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Baseball has shaky hold on African American fans

Election Day lines were historically long at the Barrett Playground at Eighth Street and Duncannon Avenue in the city's Logan section. Working the polls inside Barrett's recreation center, Kenneth Shropshire walked out to gaze at the line of voters.

Ryan Howard has helped the Phillies make inroads among the region's African American sports fans. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)
Ryan Howard has helped the Phillies make inroads among the region's African American sports fans. (Ron Cortes/Staff file photo)Read more

Election Day lines were historically long at the Barrett Playground at Eighth Street and Duncannon Avenue in the city's Logan section. Working the polls inside Barrett's recreation center, Kenneth Shropshire walked out to gaze at the line of voters.

What he saw stunned him, conceded Shropshire, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. The sight had nothing to do with the election.

"There were a bunch of kids playing baseball - for lack of a better phrase, disorganized baseball," Shropshire said. "No uniforms. No adults around. Just a bunch of kids, more kids than you needed on each team."

It had been years since Shropshire had seen this kind of field of dreams - kids, specifically African American kids, playing pickup baseball. Of course, Election Day was just six days after the Phillies had won the World Series, four days after the city celebrated with a parade.

Shropshire immediately called his friend Bill White, the former National League president and a great big-league first baseman of his day. White questioned whether adults had put the game together. Shropshire saw no evidence of it.

"We've talked about it so much. It's been such an issue," Shropshire said. "We talked about the election and what it meant. Maybe there's a new day for everything. The Phillies win, Obama wins, and maybe black kids will start playing baseball."

Shropshire had been at Citizens Bank Park for the World Series games.

"Every night, I looked around and thought, 'Boy, there aren't that many people of color here,' " Shropshire said.

Shropshire said the celebratory parade, which required no ticket, "felt more like regular Philly. It was definitely more of an integrated setup."

It may be reasonable to think that the World Series championship would bring in more fans, but also more African American fans, especially with a couple of African American stars so prominent in the Phillies' lineup.

Has that happened?

Kelly DuPree is a baseball evangelist. If he's not watching a Phillies game, he's probably got the College World Series or some major-league game on his television. If there's no baseball, he said, he'll watch softball.

"I watch everything," said DuPree, who lives in West Philadelphia.

Three decades back, DuPree captained Overbrook High's team - he was an all-Public League power-hitting third baseman - and he later played in the Fairmount Park A League and in an over-30 league that played at the University of Pennsylvania fields.

Now 49, DuPree runs an RBI League youth program out of the Shepard Recreation Center at 57th and Haverford in the city's Overbrook section. RBI, begun by Major League Baseball in 1989, stands for Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities.

DuPree teaches the game to young neighborhood kids, starting with T-ball. The game remains his passion.

If you're expecting DuPree to say baseball has come back in the city - "I don't see it," he said.

DuPree also runs a camp at Shepard, the West Philadelphia Youth Initiative Day Camp. The day after the Major League All-Star Game, he asked a dozen campers if any had watched that game, which featured five Phillies.

One camper raised his hand.

Kids in the city and suburbs have similar priorities, DuPree said. If he doesn't get it organized, DuPree said, it doesn't happen.

"They want to sit on PlayStation," DuPree said.

"Now they can be the star in the privacy of their room," said Bob Black, who was at the rec center late one afternoon. It was a perfect day for baseball under a clear blue sky. Five men, all in their 40s or older, stood by the entrance of Shepard. These men grew up in the neighborhood. Black pointed to a grassy area, almost to 48th Street.

"That's where we played," Black said. "Hundreds of people used to come watch baseball."

Black, who later made his name as a basketball player on a city-championship Overbrook High team, said that as a young boy, he played stickball, wall ball, and hard ball. Do kids today do any of that? Have the World Series Champion Phillies reenergized this as a baseball inner city?

"Nooooo," one of the men said.

"A lot of the kids think baseball is corny - that's the word I've heard," said Dan Hunter, who helps coach several RBI League youth teams run out of the recreation center. "We have to go get the kids and get them to play baseball. The culture changed somewhere along the line."

The game may not rate high right now as a cool sport, but that doesn't mean the Phillies are un-cool. Jersey and caps fly off the shelves all over the city. DuPree said that's a fashion statement, not a baseball statement. The look is in, he said, but the wearers aren't usually watching the games.

Hunter and DuPree credit the Phillies with going the extra mile. DuPree said when he got home from a trip recently, there were a slew of Phillies tickets in an envelope in his mailbox. He wasn't expecting them.

DuPree brings his RBI League players to the park for free clinics. When the Phillies held a dress rehearsal before the first game of the World Series, DuPree was there with some of his players, he said, acting as Phillies and Rays players during the simulated pregame ceremony, as singer Taylor Swift, the real one, rehearsed the national anthem. His guys had a blast, DuPree said, walking out for pregame introductions.

"I was Jamie Moyer," DuPree said.

The Phillies sponsor leagues at three dozen fields around the city.

"The Phillies, they give you the bats, the balls," Hunter said. "You can't blame anything on the Phillies. They're giving tickets to the community all the time, even when the games are sold out."

Hunter's teenage son loves baseball.

"I watch basically every Phillies game," said Daniel Hunter Jr., who was at the rec center with his dad.

His father, who practically grew up at Shepard - "the house that Wilt [Chamberlain] built," Hunter pointed out - said he believes there are all sorts of complex reasons, big and small, why baseball has receded in the neighborhoods of the city, especially among African Americans. The crack epidemic that hit a couple of decades back kept a lot of kids away from baseball fields for a long time, he said. Recently, budget cuts have lopped off junior-high baseball, and a lot of charter schools are too small to have baseball teams, Hunter said.

He kept coming back to another point.

"Baseball is usually something you do with your dad," Hunter said. "The inner-city kids, the dads are not around. They don't have enough volunteers. We need to get like 100 men to volunteer."

But the biggest factor, Hunter said, may simply be generational.

"This is like a fast-food society, and baseball is a slow sport," Hunter said.

He knows his local baseball history, Hunter said, how the Phillies were the last National League team to integrate. But he's not focusing on that as a factor five decades later, he said. There is no question that Jimmy Rollins' and Ryan Howard's emergence as top-level stars, National League MVPs in back-to-back years, helps make a connection in the community, Hunter said. But the idea that great African American players will turn a historic tide, it isn't that simple, he said. Every kid wanted to be Dr. J when Julius Erving first came to town, he said. But if you don't own a glove, if you don't have a bat in your hand, even a historic home-run hitter such as Howard isn't turning the tide.

As great as it is to see the Phillies winning, there is a Catch-22 element to it, the men at Shepard Rec Center said. Unless tickets are given to a community group, they are harder to come by and more expensive than ever in a tough economy.

"A working mother of four can't afford to take her kids down there," Black said.

DuPree is always scanning the Phillies crowds on television. What does he see?

"A lot of Caucasian folks," DuPree said with a laugh, adding that sometimes he'll say to himself, "Oh, there goes a black person."

Adrienne Hillman, who grew up in Willingboro and lives in Camden, is a big Phillies fan.

"I try to watch every game, or listen on the radio," Hillman said. "When they won in '80, I cried."

She went to a Phillies-Reds game last month and parked in an outer lot, where she saw a group of white guys in their 20s tailgating.

"They were kind of cute, so I looked at them," she said.

The look she got back surprised Hillman. Her instant thought: "You've never seen a black person, a black female, at a game before?"

It was more an annoyance than anything else, she said. She's quite used to being in predominantly white situations, from school to rock concerts to the theater. That doesn't bother her, she said. She's been to a couple of games this year and doesn't see many African Americans in the lower level. "The higher-up levels, a little more, but even then not a lot," Hillman said.

Her family loves baseball. Her grandfather pitched in the Negro leagues. She has African American friends who are Phillies fans, she said, but few get to Citizens Bank Park.

"It's mostly the expense," she said.

Earlier in the season, with the Dodgers in town, Douglas Jones of Germantown and his son, Kyheem, sat in Section 205. They were the only African American fans in Section 205. There also were no African American fans in Section 206 closer to the foul pole. Jones wasn't surprised at all, he said. He's used to it. On the concourse, it seemed like there were more African American employees at the ballpark than African American fans.

Jones said African American friends of his are not necessarily anti-baseball, Jones said, just more casual fans.

"If they get tickets from somebody, they'll come," said Jones, 46. "If they have to buy them, they won't come. They're not day-in, day-out fans, all year-round. They'll watch in the playoffs. Baseball used to be America's favorite sport. It's not now."

The World Series didn't change that, Jones said.

Michael Harris, director of marketing and special projects for the Phillies, said there had been a "somewhat modest" increase in African American fans at Citizens Bank Park this season.

The Phillies have made strides in this area through a variety of outreach programs and have staffers working full time on those programs, Harris said. But he added that there is still room to grow. This season, Harris said, the Phillies hosted choirs from seven of the largest African American churches in the city. The clubs and the churches viewed the evening as a success and plan it do it again, Harris said. The team also sponsors a Phillies Fundamentals after-school and summer camp program that tries to use baseball to teach and reinforce academic skills.

The Phillies are breaking attendance records, but for the long term, "we must connect with our entire fan base," Harris said.

Jimmy Rollins said he knows the issues.

"As long as there are single-family homes, it's going to be tough to bring blacks back to baseball," the Phillies' star shortstop said. "You can dribble a basketball by yourself. You only need one other person to throw a football around. Baseball, you need a group of people. This is a game that's usually passed down from our fathers. If our fathers aren't around, it's going to be tough to keep that legacy going."

Rollins said he believes there is increased interest in the Phillies from the city's African American community in the time he has been with the club.

"It was prior to the championship," Rollins said. "I think when Ryan Howard got here, and he hit all those home runs, he made a big difference. Then he won MVP" in 2006, before Rollins won the same award in 2007.

"People started remembering I still played here," Rollins said with a smile.

Rollins had a game that night, but he was with Howard and Shane Victorino at a clinic at FDR Park. Kelly DuPree brought his day-campers there and was glad to see the Phillies stars show up.

"I'm doing my job," Rollins said. "I can only do so much. Being out of trouble is one way. Being around at my charity event, smiling, just trying to be a positive person, so when a kid turns on a TV set, or if they do get a chance to see me outside of a uniform, maybe they see me as a positive influence on their life, even though I can't be there on a daily basis. Maybe they have something - one thing - to hold on to."

At the clinic, a teenager went up to Rollins and said, "I'm almost as tall as you."

"Actually, you are as tall as me," the 5-foot-8 Rollins said with a smile. "You could be with us."

The youngest kids at the day camp at Shepard, the kids under 10, don't profess to have anything against baseball. Most picked football as their favorite sport to watch. But asked for a word to describe baseball, boys and girls came up with these: "Magnificent . . . tremendous . . . exciting . . . I want to see a lot of home runs. . . . I watched some guy named Howard."

The counselors at the camp, the high school kids, said they watched last year's playoffs and World Series, and most attended the parade. One was outside the stadium the last night of the Series because he had gone to a 76ers game next door and stayed around and had a great time.

But do they watch games this season?

"I hardly watch," said Jaleel Williford, 17, the guy who went up to Rollins to compare heights at the clinic.

"Rarely," said Justin Harris, 16.

"Never," said Kimyona Evans, 15.

When Nicholas Wilson walked into the playground, the 13-year-old was asked for a word to describe baseball.

"Boring," Wilson said. "I like contact. It's slower than other games. I only watched the World Series."

What about baseball video games?

"Yeah," Wilson said. "They're fun. I play MLB 09."

Was that just a dream Shropshire had on Election Day, an event as rare as a World Series parade?

On a recent afternoon at Barrett Playground, guys played pickup basketball outside and a couple of young men jogged around the field. No signs of any pickup baseball.

The professor, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, said he believes a love of baseball can't just come from a top-down organized effort. You can't order somebody to be a fan.

"I didn't expect a quick fix," said Shropshire, who wrote a book, In Black and White: Race and Sports in America.

In that book, he wrote about times in the last couple of decades when the Phillies had no African American starters. "You can be unconscious about it and drift to a point where you're not addressing the issue at all," Shropshire said.

Now, Shropshire said, nobody can blame the franchise. He sees commitment. But there is frustration within the local African American community, he said, among the old-timers who love baseball and understand its rich history, that this may be an opportunity passing by.

"There's no correct way to phrase this. I have heard people say that there's a lack of understanding in how unique we are in having two African American superstars on our team, and two guys who are willing to be out there," Shropshire said.