It’s October in the Baltimore-Washington area and while football is kicking into high gear, the Boys of Summer have taken center stage. The Orioles are guaranteed a playoff spot for the first time in 15 years. The Nationals sported the best record in the majors for much of the season. Both cities have majority Black populations and both have embraced their baseball teams with enthusiasm, despite the declining number of African Americans playing in the majors.
Earlier this year, the Nationals played homage to the city’s Black baseball history by donning replica uniforms of the Homestead Grays, D.C.’s Negro Leagues team from 1940-1950. Yet they did so with only two African American players, five less than the seven who played for the Washington Senators in 1971, the last year pro baseball was played in the city. The Orioles have had three African Americans for most of the season, including all-star centerfielder Adam Jones, arguably their best player. That’s four less than the 1971 Orioles had when they won the World Series. But even though African Americans made up more than 25% of both rosters in 1971, there were far fewer Blacks playing than in the days when Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson were household names in the Baltimore-Washington area.
So how did a community that once had its own league become so removed from what was once Black “America’s favorite pastime?”
When the Senators fled for Texas in 1972, many D.C. fans lost interest in the sport. Some became Orioles fans, but the loss was the beginning of the end. The Redskins would be Super Bowl bound in 1973, the same year that marked the completion of the Capital Centre, new home to the Washington Bullets and hockey’s newest team, the Washington Capitals. Thirty years later, D.C. had won four MLS Cups, three Super Bowls, one NBA championship and there was a generation of Washingtonians who had never seen a pro baseball game in the nation’s capital.
By contrast, baseball had survived in Baltimore. Still stinging from the migration of the Bullets from Baltimore to Landover in 1973, Charm City was forced to endure another crippling blow 10 years later—the loss of the Baltimore Colts. The Orioles were now the only game in town. They were champions in 1983 with a comparable number of African American players as they’d had a decade prior. Eddie Murray and Al Bumbry replaced Frank Robinson and Don Baylor as baseball’s new Black ambassadors in the city. The tradition continued about 2000, when the newly-acquired Ravens won a Super Bowl and the Orioles turned mediocre.
Looking at America’s current sports landscape, it’s hard to believe that Major League Baseball integrated two years before the NFL, three before the NBA. USA Today reports that African Americans in the majors have dwindled to 8% in 2012, down from 27% in 1975. Latinos now outnumber African American players 3 to 1. Many blame the reduction on baseball not being color friendly, noting the scarcity of Black owners, executives and managers and the fiction that identifies Babe Ruth as baseball’s greatest hitter, even though he was surpassed by Hank Aaron.
Here in D.C., the decrease in popularity is surely due, in part, to the absence of pro baseball for more than 30 years.
But in an election year, when no one can agree on anything, Baltimore and Washington are united in the love of their respective baseball teams, both of which are hoping to restore the tradition in their cities.