Marlon Byrd is more Jacque Jones or Chris Singleton than he is Ernie Banks in the pantheon of Chicago ballplayers, but he claims a singular distinction as the 2012 season gets under way.
Byrd, a 34-year-old center fielder, was the only African-American player on the Cubs’ or White Sox’ Opening Day rosters.
The White Sox, the team of Frank Thomas, Dick Allen, Harold Baines and Jermaine Dye, have no African-American players? Not one – for the first time since 1952.
The Cubs of Banks, Billy Williams, Lou Brock (briefly) and Derrek Lee have one: Byrd, a lifetime .281 hitter in his third Cubs season.
It’s a head-scratching development because both teams boast a rich heritage of African-American standouts. Plus Chicago’s large African-American population long was known to embrace baseball. The Negro Leagues’ East-West Classic all-star game drew turn-away crowds to the old Comiskey Park when it was played there from 1933 to 1950.
But it’s by no means a unique-to-Chicago phenomenon. The St. Louis Cardinals, the team of Bob Gibson, Bill White, Brock and Ozzie Smith, opened the season without an African-American player on their roster. The San Francisco Giants of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Bobby and Barry Bonds had one: backup infielder Emmanuel Burriss.
‘‘To those of us who came along in the ’50s and ’60s, this is really sad,” Williams said.
A Hall of Famer and the National League Rookie of the Year as the Cubs’ left fielder in 1961, Williams recalled teaming with Brock and George Altman in an all-African-American Cubs outfield in the early ’60s.
‘‘Just about every team in baseball has a player-development academy in the Dominican Republic,” Williams said. ‘‘I’d like to see more of those in the States.”
African-American participation in major league baseball has been declining steadily since the late ’70s, when it peaked at nearly 28 percent. Only 8.5 percent of the players on Opening Day rosters last season were African Americans, according to an annual survey by Dr. Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.
Baseball has seen a commensurate rise in Latin American involvement, with Latin players holding down 27 percent of Opening Day roster spots last season.
There is an acute shortage of African-American pitchers. Only five are penciled in as rotation starters this season: the New York Yankees’ CC Sabathia, the Tampa Bay Rays’ David Price, the Washington Nationals’ Edwin Jackson, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ James McDonald and the Los Angeles Angels’ Jerome Williams.
Major League Baseball is attempting to increase those dwindling African-American numbers through its ‘‘RBI” program – Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities – designed to make the game more accessible and appealing to urban youngsters. The Philadelphia Phillies’ Jimmy Rollins, the Oakland Athletics’ Coco Crisp and the Boston Red Sox’ Carl Crawford are among a handful of RBI graduates to reach the big leagues.
The Cubs and White Sox sponsor thriving RBI programs that involve hundreds of urban youngsters. Ernie Radcliffe, a nephew of Negro Leagues legend Ted ‘‘Double Duty” Radcliffe and the baseball coach at Morgan Park High School, runs the Cubs’ program, with the Union League Boys and Girls Club as a co-sponsor.
‘‘We emphasize fundamentals and developing a good baseball IQ,” Radcliffe said. ‘‘Scouts have been coming into the inner city the last few years because the talent pool is better. Kids are getting more opportunities to play college or junior-college baseball.”
Stan Zielinski, a veteran Midwest-area scout for the Cubs, said he thinks the RBI program is beginning to fulfill its mission.
‘‘It’s helping city kids get more exposure,” Zielinski said. ‘‘Baseball is just not a glamor sport to them the way football and basketball are. It’s a hard game to grasp. RBI gives them a grounding in the game you have to have. It’s becoming a more athletic game. There should be more opportunities for city kids.”
The White Sox are trying to create them. Their Inner-City Youth Baseball initiative, which is co-sponsored by the Chicago Park District, offers baseball and softball instruction to more than 700 youngsters on 54 teams at age-group levels ranging from 6 to 18.
The more promising ballplayers can participate in the White Sox-sponsored Amateur City Elite program, competing in high-level age-group tournaments against top ‘‘travel” teams from the Chicago area. Since the ACE program debuted in 2007, six players have been drafted by major-league teams and 29 have gone to college on baseball scholarships, the White Sox say.
‘‘I’d like to see more scouting resources devoted to city kids,” Billy Williams said. ‘‘If teams are going to Japan and Korea to look for players, there’s no reason for them not to pay more attention to the cities.
‘‘Baseball truly was America’s Game when I played. It can be that again.”