On why fewer black youth in Sacramento play baseball—and what local legends are doing to change this

MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day next week, but less and less American players of color choose the national pastime

Leon Lee, shown here pitching to his grandkid, chose baseball as a kid at Grant High School, and his son, Derrek, was a two-time All-Star for the Chicago Cubs. Lee’s put his own money on the line to fix up Harry Renfree Field in Del Paso Heights. “The amount of African-American players who played at Renfree, it’s unprecedented,” he said of the field’s historical significance.

Leon Lee, shown here pitching to his grandkid, chose baseball as a kid at Grant High School, and his son, Derrek, was a two-time All-Star for the Chicago Cubs. Lee’s put his own money on the line to fix up Harry Renfree Field in Del Paso Heights. “The amount of African-American players who played at Renfree, it’s unprecedented,” he said of the field’s historical significance.

Photos by EVEN DURAN

Graham Womack is a Sacramento-based freelance writer and baseball historian. His work has appeared in Sporting News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Sports On Earth. Email him at thewomack@gmail.com.

One of the country’s most important people in the fight to get more African-Americans playing baseball can be found sitting in a dugout in Elverta.

Jerry Manuel watches seven high-school students take infield practice on a baseball diamond in this tiny, rural community 10 miles north of Sacramento. The kids have come from all over the region to take part in a free program that Major League Baseball is considering replicating around the country in order to address its glaring diversity problem.

Manuel and his son Anthony, a former minor leaguer, drill the kids: fielding ground balls, shagging flies, hitting and more.

But the 62-year-old Manuel, a former MLB player and manager, worries about the future of baseball with fewer African-American players. “If you eliminate a culture from the game that has given you Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron … then you know that the level of play is not where it should be,” he explains.

All 30 MLB teams will honor Robinson next week on April 15, the day he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. But this time of year also brings renewed focus on some sobering stats.

Black players comprised 15 to 20 percent of MLB rosters from 1971 to 1997, peaking at 18.7 percent in 1981, according to Mark Armour of the Society for American Baseball Research.

Today, that number’s closer to 7 percent.

Baseball officials and politicians talk a good game about making baseball more diverse. Mayor Kevin Johnson stood with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in San Francisco last June to support “Play Ball,” an initiative to get more children swinging bats. But, away from the cameras, representatives of Oak Park Little League accuse others of trying to push it off of its hometown field.

Numerous other factors make it difficult for African-Americans and others to play baseball, from an expensive travel-tournament system and fewer scholarships to limited funds from MLB or local governments for purchasing equipment and maintaining fields.

People like Manuel wind up being crucial, because, really, not many others can do this work. In 2014, Manuel became the day-to-day leader of the MLB’s On-Field Diversity Task Force. Today, he and his son run a free baseball academy connected with Elverta schools.

On the field, on this sunny, spring day, freshman shortstop Kemet Brown confidently scoops ground balls and rifles throws home. Later, he’ll hit from both sides of the plate in the batting cage. Brown’s too young for college coaches to talk to him, per NCAA restrictions. But Manuel said he might be the best shortstop in Sacramento.

“He is kind of the reason that we’re here,” Manuel said.

A tradition fizzles

In a sense, Sacramento reflects what’s happened with baseball around the country. African-American baseball players still come from the region, such as recent minor leaguers Cory Vaughn, Ryan Royster and Derek Hill. But it’s not like the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, when a renaissance of black players such as Dusty Baker and Derrek Lee went from Sacramento-area high schools to the majors.

Manuel himself was an All-American in football and All-City in basketball at Cordova High School before playing parts of five seasons in MLB. Later, he’d become one of the most respected managers in baseball, earning Manager of the Year honors with the Chicago White Sox in 2000.

Leon and his brother Leron Lee starred for Grant High School in Del Paso Heights and then became two of the first Americans to star in Japanese baseball in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Many other African-American baseball players came from Sacramento during the 1960s and ’70s, such as Jerry Royster, Rowland Office, Bob Oliver, R.J. Reynolds, and brothers Curtis and Leon Brown. A second wave followed in the 1980s and ’90s, such as Bob Oliver’s son Darren, who attended Rio Linda High School and pitched for 20 years in the majors.

John F. Kennedy High School product Greg Vaughn became one of MLB’s most feared sluggers in the 1990s. Leon Lee’s son Derrek went from attending Baker’s local youth baseball camps to playing for him on the Chicago Cubs.

But while Derrek was coming of age in the late 1980s, something else was starting to emerge that’s changed baseball dramatically: travel ball. Now, parents spend thousands to register their teens in travel tournaments in hopes of catching a scout’s eye.

That’s fine for parents who can afford it. “They’ll mortgage their houses to send their kids to a tournament,” Leon Lee said.

Yet it also speaks to a broader theme pushing African-Americans out of baseball: The sport’s gotten too expensive.

“If my mom had to pay $250, $300 for me and my brother and sister to play, being a single parent, it wouldn’t have happened,” Vaughn told this writer last year in an interview for BaseballPastAndPresent.com. “The bats are $400. The shoes, the spikes, the travel—it’s just really an expensive sport.”

Limited finances can affect any race, but it’s a disproportionate problem for African-Americans. According to census data, the median black household in America earned $35,398 in 2014, compared to $60,256 for whites and $53,657 for all households.

Other factors limit the amount of African-Americans playing baseball, too.

The number of people of color in baseball “has enlarged dramatically,” MLB Official Historian John Thorn noted. This is because most MLB teams have invested heavily in development academies in Latin America, where players can be signed at age 16, more cheaply and without going through baseball’s draft.

“It’s really been a strategy of offsetting the cost of paying for U.S. prospects,” said Adrian Burgos Jr., a University of Illinois history professor and author of the 2007 book Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos and the Color Line.

An unintended consequence was a narrowing of baseball’s demographics.

“There aren’t as many working-class white kids that are playing anymore, either,” baseball researcher Armour said. “You have poor Dominicans and Venezuelans and whatnot, and you have middle-class white kids. That’s who plays baseball.”

Manuel, who welcomes students of all races for free to his academy, speaks of baseball’s “socioeconomic depravity.”

“We’re not getting those people whether they’re white kids, black kids, Hispanic, whatever, we’re not getting those kids, because the price to play this youth game is astronomical,” Manuel said.

In April 2013, then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig created the On-Field Diversity Task Force to address why the game isn’t more diverse, particularly with African-Americans. Manuel and 17 other coaches, academics and MLB staffers were selected for the task force. A year later, Manuel became its day-to-day leader.

“We came up with more answers than I wanted to see, but I knew that we could make a difference if we put some resources and funding behind even the small grassroots programs,” Manuel said.

Therein might lie a problem. MLB generates around $9 billion in annual revenues, but doesn’t fully fund its most well-known youth program, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or RBI. “That is an unsustainable model,” program director David James told SN&R.

Don’t expect local governments to fill the gap. The city of Sacramento spends just 1 percent of its general fund on youth services, with a variety of youth sports competing for dollars.

Financial concerns also might be keeping African-Americans out of college baseball, where each NCAA team is allocated just 11.7 scholarships.

Former MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent remembered a conversation he had during a long car ride with good friend Larry Doby, a Hall of Famer, the American League’s first black player in 1947, and a product of Newark, N.J.

“He was a very good basketball and football player,” Vincent told SN&R. “He said, ’If I wanted to get an education, it would be much harder to get a scholarship in New Jersey to a baseball school. There’s a lot more football and basketball scholarships.’ And Larry Doby knew what he was talking about.”

Little League drama

Fifteen miles and a world away from Manuel’s academy in Elverta, one of the oldest Little Leagues in the country prepares for opening day.

There’s no Jerry or Anthony Manuel here drilling the kids of Oak Park Little League on the fundamentals of baseball. Some have played before, some haven’t. The adult volunteer coaches do the best they can—but forces beyond their control threaten the league.

A number of programs help underprivileged kids learn baseball. Oak Park belongs to the Urban Initiative, Little League’s version of RBI. Incidentally, James led the Urban Initiative before going to work for RBI. Programs like these are generally benign and comprised of people who, bottom line, simply want to help kids play baseball.

But sometimes the programs clash.

For decades, Harrison Crump served as president of Oak Park Little League. In 1999, the city named the baseball diamonds at McClatchy Park the Crump-Blackwell Field in honor of him and another former league president, Norman Blackwell.

Sometime around 2009, people from the league say Crump was forced to step down due to age. His son Kirk also departed, whereupon he took over Sacramento’s RBI chapter.

Sacramento’s RBI program hasn’t been affiliated with MLB since 2011 or 2012, RBI director James told SN&R. He’s reached out to Manuel, however, and they’re looking at solutions.

Manuel doesn’t know if he wants to help. “RBI kind of got away from what it was initially for,” he said, adding that it became more about marketing and less about underserved communities.

Local baseball legend Jerry Manuel became the day-to-day leader of MLB’s On-Field Diversity Task Force in 2014. He works tirelessly so that more black kids have the opportunity to play baseball.

What remains of RBI in Sacramento is, some say, keeping kids from playing baseball.

On Mondays, Fridays and every other Saturday, Oak Park Little League can’t use Crump-Blackwell Field because Kirk Crump gets it for RBI.

Longtime Oak Park Little League coach Robert Bennett said the RBI practices are for show. “They come out here, and they strategically place people so it looks like they’re using the diamond,” Bennett said. But they’re not really practicing.

Kirk has also been the point person for repairs on Crump-Blackwell Field in his job as a park supervisor for the city, with TransparentCalifornia.com listing him in this role as recently as 2014. Kirk told SN&R he’s currently employed in this job, though prior to this conversation, a city spokesperson said he was no longer.

The city resurfaced the diamonds in March, but Oak Park Little League reps say that was the first substantial work the city’s done on the playing field in some time.

“I’m going to be so honest,” Oak Park Little League president Tomi Gomez said. “I feel like they’re trying to push [us] out.”

Bennett said Kirk’s gotten special treatment since the mayor is a friend of the family. For one thing, Kirk and Johnson graduated from Sacramento High School a year apart.

“He’s getting preferential treatment,” Bennett said of Kirk. “Anybody else would have had this done before.”

Bennett would welcome Kirk Crump back.

“He’s more than welcome to be a part of Oak Park Little League and build it up like it should be,” Bennett said.

Johnson didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Kirk told SN&R he has a verbal agreement to share the field with former league president Blackwell, who serves as a volunteer groundskeeper.

“Anything we do out there, we try to make sure Mr. Blackwell knows about it,” Kirk said.

He wouldn’t elaborate about his father’s ouster from Oak Park Little League, though he defended his baseball work.

“If you’ve been to that park, you can see the surroundings,” Kirk said. “It’s all drug-infested, gangs everywhere, and you just try to keep these kids off the street. It’s work. The more kids you save, the better.”

Even beyond the drama with Oak Park Little League, the city can only do so much at the moment to encourage baseball in Sacramento.

Johnson and Councilman Allen Warren, a former minor league baseball player, each approached Leon Lee two years ago about renovating Harry Renfree Field, a one-time marquee ballpark in Del Paso Heights, vacant and fallen into disrepair for almost a decade.

Lee remembered playing in high school tournaments at Renfree. “If you go back through the history and look at actual competitive baseball venues there, and the amount of African-American players who played at Renfree, it’s unprecedented,” he said.

But aside from offering Renfree for a $0-per-year lease, Lee said the city contributed just $30,000 for a well, irrigation and transformers. That’s left Lee and a group he assembled to come up with roughly $4 million for, among other expenses, resurfacing the field, renovating the parking lot and putting in 3,500 seats.

Construction is underway, with Renfree set to reopen in July. It will host a collegiate summer team that Lee’s operating in the Great West League, set to begin its inaugural season.

“Right now, I’m just scared half to death, because if it doesn’t work, I’m the one sitting there holding the [bag],” Lee said.

More city money could be available in the future for baseball, if voters pass an unconventional measure on the June ballot.

On February 2, city council voted 8-0 to approve cultivation of medical marijuana in Sacramento. The following week, Councilman Jay Schenirer introduced Measure Y, a tax on cultivation that could potentially provide $5 million a year for youth services.

That’s more than enough to get a well-financed RBI program going in Sacramento or help with another project Lee envisions: resurfacing the baseball diamonds at William Land Park.

Hope on the diamond

Former MLB commissioner Vincent told SN&R that it’s critical that baseball stays diligent in its efforts to fix its diversity problem.

“Any effort by baseball has to be a major, long-term commitment,” Vincent said. “This is not a problem that’s gonna get solved in 10 years.”

He also said it’s critical to address the perception in the African-American community that baseball is dominated by whites.

Nearly 60 percent of MLB players are white. There aren’t many blacks in front offices or on coaching staffs either, with Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts the only two black managers in the majors currently.

“The integration of baseball took place in 1947,” Vincent said. “But if you look around baseball today, how many general managers are black, how many third base coaches are black, how many managers? We’ve made progress, but it’s sporadic.”

RBI director James is optimistic that African-Americans will become more involved in baseball again. “I’m a glass half-full guy,” he said. “There is work to be done, but we are making progress.”

At the MLB Diversity Business Summit on March 8 in Phoenix, Commissioner Manfred touted one hopeful figure: One-quarter of first round draft picks in 2015 were African-American.

Progress can also be seen in places like Elverta, where Manuel helped open Alpha Technology Middle School in 2011 and a high school, Alpha Charter School, in 2013.

Thirty-two of the 38 high school students take part in the Jerry Manuel Foundation, finishing classes at 1:30 p.m. each day and getting an hour-and-a-half of baseball drills with Manuel and his son.

Half of the 100 or so seventh and eighth graders are involved in the foundation and play baseball immediately after school on the academy’s diamonds. A girls’ softball program is in its first year at the school as well.

Ballplayers at the school, which is still in the process of accreditation, get a homeroom and physical education classes with a baseball focus and a mix of otherwise standard school courses. Manuel would like more emphasis on baseball.

“When this is truly a baseball institution, it’s when you can go in a physics class and talk about mass vs. speed vs. power, and it’d be baseball-related,” Manuel said. “That’s when this becomes what we’d like it to become.”

There’s also no cost to attend or play in travel tournaments, just a request that players be available for community service. The banner for Manuel’s foundation quotes Bible verse Matthew 20:26, which reads in part, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.”

Manuel’s on staff for MLB as a contractor in its youth services division, bringing friends like Baker and Leon Lee to development camps around the country.

But his academy doesn’t get any funding from MLB. He relies largely on fundraising and donations from players like Derrek Lee, who gave money to build a baseball field and renovate the school’s locker room and batting cages.

Manuel laughed when asked if he’s contributing any of his MLB pension to his academy, telling SN&R, “I can’t say that ’cause my wife would get mad.”

He said he hasn’t approached the mayor or Councilman Warren, both friends, for help. Warren’s aware of Manuel’s efforts

“Jerry’s a fantastic human being, doing some great work,” Warren said. “I think that his program and others like it will help make an impact in reintroducing urban America, which largely consists of African-Americans and Hispanics, back to the game.”

Manuel and his boss at MLB, Reagins, talk a few times a week. He’s brought the idea of replicating the academy to Reagins.

There could be opportunity. While MLB doesn’t always financially back its youth programs, it is expanding them. Six MLB Urban Youth Academies operate currently with another three in development.

“Hopefully, we can find venues such as this that could give kids the opportunity to play,” Manuel said.

For Manuel, it all comes back to players like Kemet Brown, his standout freshman shortstop. After Manuel’s latest managerial job with the New York Mets ended in 2010, Kemet’s father, Wayne Brown, came to Manuel for help running a travel team. It’s what led Manuel to create his foundation.

Like many of the kids at the academy, Brown travels a great distance to Elverta, leaving Elk Grove at 7 each morning. On a bad day, the ride can take an hour and 10 minutes. But he doesn’t seem to mind the sacrifices. Asked if he ever tired of playing baseball, Brown responded with a quick no. How far does he want to go?

“As far as I can take it,” Brown said. “Hopefully, I can go to the major league level.”