WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- On a campus steeped in African-American history and tradition, at one of the few colleges in the country claiming Martin Luther King Jr. Drive as a home address, a certain group of athletes is initially judged not by the content of their character, but by the color of their skin.
Whenever they head to class or to the cafeteria or hustle off to the athletic complex in clusters, other students will nod and reach an easy conclusion about the identity of these white players:
Oh, you must be the baseball team.
"Every now and then, we'll hear that," said pitcher Scott Wells. "People know who we are. It's no secret. It's never done negatively or anything like that. It's all in fun. But yeah, we get that sometimes."
Winston-Salem State University is a member of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a distinction made necessary in the Jim Crow South when ambitious black teenagers had no other educational options. The school is roughly 75 percent black and has had a black majority for its entire 122-year existence. A singular culture dominates campus life. The student-body, the faculty, the football games, the music pumped in the student union, the parties, the Homecoming Queen and her court, "Big House" Gaines and the basketball legacy he built, the fraternities and sororities. All mostly black.
Except for the baseball team. That would be very, very white.
It's a contrast found curious only to outsiders. Truthfully, the makeup of baseball teams at more than half of the HBCUs has been mostly white for years now, a racial transition that underlines the speed in which blacks have abandoned the national pastime since the 1980s. Imagine that: Blacks aren't even playing baseball en masse at schools originally created to educate blacks.
On a baseball team that honorably represents a black institution, black players are... the minority? Yes, conflicting as it sounds, such is the case at Winston-Salem.
As Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day and how he inspired black boys to grab a bat and take their cuts and someday dream of being him, there's only scattered evidence of Robinson's reach, almost 70 years later. The reasons that help explain what's happening today are complex. Vast numbers of blacks aren't aspiring to play in the majors, and perhaps never will, at least not to the degree of basketball and football, even with MLB's best efforts.
And at Winston-Salem State and Delaware State and Florida A&M and Hampton and Bethune-Cookman, the baseball teams don't accurately reflect the makeup of the student body. In some cases, it's not even close. On those campuses and others like them, a phenomenon rings true: Whites are rescuing and saving baseball at black colleges and universities.
As the Rams took the infield for a recent game, anyone could see the obvious. Only three players on the Winston-Salem traveling team are black. The Rams' team picture could pass for a college lacrosse team in Idaho. It's no coincidence that the Rams also happen to be very good, maybe the best among black colleges. They've won three straight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships and at one point last season were ranked 23th in Division II. The racial makeup has much to do with that success. With the black high school recruiting pool being thin to begin with, and most of the few very good black players either going pro or flocking to some Division I powerhouse, there's not much collegiate-level talent left, so coaches like Kevin Ritsche are stuck.
Ritsche was chosen to restore the Winston-Salem baseball program in 2010 after a 38-year hiatus. He's a friendly, balding white man who could pass for Albert Pujols. Born and raised in Wisconsin, he didn't have a black teammate in high school and rarely competed against blacks in college. Ritsche came to Winston-Salem several years ago to work in the school's exercise sciences program and to get his Ph.D. at nearby UNC-Greensboro. When the administration discovered his baseball background, he was hired as baseball coach and immediately expected to see a fertile field for recruiting in North Carolina, which is 21 percent black. The reality, though, was a rude wake-up call.
"Coming here was a big shock to me," said Ritsche. "I was welcomed with open arms by the school and I loved the way the culture accepted me, but I thought I'd see more African-American players. Ratio-wise, I bet there aren't more playing here than where I come from."
Ritsche wanted to turn the program into a winner after being dormant for so long, yet was also sensitive to fielding a team that would be reflective of an HBCU. He found he couldn't have it both ways. So he approached the athletic director at the time. And what was the blunt response from Bill Hayes?
"Go find some white kids," Hayes told him.
Any HBCU that wants to be competitive must recruit not only whites, but players with Latin-American heritage. It's similar to where many major football schools in the Deep South found themselves in the late '60s once Sam Cunningham ripped through the all-white Alabama defense and moved Bear Bryant to chisel away at discrimination. The difference, of course, is HBCUs don't refuse to admit white students, never have, actually. Therefore, the baseball teams at HBCUs are the most integrated -- if not whitest -- units on campus.
"Bill knew it would be easier to put together a team if I did that," said Ritsche. "That to me was almost a relief, because I knew the challenge ahead of me, and I wouldn't have to look over my shoulder by allowing a white kid to take a roster spot. Me not being from an HBCU school and also being from the outside, you can imagine how I thought about going about doing this."
Last year, black players were the minority at half of the six schools that field baseball teams in the CIAA and six out of the nine baseball schools in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, another HBCU league. Division I baseball rosters were 5.6 percent black (compared to 5.8 Latin American).
Ray Crawford, a Rams outfielder and one of their better hitters, "came from the womb with a bat," which he says set him apart from his black friends. It also helped that his father was the high school baseball coach.
"Baseball just wasn't pushed too hard on the kids where I'm from," he said. "And while my high school had black players and I played travel ball with black players, I'm the only black kid from my league still playing."
He snickered, somewhat sarcastically.
"Not surprised by that," he said.
From his vantage point, Crawford said baseball for the most part is doomed in terms of attracting and keeping black kids, especially from other sports, and once they reach high school, most can't compete at the next level.
"That's why I'm thankful for my dad," he said. "He started me early. I came up with the game like those from the Dominican, where it's instilled from birth, where their game is non-stop year-round, where there's lots of hard work and discipline."
When asked about his team at Winston-Salem, Crawford praised the way the players bond regardless of race or background. But isn't it strange being at a black school with only two black teammates?
"I never expected it to be any different," he said. "Even here."
* * *
Mervyl Melendez arrived at Alabama State two years ago and success was instant, with 52 wins the highest two-year total in school history. Nobody was surprised, because in his previous stop Melendez built a black-college tornado at Bethune-Cookman, where he won 11 conference titles in his 12 years, with 11 trips to the NCAA tournament. At age 35 and two months he became the second-youngest coach in Division I history to reach 300 wins.
Alabama State knew what it was getting: A passionate and dedicated coach who'd win... and bring kids from Puerto Rico, where he has strong ties.
"If you were to just focus on getting African-American kids," he said, "it would be hard to field a team. A competitive team anyway."
Not that he doesn't try. Melendez knows about all the hot spots in Atlanta and Orlando and New Orleans and Tampa, places where black faces are more abundant than usual, yet he usually comes up dry.
"There's a big tournament every year in Jupiter [Florida]," he said. "The best players in the nation go there. Out of 200 or so teams, there's probably 35-50 African American kids. That's less than what, two percent? Plus, you can tell how many will end up playing D-I baseball. Not many. It's gotten a little worse since I started coaching, more of an uphill battle, to find these kids. Some who are good enough don't end up taking the [board] tests or do well enough in school, so they can't qualify academically. We're fighting a lot of elements."
His Alabama State team has nine players weaned at academies in Puerto Rico. This was his technique at Bethune-Cookman, to build a pipeline from the island. Even now, after his departure, only eight of the 33 players on the Bethune roster are American-born blacks.
"We have to find kids who can keep us competitive," Melendez said. "One of our niches is Puerto Rico. There's baseball played there year round and the kids can really play. They all want an opportunity to play professionally and they're all passionate."
Melendez is a baseball fiend, has been from the start. He's from Carolina, Puerto Rico, the birthplace of Roberto Clemente. When Melendez was growing up, everyone wanted to be Clemente. Even now, 42 years after Clemente's death. That's the baseball advantage that kids in Puerto Rico have over kids in Philadelphia; there are no athletes from other sports who command that kind of reverence. So it's baseball, and really nothing else.
"Where I grew up, if you didn't play baseball, you didn't play anything," Melendez said. "You were neglected. You couldn't play with the other kids in the neighborhood. We went outside every day, got a stick, got a ball we taped up and played. I acted like I was Dave Winfield, like I was Graig Nettles, and Roberto Clemente of course, who was a hero on the island. That's all we knew. It's totally different here."
Melendez works in Alabama, smack in the bosom of college football, where Nick Saban is treated like a religious figure, where Auburn almost won a national championship four months ago. He doesn't need to venture outside his own house to feel the intensity of football fever.
"My son is a quarterback, wants to play football and also basketball," he said. "That's what the high school kids are doing to be popular. He doesn't tell me that, but I know that's why he's playing those sports. Kids want to play sports that have a pep rally. They want to be seen by their friends. That doesn't happen in high school baseball. And let's be honest, they're boys, they want the girls to see them. It becomes a social thing. Where are the cheerleaders at? Not at baseball games."
* * *
Roger Cador is one of the longest-tenured coaches in HBCU history. He noticed the changing face of baseball about five years after he took the job at Southern University in 1985. His team was all black except for a kid from Panama. One player from Venezuela arrived a few years later. Whites arrived in the early '90s. By 2008, blacks were the minority. And now, Southern baseball is one-third black, white and Latin.
He coached Rickie Weeks, the NCAA player of the year in 2003 who's now with the Brewers. Weeks gave Southern and black-college baseball a rare taste of national shine, but that didn't translate into more top black players at Southern. Cador said: "A lot of black parents thought we weren't good enough for their son. I took the high road."
Actually, it didn't even bring many black players of average talent, either. At Southern, like other HBCUs, baseball relies on whites for survival. Cador said: "The white players are doing their part to save baseball. Without them we wouldn't be able to get enough quality. You can't find a lot of black pitchers, for example. If white kids weren't playing at historically black schools, pitching would probably be non-existent."
A few years ago Southern and other schools took interest in a big high school kid from Alabama with big-league ability. He was 6-foot-4 with a strong arm and a passion for baseball. He was also good at football, too, yet unlike many who excel at both sports, he didn't drop baseball over football. He kept both.
He wound up at Florida State and as a redshirt freshman, Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy and the national championship. He's playing baseball, too, with a fraction of the interest. Not even the Florida State campus is leaning on his every at-bat or pitch. Ask yourself: Do you know exactly what Winston is doing in baseball? (He's the team's closer, with a 1.76 ERA.) There's no Heisman in college baseball, no 75,000 in the stands at his games, no ESPN College Gameday going live in the parking lot, no prime-time TV attracting millions, no tailgating. And even if a high school player is good enough to skip college baseball and turn pro, he's looking at two-to-four years in the minors, where nobody notices him except his parents, then another three or so years before he really gets paid.
The journey from high school to the big leagues is a lonely and mostly unprofitable one, and given the choice between that and the autobahn traveled by football and basketball stars via limo, it becomes an easy choice for the great black teenaged athlete.
"Baseball is a wonderful alternative," said Cador. "Jameis is good enough to play both sports on the next level and could choose baseball. That would be a smart choice. He could do so much more for the sport, for the effort to get more black kids into baseball, but I'm biased. And he did win the Heisman."
* * *
Why isn't baseball in the blood of black teens? Sit down; this will take a minute.
Baseball gets posterized by Kobe and LeBron and Durant, and baseball most definitely couldn't beat Michael Jordan, the man most responsible for murdering the game among young black kids. In high school, baseball can't compete with Friday nights and pep rallies and swooning teenage girls who bat their eyes at the starting quarterback.
Baseball isn't found on bedroom walls. While Jordan was Pied-Pipering his way through the imaginations of millions in the '80s and '90s, the best baseball player of that era was Barry Bonds, a disaster as a role model for black kids. Ken Griffey Jr. wore his cap backward but was too shy and uninterested in actively promoting the game among those who looked like him. There are few transcendent black stars in majors to begin with, and baseball saw a rare opening wasted on two of them.
Baseball doesn't sell sneakers. Think about that. Basketball and Nike push the most gotta-have-it accessory in athletics and street fashion. Therefore, what sport do you think grips young black boys?
Since Jackie Robinson retired, baseball lost at least two generations of blacks, which means the ball of choice that a father throws to his son isn't white and round. Especially in the South, where peer pressure to play football is potent and intoxicating and consumes entire communities and towns.
Speaking of which, baseball needs fathers and sons to grow. The seed is planted with a backyard game of catch. With black single-parent households now at 72 percent, how much does the lack of involved fathers prevent black attachment the game?
College baseball programs are limited to 11.7 scholarships per team. Do the math there; few players get a full ride. Meanwhile, football and basketball scholarships cover 100 percent. The incentive to play college baseball is lost among high school kids from poor black families.
You can't play three-on-three baseball. You also can't play by yourself. And you can't fit a baseball field in your driveway. The game requires 15-20 kids, a nearby field and committed parents who can form healthy leagues and provide structure and coaching. During the great American urban renewal of the 1950 and '60s, when housing projects began to swell, city planners built asphalt basketball courts that involved little maintenance, not baseball fields. Basketball, then, was chosen for black kids in the city.
When the black middle class grew, the options for kids grew as well. The desire to use sports to escape poverty no longer existed in those families; more sons are being groomed to become doctors and CEOs.
Baseball lacks competition for the affections of kids in Latin America, and so their skills are sharpened before they become teenagers. The game must reach black kids before they turn 10. Otherwise, try learning how to turn a double play at 16.
Finally: The idea that baseball is too expensive for boys to play is a myth. It's not a money problem; it's a passion problem. Poor kids will drop $500 on Beats headphones or $300 on the latest Jordans. A baseball bat and glove aren't that steep, especially if they're used. If a poor kid has a desire for something, money will be found to get it. Travel teams can be pricey, but what about travel teams in AAU basketball? Are they free? Besides, if a kid is good enough, someone will sponsor him. That, or his team will pick up the tab.
* * *
Only 8.3 percent of players on major league rosters on Opening Day in 2014 were black, according to the league. (It should be noted that while MLB has fewer black players, the game is more diverse than ever thanks to the influx of Asian and Latino players, with a 2013 report indicating that 28.2 percent of players were foreign-born.) Changing that is challenge embraced by Bud Selig. The commissioner has placed his energy into two areas of concern: first and foremost the steroid issue, then growing the game in urban areas. MLB-funded youth academies in Compton, Houston and New Orleans are up and running, with openings slated this year in Philadelphia and Cincinnati. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program (RBI) holds annual talent showcases and more than half of the 220,000 participants are black, according to MLB.
The major leagues are doing more to stimulate interest among black kids, especially those in the critical 12-to-15 age-group who begin to concentrate on one sport, than the other professional leagues, only because they must. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski heads the urban initiative. Last week Jerry Manuel was promoted to steer the effort, and the former manager knows this will be a tougher job than taking over the Mets.
"There's somewhat of a disconnect between our culture and baseball," said Manuel. "It's not necessarily disheartening, but surprising."
But is it really? The idea that baseball was once a part of black American households like Ebony magazine is a stretch. The Negro Leagues were popular mainly because they served as necessary social mixers on weekend afternoons for black families during segregation. Boxing, with Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, had a bigger following as a sport. Even after Jackie Robinson brought blacks to the ballpark, it could be argued blacks came to support Robinson and other pioneers, not necessarily baseball. The highest number of blacks in the majors was 19 percent in 1986, nowhere near the 78 percent in the NBA and 67 percent in the NFL today.
"We have to get the kids early and keep them playing and keep them enthused under the watchful eye of good coaching and scouting," Manuel said. He's hopeful the percentages will improve in time. "There are enough things going on with the programs to give it some momentum. A lot of people on the ground floor are working to make a difference. Our job is to keep the momentum and make it into a movement. If that happens I think you'll see a change in baseball and our culture."
A wonderful scene is unfolding at Winston-Salem and other HBCUs: White players are seamlessly meshing on a mostly-black campus. They are oddities, but not outcasts, and their presence earns them applause on campus for their courage to step beyond their perceived comfort zone.
"I'd never thought I'd go to an HBCU," said Wells, the Winston-Salem pitcher, now a senior. "It's been far better than I expected. Sometimes I'm the only white student in class but it hasn't been that big of an adjustment. I'm thankful I got this chance."
What a coincidence that this is happening in the South, where decades ago a black player could expect a frosty handshake at Ole Miss and Alabama and other places. The stories about the awkwardness of desegregation have been told and re-told, but you won't see any modern-day version on black campuses.
The board chairman at Southern University, Tony Clayton, pressed his baseball coach to actively recruit more whites, saying "diversity is good." Clayton was speaking to the choir, because Cador was on board.
"I love people in general," Cador said, "so it was easy. If I ever denied a white kid, then I'd be doing what white schools did to us years ago."
Coaches like Cador and Ritsche at Winston-Salem find it easy to recruit white players, mainly getting transfers and those unable to land Division I scholarships who want to play baseball badly enough to go almost anywhere. Both schools also have the advantage of playing in some of the nicest facilities in the country. Southern just built a stadium named after Cador. Winston-Salem's games are at $48 million BB&T Ballpark complete with luxury suites and a video scoreboard, built by the city for the Chicago White Sox' Single-A affiliate. Plus, white parents offer little if any resistance.
"I always tell them of my own experience as a white person on campus and how it's been nothing but comfortable," said Ritsche. "There's never been a parent who said they're not sending their son because it's an HBCU. When I lose kids it's always a different reason, mainly the level of competition."
Ritsche added: "I've had more black players tell me they wouldn't come here because Winston-Salem is an HBCU. I think the black players, the good ones, see it as more of a stigma than white players. To me that was very surprising."
Last weekend the Rams clinched another CIAA regular-season title with a two-game sweep of Lincoln University (Pa.). Two black players from Winston-Salem delivered: Crawford and Leland Clemmons scored and drove in most of the runs. Lincoln has one of the few remaining mostly-black baseball programs in HBCUs. Not surprisingly, Lincoln is 2-30 on the year.
"A few years ago," said Ritsche, "some of the mostly black teams began to change, realizing they weren't able to win with just African American players and became comfortable taking everybody, especially if they could get white players to go to their school."
Ritsche thought this was inevitable. Coaches want to win, schools want to be competitive, white players are ready and willing to stray beyond their cultural zone and finding black players isn't getting easier, even for black colleges.
"You know what? Looking around at the starting lineups this season," Ritsche said, "we're no longer the whitest team."