LaTroy Hawkins knows baseball. The former pitcher had a 21-season career in the big leagues that spanned 11 different teams, and he’s now working in the front office for the Twins while contributing some analysis for Fox Sports North.
Meanwhile, Major League Baseball recently celebrated the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. But there is a subtext to that milestone: African American representation in baseball has been declining for years. Once pushing 20 percent of the league, African Americans make up less than 7 percent of baseball players today. Hawkins joined Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann on The Ringer MLB Show to talk about how the demographics of baseball have changed since he made his major league debut 22 years ago.
Hawkins first looked at colleges as one area in which African American participation has declined.
"Football has 55 guys on a team, it’s a revenue-generating sport in college," he said. "Basketball has 12, 15 guys on the team, [and] if you’re at a very big school like the KUs, Kentucky, North Carolina, you have basketball as a revenue-generating sport, as well. Baseball is not a revenue sport, so they don’t give out full scholarships in college for baseball players. You get a percentage of a scholarship.
"Most of your African American players come from the inner city, they tend to gravitate toward basketball and football because those sports are giving out full scholarships. Their parents don’t have to worry about anything. If you want to play baseball, you’re only getting a quarter of a scholarship [or] 33 percent if you’re one of the top players. If they’re recruiting you might, I’m guessing, get 60 to 75 percent, but your parents are still gonna have to come out with something out of their pocket. In basketball and football, that’s not the case. I think that’s one of the main reasons why we lose so many African American kids to those other sports."
It’s not just scholarships, though. Traveling baseball leagues have made the sport more expensive to pick up even at lower levels.
"Baseball has become the sport that costs so much to play with all these travel leagues, travel teams, all the showcases," Hawkins said. "African American kids [and] minority kids can’t go to their parents and [ask them to] pay three, four, five thousand dollars one summer just so you can play baseball and travel to all these showcases."
MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program has tried to address this — but Hawkins sees the league prioritizing its resources elsewhere.
"I’ve worked with [the RBI program] and I don’t think it’s effective at all," he said. "I think the best thing that Major League Baseball has done is to put those academies in the cities … [but] Major League Baseball’s teams are spending a ton of money down in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. They’re down there scouting those guys. … I love all of my Latin brothers, I love every teammate I’ve ever played with, but the fact of the matter is Major League Baseball is putting all their resources there and not putting them here, or they’re [only just] starting to put them here."
Hawkins himself is proof that a young African American with little interest in baseball can become a great player.
"An African American kid living in the inner city, I don’t think they give those guys a chance to play professional baseball. If you give those guys a chance, you never know what you will have, because myself, coming out of Gary, Indiana, I wasn’t a baseball player. The Minnesota Twins, Terry Ryan, Larry Corrigan, Mike Radcliff, those guys took a chance on an athletic kid who played basketball and ran track in high school who played a little baseball. They took a chance on a kid like me."
African American pitchers are even less common. But Hawkins says he was never pressured to leave the mound when he was beginning his career.
"I went to all of those pre-draft camps, and I went as a center fielder and as a hitter, and they saw me do that, but once they saw me on the mound, they were like, ‘No, no, kid. You’re going to pitch.’ I remember Mike Radcliff and Terry Ryan and Larry Corrigan came to see me in high school. And Mike Radcliff, the first thing he said when he saw me was [that] I had a magical arm. They said they had never thought about me playing another position. I’ve never been pressured to play another position."
Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.