There were 68 African American players in the major leagues on Opening Day last season, a tiny number that quite possibly points to just one reason why baseball’s popularity is waning, particularly with younger fans.
Ed Howard, a probable first-round pick in the major-league draft scheduled for next month, stands a good chance of adding to that number. A shortstop at Mount Carmel High School on the South Side, Howard is projected by MLB.com’s mock draft to be the 18th player picked, by the Diamondbacks. Baseball America ranks Howard as the best high school shortstop in the draft.
Unless you happen to be among the small number of folks who attend amateur baseball games, the last you probably saw of Howard was on television in 2014, when he played for the Jackie Robinson West team that won the U.S. championship in the Little League World Series.
“That was one of the most exciting times in my life,” Howard said by phone from his home in south suburban Lynwood this week. “As a 12-year-old, you’re just playing baseball, not really worried about anything else, having fun with your teammates. It didn’t really hit me till I was 15 or 16. Then I really realized what we had done. Playing on ABC and ESPN in front of like 40,000 people [in Williamsport, Pennsylvania] how fun and electric that was to play games in that environment.”
At 12, Howard had experienced something special, and he wanted more.
“After a few months, the notoriety dies down, and you go back to reality,” he said. “I kind of wanted that to be my lifestyle forever. So it highly motivated me to keep working and experience that at the big-league level.”
It was the first time an African American team won the U.S. title, and JRW’s feel-good story captured the nation’s attention. The title, however, would be stripped when an investigation revealed a falsified boundary map was used to roster players who did not live in the geographic area they represented.
In short, adults were guilty. Kids were not, but they were scarred.
“I woke up one morning and saw it on ‘SportsCenter’ like everyone else,” Howard said. “I just remember being angry. We went out there and played hard, and it kind of got taken away. At the same time, it was out of my control. I had to move on in my life. That’s how I tried to treat it, just stay focused and keep grinding and get to where I want to be. That has helped me a lot to put me in the position I am right now.”
That position would be, barring acceptance of a scholarship offer to Oklahoma, a multimillion-dollar signing bonus and the start of a professional career this summer, on a track to become a big-leaguer in perhaps three or four years. African Americans filled only 7.7 percent of major-league rosters on Opening Day last season, compared to 18.4 percent in 1984, a trend Howard knows.
“They’re just used to playing basketball and football,” Howard said. “Those are the sports where there is the most notoriety. The NBA and NFL does a great job marketing their players. You just see more African American athletes in those sports. You don’t really see any in baseball.”
Shortstop Tim Anderson, 26, is the only African American White Sox player and a face of the franchise. He overcame obstacles, won a batting title, is active with his wife in the community and plays with an edge and style that could attract other blacks to the game.
“I really hope they change that,” Howard said. “African Americans should understand there are more sports that you can dominate, just like basketball and football. Just the lack of African Americans playing doesn’t help, honestly. Guys like Tim Anderson are [doing it], and guys like me coming up behind him have to continue with it, to open doors.”
Anderson has said Howard is ahead of him skill-wise compared to where he was at that age. Scouts project Howard to stay at Anderson’s position, the most demanding one in the infield. He’s that good defensively.
Howard — a participant in the Sox’ ACE program, which helps Chicago-area minority kids reach goals of playing in college — accepted an invitation to work out with Anderson, who lives in the south suburbs.
At that time, Howard anticipated a senior season, which has been wiped out — along with graduation exercises and prom — by the coronavirus.
“It breaks my heart that he and his teammates lost out on what we thought could be a championship season,” said Mount Carmel coach Brian Hurry, who calls Howard “a humble, hard-working kid that is still getting better.”
Developing a friendship with Anderson has softened the blow.
“I’ve got a lot closer to him the last few months,” Howard said. “We talked a lot, and we realized how much we have in common.
“I appreciate him staying in touch. He’s a big-league shortstop, and he doesn’t have to reach out to me.”
“Just being himself,” Howard said. “Not changing trying to fit in. Just be you. And he has talked to me about having self-confidence. Not being cocky, just always believing you’re the best one out there and knowing you deserve to be in the position you’re in.”
For Howard, it’s a position of “an exciting time in my life and obviously seeing my dreams come true.”