Glory days of baseball fade among African Americans

Omaha Police Detective Kerrie Orozco huddles with her team during opening day of the police league's baseball program.

Omaha Police Detective Kerrie Orozco huddles with her team during opening day of the police league’s baseball program.

By Bobby Caina Calvan | The Heartland Project

OMAHA, Neb. – As a reporter with the Sacramento Bee not long ago, I had the privilege of covering a diverse range of stories – from investigative health care pieces to weepy human interest narratives. I covered baseball’s World Series and the war in Iraq.

But among my favorite stories was about a youth baseball team from Oak Park, a predominantly black neighborhood of Sacramento.

That’s when I first learned about the waning interest in baseball among blacks and the declining numbers of African Americans in the Major Leagues. It was a small story that had a big impact on me.

That Omaha is home to the College World Series, I knew there would be another opportunity to revisit the issue of diversity in baseball.

I approached NET News, Nebraska’s statewide public radio station, to gauge interest in the story. Dennis Kellogg, NET’s news director, gave me immediate approval, but we both knew I’d have to do the story on deadline.

The College World Series was already in progress when I got the go-ahead on a Thursday. We’d air the story early Tuesday morning, before the second game of a three-game final series. I had a scant few days to chase down the story.

Hear and read the story on NET News:
Baseball’s black and white issue

I spoke with a couple of experts who have been compiling data on the Major League’s record on on-the-field diversity. I talked to a University of Nebraska-Omaha professor, a former broadcast journalist, who had been tracking the participation of African American youth on elite-level teams.

I caught up with the NCAA’s new head of the College World Series, who happened to be African American. I attended team practices for the Vanderbilt Commodores, who would eventually make it to the CWS finals. I also visited an exhibit at an Omaha mall, where the contributions of African Americans to the sport were on display.

And I visited a South Omaha ballpark teeming with young faces, many of them beaming with excitement as they took to home plate for the first time.

I had also tried to reach out with baseball legend Bob Gibson, a Hall-of-Famer, two-time Cy Young Award winner and two-time MLB World Series Champion. He’s an Omaha native, African American and one of the giants in baseball – black or white — in the years that after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. Unfortunately, Gibson, now 78, keeps a low profile and declines most interview requests.

This was my second piece for NET News. The first, about a rental law in Fremont, Neb., aimed at illegal immigration, aired last month.

That first story was a learning experience, and I learned from the many mistakes I made in collecting sound. I endeavored to do better for this second piece – and I hope my third piece will be better polished.

This time around, I did better in collecting sound. My interviews were cleaner, although I still need to do a better job in eliminating distracting background noises. I also need to do a better job in thinking ahead about what radio folks call ambient sound – the audio that gives a piece a sense of place, time and action.

But this time around, I might have overdone things. In fact, when I was done tracking my piece, I had a nine-minute report – three minutes over what I was supposed to file. So we did two versions – a longer piece for the web and a heavily edited one for broadcast. I also tweaked the written version of the story, including information not contained in either audio piece.

I’ve spent most of my career as a print journalist. I had always wanted to go into broadcast, but I was shy and much more insecure in my youth. In college, I would rewrite front-page stories in the New York Times for broadcast – just for fun.

But I fell into the inkwell of print, and I was never able to rub off the ink – so I pursued a career in newspapers.

The Heartland Project has given me the opportunity to revisit my interest broadcast journalism. In addition to my two radio pieces, last month I helped produce a piece for television. I plan to do more broadcast pieces, and a few are already in the works.

I have several friends who have successfully transitioned from print to broadcast. It’s doubtful I’ll follow that path, but it’s given me something to think about. I love a challenge and I love learning.

Thanks to NET and this Heartland Project, I’m being exposed to both.