Although baseball was for much of its history one of America's most segregated institutions, it also was the sport of Jackie Robinson. Robinson integrated the big leagues in 1947, opening the doors to African-Americans and some of the game's greatest — and most beloved — stars, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Roy Campanella among them.
But in many urban areas, the sport of Jackie Robinson is in eclipse among those for whom the trail was blazed. “There just are not that many black kids playing baseball,” says Don Newcombe, Robinson's teammate, “and not that many blacks coming to games regularly.”
John Young, a major league player and scout who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, realized in the late 1980s that his old neighborhood was no longer producing many good athletes. With little community support or funding for sports pro-grams, many young people were doing nothing or joining street gangs.
In 1989, with backing from Major League Baseball, Young started RBI — Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. He was gradually able to pull teenagers away from gangs and stir up some enthusiasm for baseball.
The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program pulls youngsters from gangs to baseball. (Photo Credit: Major League Baseball)
In RBI's first season, 180 youngsters participated. Working with a local college, Young added an academic component to the program, providing tutoring and help in preparing for standardized tests. Since then, a drug, alcohol and sex-education program has become part of RBI.
Major League Baseball has run RBI since 1991, committing more than $3 million to the effort and enlisting the Boys & Girls Clubs of America to provide the academic and life-skills components of the program. RBI serves boys ages 13-18 and also has a girls’ softball program. This year, RBI has teams in 96 cities, with more than 100,000 teenagers participating. After a series of regional tournaments, RBI has its own World Series.
Thomas Brasuell, RBI's national program manager, says that the effort is producing encouraging results. “Without this program,” he says, “many of these kids wouldn’t have a chance to play the game. And without it, the erosion of baseball in the inner city would be even greater.”
Fifty-nine percent of the participants are African-American, with Latinos constituting 25 percent and Anglos 13 percent. For African-Americans, there are some links to the black baseball of the past. In several cities, the RBI teams use the names of old Negro Leagues teams. But for the most part, says Brasuell, the educational emphasis of RBI is less on baseball history than it is on present-day life skills.
Several major league teams provide free tickets to RBI participants and on-field recognition to RBI players, and some host RBI tournaments in their stadiums. Sometimes the involvement is even more substantial. In Philadelphia, Brasuell says, the Phillies run the RBI program, and in Chicago the Cubs players pay for the local RBI uniforms.
Some RBI players have been drafted by major league organizations, but only a tiny number will reach those heights. Rather, RBI's greatest value is its ability to help rebuild a fan base that had so badly disintegrated. This means getting minorities — especially African-Americans — back into the ranks of baseball fans and into the ballparks.
To walk into the Baltimore Orioles new downtown stadium is to walk into a bygone era — and fans are flocking in for the experience.
In addition to the Orioles, the Cleveland Indians and Texas Rangers have seen attendance soar since moving into new homes. Rangers President Tom Schieffer says that the club's Ballpark in Arlington “is the most important thing in our franchise.” Assessing its appeal, he cites “the family atmo-sphere, the nostalgia, the seats close to the field and people feeling safe.”
Major League Baseball President Paul Beeston calls baseball's newest stadiums “fun to go to” because they offer “amenities plus charm.” He says it is important that baseball teams not settle for “cookie-cutter, all-purpose stadiums.” The proper way to go, he says, is “baseball only, real grass.”
New stadiums can also affect the quality of play because, as Coleman says, they “change the revenue base so you can afford to compete.” There is clearly a connection between the improved performance of the Orioles, Indians and Rangers and their having moved into beautiful ballparks that have attracted significantly more fans (and thus significantly more dollars) than in the past.
New stadiums are on the way in Seattle, Houston, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Detroit and Cincinnati. The new generation of ballparks represents a collective invest-ment of more than $3 billion.
Enjoying a new stadium and wanting to pay for it are, however, very different matters. In the majority of recent local elections called to approve tax measures for funding new stadiums, voters have said “No.” For example, the proposed move of the Minnesota Twins to North Carolina was derailed by local voters last May. In New York City, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani allied himself with New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who wants to build a new Yankee Stadium in Manhattan at a cost of about $1 billion, public reaction was strongly against the idea of using tax dollars to pay for most of the project.
Such opposition is grounded in voters’ belief that their tax dollars would subsidize wealthy team owners. Opponents of tax-backed stadiums point out that there are other ways to finance ballparks. In San Francisco, after four defeats in referendums seeking public tax support for a new stadium for the Giants, team owners were able to proceed with minimal public funding. They sold stadium naming rights for $50 million, charter seat rights for $55 million and corporate sponsorships worth almost another $50 million. With those commitments in hand, the owners secured $170 million in private loans, which will be paid back from stadium revenues. The public contribution will be just a $15 million loan. The total cost of the stadium will be slightly more than $300 million.
One of the main arguments used by proponents of new sports stadiums and arenas is the need for lots of high-priced luxury suites, which can provide a substantial income stream to the teams. This money can then be used to pay the salaries of the expensive free agents a winning team presumably must have. The problem that is beginning to arise is saturation of markets. In Seattle, for instance, when several new or renovated sports facilities are open for business in about two years, 194 luxury suites will be available — at prices up to $125,000 a year — in a market with only 146 companies with 500 or more employees. Perhaps economic growth will generate more tenants, but in several markets the number of suites is greater than the number of large companies in the area.
Another issue concerns the economic impact of sports facilities. In New York, for example, advocates of a Manhattan Yankee Stadium claim that it would produce $1 billion a year in economic benefits for the city, but a 1996 study conducted by KPMG Peat Marwick projected that the benefits would only be about one-tenth that much.
The economic debate will certainly continue, but there is far more consensus about what fans want in their ballparks: modern comfort thoroughly laced with nostalgia; plenty of rest rooms, but a hand-operated scoreboard; lots of parking, but some old-fashioned bleachers in the outfield. With the stadiums as with much else about baseball, nostalgia is crucial. The present and future must be infused with the past.