division I schools.

"We're gonna look for the African-American kid first, but if we can't find them we gotta fill those slots," says Joe Durant, who coaches Florida A&M's baseball team. "We gotta fill those slots with some Division I-caliber baseball players."

Prairie View A&M's baseball team is an exception. Last season, they won the Southwest Athletic Conference title with a predominately black roster.

Prairie View outfielder Calvin Lester knows he wouldn't have had a chance to play Division I baseball if it weren't for his favorite player's courage six decades ago. Jackie Robinson's photos cover the door to Lester's dorm room. But Lester and others are troubled by Robinson's legacy.

"I definitely think he'd be disappointed," says Lester. "I mean, I'm disappointed at it right now. I know a lot of black athletes right now who can definitely play the game -- but for whatever reason we're just not doin' it."

Back in Daytona Beach, however, those at Bethune-Cookman see Robinson's legacy in a different light.

"I think Jackie Robinson would've probably given us a high-five, because we were perpetuating good sportsmanship, we were cutting across racial lines, and we were winning," says athletic director Thompson. "And he'd probably send some kids our way."