This Saturday, ESPN personality Michael Wilbon will be in Indianapolis to deliver the keynote speech at an IUPUI conference addressing the past and future of African Americans in baseball.
Perhaps best known for co-hosting the long-running television show Pardon the Interruption, Wilbon is a nationally recognized sports journalist who has covered events including the Olympics, Super Bowls, Final Fours, and NBA Finals—first as a writer for The Washington Post and more recently as a commentator on ESPN.
Wilbon, who checked in with IM ahead of his speaking engagement, says his first love growing up in Chicago was baseball, and he argues that the game deserves more credit for its role in advancing civil rights. More of Wilbon’s thoughts on the legacy of black baseball in America (and Indianapolis) here:
The first-ever Negro League game was held here, and Hank Aaron once played for the Indianapolis Clowns. Why is it important for people in the city to be aware of this?
I think it’s important for people of any community to be aware of what happens of significance or interest in that community. And that isn’t the only thing the folks in Indianapolis might want to talk about. There are a lot of historic things that have happened in Indianapolis, whether we’re talking about Negro League baseball or Crispus Attucks High School [basketball]. I think we are less in touch with our past—I mean “We” with a capital W, as in all Americans. We’re all caught up in the “now” with social media, what happened three minutes ago. People are less concerned with our history than ever.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Major League Baseball was brimming with black players. Now only about 8.5 percent of major-leaguers are black. Why so few?
There are a ton of factors with that. I went out to South Central L.A. during the riots and got Crips and Bloods to talk to me about the fields and facilities where they used to play baseball, and they claimed a large part of why they became gang-bangers was because the facilities had been neglected and grown over with weeds. I think Major League Baseball has done a phenomenal job of trying to figure this out and stop it.
But I think some of the problems are cultural. It has nothing to do with MLB; it has to do with the dominance of basketball in the African-American communities. The movement, the magnetic pull of basketball on African-American men is undeniable. I got into sportswriting because of baseball. It was my first love. I’m 55 years old, and baseball is what I grew up with. Now what are the industries where black men enjoy the most prominence? Music and basketball. It is not cool in most black neighborhoods to play baseball. The neighborhood I grew up in in Chicago doesn’t have a ballpark anymore. Now you can’t play ball in a neighborhood park three times a week, where your parents can come see you play.
Should MLB be concerned about this?
They are concerned. They were concerned before anyone else was. I’ve talked with [Commissioner] Bud Selig about this. It physically pains him. I mean, Hank Aaron is one of his closest friends! This is a personal thing to Selig, who went to Jackie Robinson’s first game in Chicago at Wrigley Field. This bothers most senior baseball people more than just as policy. This bothers them personally.
Can anything be done to reverse the trend?
Yeah, but it doesn’t have anything to do with baseball. I don’t know if culturally we’re at that point. For the first 80 to 85 years of the 20th century, it was boxing and baseball. The great irony, to me, is that for the guys who changed it—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Charles Barkley—the first love of all three guys was baseball. Charles flew to Chicago just to go to Wrigley Field. If I get together with Charles, we’re watching baseball. People were mad [when Johnson’s ownership group bought the L.A. Dodgers] that a basketball guy runs a baseball team. At 13 years old, Magic Johnson’s first love was baseball. But it is not our primary love anymore in these communities. Does baseball want to buy out the hip-hop stars and get them to talk about baseball? I don’t know.
What were baseball’s contributions to civil rights in this country?
Jackie Robinson broke the color line eight years before Rosa Parks. Even the musical stars of the day—you hear stories from Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong about how they couldn’t even go into the clubs in New York. Baseball made headway in those areas, the Dodgers saying they weren’t going to observe Jim Crow laws, so they built Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida.
Do you think young blacks are aware of the role that baseball played in advancing civil rights in this country?
Nobody does, black or white. They think history is whatever was on SportsCenter this morning. They don’t know anything about history. It doesn’t interest them; it isn’t exciting to them.
As a young man growing up in Chicago, were you aware of the importance that black baseball had there?
Absolutely. When I grew up in Chicago, black ballplayers lived in my neighborhood. Billy Williams and Ernie Banks sponsored my little league–my team was sponsored by Ernie Banks Ford. My parents were children of the Depression, so we knew all those stories.
What do you hope the audience takes away from your speech at IUPUI?
Sort of reestablishing the importance of these things historically is something I care about. My job is to get them interested in that for the few minutes I’m talking and beyond that.
The IUPUI conference on the future and past of black baseball will be held on April 12. The event begins at 1:30 p.m., with Wilbon speaking at 4 p.m. Admission is free. Hine Hall Auditorium, IUPUI, 850 W. Michigan St. 317-274-4948, journalism.iupui.edu/news.