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Vanishing Act: What happened to black baseball in Arkansas?

Across Arkansas, like the rest of the nation, this is becoming more and more the exception. (courtesy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

I’ve seen baseball change—I hate to say it like this—to a middle-class white-man’s sport over the years that I don’t think is fair across the board.” – Norm DeBriyn

Arkansas eked out a 5-4 win against Baylor on Sunday to set up a decisive Game 3 on Monday at 6:05 PM on ESPNU (or ESPN2, depending on the cable gods’ whims). If Arkansas wins, it heads out to Omaha for its second College World Series in four years. Despite a recent stretch of weak hitting, despite UA’s horrendous showing at the SEC Tournament and in Game 1 vs. Baylor, the Razorbacks’ season would gain instant salvation. With the increased media attention paid to Arkansas since its last CWS appearance (2009), it would be safe to say “Arkansas baseball has never been hotter than it is right now.”

Lost in the glare, though, would be some startling statistics: Five African-Americans started on the Hogs’ 1985 CWS team, but the numbers have dropped precipitously since then. In the last 14 years, there have been at most four black Hog baseball players. Moreover, in the SEC West in 2010, 2.3% of baseball players were black; that number was 72% in football, 80% in baseball.

Why has African-American participation in baseball nosedived in recent decades? I spent a few months exploring this question by talking with the likes of long-time UA baseball coach Norm DeBriyn, pitcher D.J. Baxendale, Democrat-Gazette writer Rick Fires, former Razorback Arvis Harper and Fitz Hill, a former UA football coach, and D’Vone McClure, one the first African-American Hog baseball signees in years.

My result is an article, which can be accessed in different ways:

1) As a chapter in my non-fiction book African-American Athletes in Arkansas below:

 

2) The original version published in Arkansas Life magazine. In the lower left corner, click on “Vanishing Point: The [changing] face of baseball in our urban centers and colleges.”

3) For those with Democrat-Gazette subscriptions, here’s an updated version.

 

Is Time Running Out for D-Mac?

  Besides usual suspects such as speed, power and quickness, NFL running backs need two other things to excel: youth and durability. No question, Razorback demigod Darren McFadden has enough of the tangibles, and proved it by running at a pace that would have racked up 1,400 yards each of the last two seasons with the Oakland Raiders. But injury kept him from suiting up nearly 40% of his games in 2010 and 2011. In order to achieve the same level of success in Oakland as he had in Arkansas, he must play nearly all 16 regular-season games.

He’ll have plenty more seasons to prove his durability, but if he wants to start setting single-season NFL records, now is the time. McFadden, who turns 25 in August, is entering what is historically the most productive age for pro running backs. The best rushing seasons in NFL history have been churned out by men with an average age of 25.8 years:

Player (Age) Yards Year Games Played Team
1 Eric Dickerson (24) 2,105 1984 16 RAM
2 Jamal Lewis (24) 2,066 2003 16 BAL
3 Barry Sanders (29) 2,053 1997 16 DET
4 Terrell Davis (26) 2,008 1998 16 DEN
5 Chris Johnson (24) 2,006 2009 16 TEN
6 O.J. Simpson (26) 2,003 1973 14 BUF
7 Earl Campbell (25) 1,934 1980 15 HOU
8 Barry Sanders (26) 1,883 1994 16 DET
Ahman Green (26) 1,883 2003 16 GNB
10 Shaun Alexander (28) 1,880 2005 16 SEA

http://www.pro-football-reference.com

Derek Fisher’s spring more than a Little Rocky

In Oklahoma City, greybeard Derek Fisher helped the Thunder wrest two games away from the favored Spurs.

For an NBA player, dry patches don’t come much more Saharan than this.

Twenty-two times over the course of the three biggest games of his season, Derek Fisher tried to put the ball into the basket. Eighteen times he failed. You’d get better percentages from Shaq picking up wood and trying to hit against Cliff Lee.

Even before last week, the Little Rock native was having a tough go of it. Indeed, this has been one of his most difficult seasons since coming out of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock nearly 16 years ago. He spent half of 2011 jetting around the nation, carrying out duties as the president of the National Basketball Players Association in the midst of a lockout. He spent hundreds of hours thumbing through papers and negotiating in boardrooms while younger players stayed sharp playing pickup games. In this way, Fisher sacrificed on-court maintenance for off-court progress, and it showed by the time the season finally started in December: the 6-1 point guard stumbled out of the blocks, shooting well below his career 40% field goal average while having trouble staying in front of younger, quicker opponents.

The man who had helped the Lakers win five NBA championships, who for 13 seasons served as a calming liaison between the likes of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson, was suddenly expendable.

In the SEC West, a widening gap among races in football, basketball and baseball

Plenty will be discussed this week at the Southeastern Conference’s spring meetings in Destin, Florida.

Thousands of articles, newscasts, radio interviews and blog posts will flow from the conference’s well-tanned powers-that-be, covering hot topics such as the SEC’s own distribution channel, its role in a proposed national football tourney and – gasp! – the possibility the Razorbacks will soon sport black uniforms on the gridiron.

One thing that won’t be discussed, however, is color beneath the uniforms.

Today’s African-Americans are playing less baseball than previous generations, and this is most visible through the increasing scarcity of blacks in Major League Baseball and power conferences like the SEC. Much has already been made about the MLB stats: In 1975, African-Americans comprised 27% of Major League Baseball rosters. That’s dropped to eight percent.

Less attention, however, has been paid to SEC baseball. The conference wasn’t thoroughly integrated until the 1970s, and black participation was never as prevalent on its baseball teams as  in the pros. Still, African-Americans’ contributions were significant (Arkansas, for instance, had five black starters on its 1985 World Series team).

In the last 25 years, though, more and more blacks have chosen full football and basketball scholarships rather than accept the partial scholarships NCAA baseball programs must disperse. This is one reason for a widening disparity in participation among races in the major sports.

Naturally, I’m most interested in Arkansas, so I looked at its division –   the SEC West. In 2010, the SEC West had 186 student-athletes in baseball. Six (3.2%) were black, according to the NCAA. Meanwhile, in this division blacks made up 72% of the football rosters and 80% of the basketball rosters.

Some people may ask: “Why does this matter? Why stir the pot by bringing up race?”

I would answer these numbers are important because if baseball is supposed to represent most Americans and our  culture, then it should not be a sport leaving out entire demographics. “If baseball is going to be seen as the national pastime, you would hope it would reflect the diversity of the country,”  Richard Lapchik, director of Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, told the Associated Press in 2005.

It wasn’t always this way. I explore the many reasons for the decline of the black baseball player in the SEC, with a focus on Arkansas, in this Sunday’s Perspective section [update: June 10] of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

$150,000 Campaign to Renovate Lamar Porter Field Coming Soon

The central Little Rock community plays a large role in maintaining in Arkansas’ oldest operating ballpark Lamar Porter Field, which annually costs between $15,000 and $18,000. Boys and Girls Club employees meet many of the day-in, day-out needs. Little Rock Catholic High and Episcopal Collegiate School each pay $2,500 a spring to the use the field for high school baseball season. Friends of Lamar Porter Field, an organization formed by people who grew up playing on the field, or had parents who did, donates about $5,000 a year, says Jay Rogers, one of the field’s trustees.

There have been recent improvements to Lamar Porter – an electronic scoreboard, a leveled field and a new outfield fence – but a thorough renovation of its structure awaits. The trustees have hired an architectural firm to study ways to improve the the National Registry of Historic Places site, especially improving drainage and renovating the 75-year-old dugouts. After that study, a fundraising campaign will start. The goal is about $150,000.

Despite baseball’s waning popularity, Rogers believes there are still plenty neighborhood kids who want to play it. “What you have to have is a nice facility to attract them.”

Originally published as a sidebar to this Sync magazine article 

When Arkansans Put Bread Loaves Atop Radios & Other Baseball Recollections

Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson (left) last visited his childhood ballpark in 2006. The Lamar Porter Field he knew now serves a different demographic through the Little Rock RBI program.
Courtesy of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

For the most part, the bustle is gone.

It’s gone, with Winkler’s Drive-In, the carhops, jukeboxes and the pinball machines, too.

If it’s bustle you want, just walk a block south to Interstate 630. Thousands of cars, streaming west to a hundred separate communities. Sixty years ago, nobody was in that much of a hurry. The place to be was right here.

On the corner of Little Rock’s Seventh and Johnson streets is a 75-year-old ballpark, a monument to a golden past and cradle for a tenuous future.

Whole summers unspooled for the children and teens playing baseball in the confines of Lamar Porter Field. Their friends, neighbors and families filled its grandstands and played on the concrete ping-pong tables and in horseshoe pits of a nearby playground. Interest in youth league baseball was so high that even players as young as eight years old had their exploits covered in a daily newspaper, which ran scores and highlights of each Little League game.

This was the age of Little League coach Benny Craig, the part-time Arkansas Travelers sportscaster who played an ongoing prank on his listeners. Craig concocted commentary on Travelers’ away games by mixing bare-bones information received from teletypes with his own imagination to fill in the rest. His commentary lagged about two innings behind the teletypes, and he used that lag time to plug his broadcast sponsor Colonial Bread, recalled Norris Guinn and Willis Callaway in “Lamar Porter Field and Memories of Sports in Little Rock During the 1950’s.” Most listeners didn’t know Craig could look ahead to see when the Travelers would score, so when he told them to put a loaf of Colonial Bread on their radio to help the Travelers score – making the bread seem like a good luck charm – the company’s bottom line was helped.

Whether for radio or TV, Craig always ended his broadcasts the same way: “Remember, it never takes an extra cent to be a good sport.” He would then wink and say “Good night.”

Ruminations on Joe Johnson and Failure

Little Rock native Joe Johnson isn’t quite the superstar we wanted him to be.

For these last few painful springs, I wanted Joe Johnson to be Michael Jordan.

At times, it seemed like he was off to a pretty good start – better than most of us. The man has started in an All-Star game.  He has thrown up multiple 30 point+ games in the playoffs, and even cracked the 25 ppg average in 2007.  He’d steadily improved in each of the six seasons before that.

All Joe had to do was keep improving, just a little bit per year, and by now he would have even eclipsed M.J.

But Joe didn’t keep improving. In fact, his production has just as steadily tailed off in the last five years. And while he’s still been good enough to be a six-time All-Star, he’s also been widely disparaged for not playing like a 12-time All-NBAer.

This was never more evident than on Thursday night in Boston.  All Joe had to do was channel a little M.J., and the Hawks would be on their way back to Atlanta for Game 7 with all the momentum in the world on their side. A win there and the next opponent, Philadelphia, would present the Johnson-era Hawk’s best opportunity yet to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

For the most part, Joe spread the ball around in the close-fought fourth quarter. He allowed young guns Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague to take the lion’s share of the shots that brought the Hawks back. Still, Joe had his chances. He missed a six-foot hook shot with 6:18 left; with a minute left, the Hawks clinging to a one-point lead, he crossed up seven-footer Ryan Hollins and fired up the kind of long jumper with which M.J. made a living plunging through the heart of opponents. It clanged off the back of the rim.

Joe had another chance to get his superstar on with a little more than nine seconds to go,  his team down 81-79. From the wing, he crossed up Paul Pierce and sort of blew by him. But there wasn’t much separation. And as Johnson tried to explode to the basket,  to flush the ball home or at least draw a foul,  he simply could not get his Jumpman sneakers high enough off the ground.

Pierce swatted the ball out of bounds, and Joe wouldn’t have another chance to redeem himself as the last few seconds of the Hawks’ season ticked away.

It kills me that my high school classmate can’t help get his Hawks over the hump, that his legacy is slowly becoming defined by coming up short. That he’ll soon be 31 years old, and if hasn’t been M.J. for a spring by now, he probably never will.

But, really, none of us get to taste what it’s like to be the best in the world at what we do. We may try our very best for years, but at some point reality swallows up that dream and leaves us with an irksome, possibly painful, realization that our future is limited. Granted – none of us will be paid like a Joe Johnson relative to our chosen profession. But deep down inside, we know he represents the absolute ceiling on the kind of success we can realistically aspire to.

There shouldn’t be shame in failing to channel Jordan. In fact, I now realize that shouldn’t even be the goal. If it’s a title Joe wants, then it’s the right mix of teammates he needs. As he figures out where and how he wants his career to end, he should aim to be the next Paul Pierce.

Look out Jim Brown, an Arkansan is fast on your heels

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There are a few names that bestow greatness simply by affiliation. In non-profit work, it’s “Nobel.” In acting, we have “Brando,” and in boxing, “Ali.” For running backs, though, no name quite conjures images of glory like Jim Brown, the iconic Cleveland Brown who after eight seasons retired in 1965 as the NFL record holder for both single-season rushing and career rushing (12,312 yards), as well as the all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (106), total touchdowns (126), and all-purpose yards (15,549).

Brown was real good, so good that no running back has yet eclipsed his production on a per-game basis. One Arkansan is getting close, though.

Little Rock native DeAngelo Williams is four carries away from joining Brown as the only running backs in history to average five yards a carry on at least 1,000 rushing attempts. This is impressive, especially given the fact that Williams has leapfrogged other likely candidates – guys like Emmett Smith, Barry Sanders and Bo Jackson (had he stayed healthy) – to achieve it.

Plenty fans around the nation will scoff at the idea of Williams achieving all-timer status at this point in his career, but if he can continue this level of production it will be difficult to discount his career body of work (although Carolina winning a Super Bowl would help more than anything).

It is not too early, however, to figure out where Williams ranks among the best Arkansas-born running backs to play in the NFL. Here is a list of Arkansas natives who have run for at least 1,500 yards. (n.b. after the player name below, I list a) city of birth b) pro team on which he had best years c) years in NFL d) career yards e) career rushing average per attempt f) career TDs

Priest Holmes (Fort Smith)* Kansas City; 1997-07; 8,172; 4.6; 86
DeAngelo Williams (L.R.)** Carolina; 2006-present; 5,047; 5.1; 38
Robert Mitchell (Hot Springs)*** Cleveland, 1958-68; 2,735; 5.3; 18
Darren McFadden (L.R.) Oakland; 2008-present; 2,627; 4.8; 16
Cleophus Miller (Gould) Cleveland; 1974-82; 2,492; 4.2; 16
Peyton Hillis (Conway) Cleveland; 2008-present; 2,161; 4.2; 20
Jerry Eckwood (Brinkley) Tampa Bay; 1979-81; 1,845; 3.6; 6
Tommy Watkins (W. Memphis) Detroit; 1961-68; 1,791; 3.8; 10
Elijah Pitts (Mayflower) Green Bay; 1961-71; 1,788; 3.5; 28
Jesse Clark (Thebes) Green Bay; 1983-90; 1,736; 4.2; 9

* Holmes moved to San Antonio, Texas, as a child
** Before middle school, Williams moved to Wynne
*** Mitchell had great years, but primarily as a receiver, in Washington

[all stats from nfl.com and databasefootball.com]

I admit: this is a pretty cursory way to rank the state’s best NFL RBs. Still, I chose the statistical categories I feel matter the most to most people.

So, what do you think? Should Holmes be knocked off because of his Texas upbringing? Do you think McFadden or Hillis will one day eclipse Williams as the state’s best?

(PS – It took nearly all my powers of self-control to not use the phrase “Ultimate Wynne-r” in the title of this post about DeAngelo)