State’s sports legacy built by black baseball players

Published 3:52 pm Saturday, February 21, 2009

As many of us already knew, our state’s sports legacy compares favorably with that of any other state. However, what makes up most of that legacy is in danger of being lost.

ESPN’s SportsCenter asked fans to vote on their state’s Mt. Rushmore of Sports, a group of four athletes or coaches with ties to that particular state. The idea was to decide on the most legendary sports figures.

Alabama’s group features “Hank” Aaron, “Bear” Bryant, Bo Jackson and Willie Mays and was named one of the top five Mt. Rushmore’s in the country (you can vote now for our state having the best Mt. Rushmore of Sports).

The other states in the running are California (Tiger Woods, John Wooden, Magic Johnson and Jackie Robinson), Illinois (Ernie Banks, Mike Ditka, Michael Jordan and Walter Payton), New York (Babe Ruth, Joe Namath, Robinson and Jim Brown) and Pennsylvania (Wilt Chamberlain, Roberto Clemente, Joe Paterno and Mario Lemieux). Even if our state doesn’t win, being in the top five is impressive because these other four states have significantly larger populations and we have no major professional sports franchises.

So, I’m ready to declare Alabama the greatest sports state per capita in the country. I mean, we have arguably the greatest football coach ever in Bryant, two of the greatest baseball players ever in Aaron and Mays and perhaps the greatest athlete ever in Jackson. Also, consider who we left off: Jesse Owens, Satchel Paige, Bart Starr, Charles Barkley, Carl Lewis, Joe Louis, Bobby Bowden, John Hannah, Willie McCovey, Joe Namath, Mia Hamm and Mel Allen, though commentators apparently weren’t given consideration.

But what struck me about Alabama’s nominees was the number of great black baseball players, and it’s an appropriate time to think about whether our state’s tradition of producing this talent will continue.

It’s disappointing to see the number of black high school students participating in baseball dwindle every year. And it’s usually obvious that the schools that have a majority of black players don’t put as much emphasis on the sport as football and basketball. Some of that is because coaches and administrators don’t care as much about baseball; some of it is because most players would rather be playing something else.

Our state’s two most prominent baseball programs, Alabama and Auburn, have a grand total of zero black players.

Probably less than five black players from the state will make opening day rosters this year, and the three that will likely contribute regularly—Marlon Anderson, Juan Pierre and Tike Redman—won’t be threatening Aaron and Mays for a spot on our Mt. Rushmore anytime soon.