By Jalen Brown and Justin Gamble, CNN
Dario Otero Jr., affectionately known as DJ, admires Jackie Robinson for making history as the first Black American to play Major League Baseball.
DJ, 13, said Robinson proved that Black players too could excel in professional baseball. But 75 years after the league was desegregated, DJ said he is the only Black baseball player on his youth travel team.
And that reality hits the hardest during tryouts and games, said DJ’s father, Dario Otero Sr.
“He knows he’s the only one there,” Otero said. “Whatever he does, however he’s getting looked at, he sticks out like a sore thumb … He’s known for being the one player in our area that is the Black player.”
DJ, who lives in Rosemount, Minnesota, said he would love to see more Black youth playing baseball in his age group. Being the only Black player on his team makes him feel “worried” for the future, DJ said.
And he’s not the only one.
Recent news of there being no US-born Black players competing in the World Series for the first time since 1950 underscores what advocates for racial equity in sports say is the MLB’s decades-long struggle with diversity.
This comes after a May report by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that there is now a smaller percentage of Black MLB players than there’s been in three decades. Black players currently compose about 7% of Major League Baseball teams, in comparison to the 18% of Black players the league had in 1991.
Ahead of Game 1 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, the Astros and Philadelphia Phillies announced their 26-man World Series rosters last week, and neither team’s rosters include any US-born Black players. Astros outfielder Michael Brantley, a Black player, likely would’ve been on the roster but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury earlier in the season. Meanwhile, the Phillies had no Black players on their Opening Day roster this year for the first time since 1959. Roman Quinn, who is Black, was a backup outfielder with the Phillies this season, but was released after playing in 23 games.
‘Baseball has actually tried very hard’
Richard Lapchick, director of the institute and author of the report titled The Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball, said the MLB has made some strides in recruiting Black players but the data shows there is more work to be done.
“Baseball has actually tried very hard to increase the number of Black players because, frankly, it’s an embarrassment to them,” Lapchick said.
Lapchick credited the league for making history this year. Four of the five top MLB draft picks this year were Black, and they all participated in the MLB’s Dream Series designed to increase Black representation on the field.
Tony Reagins, the MLB’s chief diversity officer, tells CNN that what is key is getting players from the youth leagues to college where they can be seen by scouts and further develop their skills.
Reagins said the number of Black people participating in collegiate baseball is about 5%. He said while he understands the importance of getting Black players into professional baseball, he feels “getting Black players to college is equally as important.”
“This didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t change overnight,” Reagins said.
While no players will be US born African Americans, there will be Black players in the Fall Classic, including Afro-Cuban slugger Yordan Alvarez of the Astros. Players from eight different countries are represented in the World Series this year.
Still, observers say the lack of US-born players on this year’s roster signals that more needs to be done to increase the pipeline for African American players. And despite MLB’s efforts, many fans and league observers are still disappointed that Black American players are underrepresented, said Phil Dixon, a baseball historian and co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
“If I had to give Major League Baseball a grade, I would give them an F,” Dixon said.
His museum continues to receive millions of dollars in donations from the MLB, but Dixon nevertheless believes there is too much investment in the past and not enough in the future.
“Ever since we started the museum, the number of Black players has been decreasing,” Dixon said. “They’re putting their money in the history, big time, but their commitment to the current youth is sorely lacking.”
It’s an ‘expensive’ sport
Otero, DJ’s father, said Black youth need to learn the history of baseball and receive more guidance on how to get involved.
“I just want to encourage … minor league [and] major league baseball teams to go into the history of their community and see how do you bring young athletes in,” Otero told CNN.
Otero said some Black families also struggle to afford the costs of playing baseball and there isn’t enough investment in fixing up baseball fields in Black neighborhoods.
“It’s expensive,” Otero said. “$300 gloves, $300 bats that you got to switch every single year.”
Lapchick told CNN that baseball fields are not common in urban areas.
Otero, who previously coached baseball in urban areas, said the fields in Black and brown communities are not maintained as well as fields in White suburban areas.
“It’s not as fun,” Otero said, adding that a rock might fly up and hit a player in the face because of the field’s abysmal state.
Experts say more needs to be done to eliminate the racial barriers to baseball.
“I think that more could be invested into those programs, and I think that municipalities across the country need to partner with Major League Baseball to make those programs as robust as they can be and really support our youth,” said Jessie Hagopian, an author who writes about Black representation in sports.
If MLB built more fields in Black and brown communities, Hagopian said it would revive interest and recruitment within these communities.
Reagins said the MLB shares Hagopian’s concerns. The league is working with local leaders to improve conditions of fields in several cities and offering financial assistance to young players to help defray the cost of participating in youth leagues, Reagins said.
“We provide equipment, we provide scholarships, we provide grants in order to start to balance the scale … getting more kids those opportunities that those with resources already have,” he said.
‘There’s blame to be placed on every level’
Lack of investment and the high costs to play are not the only problems.
According to Dixon, Ebony Magazine and other Black media outlets used to promote and list all the Black professional baseball players in the 1960s and 1970s but they no longer do.
“There’s blame to be placed on every level,” Dixon said.
Lapchick said Black children are less likely to choose baseball when they are not seeing themselves celebrated in the sport.
Barry Bonds was considered one of the most popular Black baseball players in the early 2000s, but his reported steroid use and the subsequent media critique overshadowed his accomplishments. This resulted in pushing Black athletes away from baseball and more toward basketball and football, Lapchick said.
“So, if you’re a young Black kid, and you see the best Black baseball player being criticized all the time, and you look at the NBA and see great athletes who are being highlighted on the news and in the community — same thing in the NFL — you’re probably not gonna choose baseball,” Lapchick explained.
Despite the racial disparity in baseball, DJ said he hopes to make it to the MLB someday as a starting pitcher.
“I’ve got a big arm,” DJ said. “An arm that someday might be part of the next generation of major league superstars.”
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CNN’s Nicquel Terry Ellis and Homero de la Fuente contributed to this report.