Julio Becquer and Tony Oliva, both Cuban-born, both migrated to the United States to play baseball. But if asked, both men quickly express their disappointment that the game they love has not been more embraced by today’s youth, especially by domestic-born Blacks.
According to the 2014 Racial and Gender Report Card by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, the number of Blacks on major league rosters has been steady dwindling since the 1990s. On Opening Day 2014, 8.2 percent of players who identified themselves as Black were on the teams’ 25-man rosters.
The Minnesota Twins had one — Aaron Hicks.
Becquer last month was among three retired players who taught baseball skills at a free youth clinic at a South Minneapolis park. Only one of the 50-plus kids there was of color.
“It’s a shame,” said Oliva when told this. “I’d like to see more Black Americans try to play [baseball]. The bigger issue I think are the parents. They are not taking the time to play ball with the kids.”
The Havana, Cuba native Becquer made the majors in 1955 for the then-Washington Senators and also played a season for the then-expansion Los Angeles Angels (1961) before finishing up his 10-year career with the Twins (1961-1963) with a .244 career batting average in 488 games.
He was signed by a major league scout in 1951 for $500: “That was a lot of money,” remembers Becquer. “Through baseball I’ve accomplished many things, which prepared [me] not only for baseball but for regular life, to get a job and be productive,” declared the 82-year-old.
Admits Oliva, who was born in the Cuban farmland, “I signed a little bit late. A lot of the Cuban players were 16, 17 years old. I was 21 when I signed.”
He then played all of his 15 major-league seasons for the Twins (1962-1976). Unfortunately, knee injuries cut his playing career short, but Oliva has remained with the club over the years, either as a coach, hitting instructor, scout and/or broadcaster.
“We’re fortunate to have a guy like Tony Oliva around,” admits Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire. “We always tell our players to ask as many questions as you can when you get the opportunity when [he] is around here. I’m lucky as a manager to have Tony around here talking hitting, especially to some of our Latin kids. He’s very influential with those guys and a lot of our hitters.”
Meanwhile, as Black baseball players seemingly are disappearing, Latin-born players are increasing — they now are at 28 percent of major leaguers. Sounding like Joni Mitchell, the 70-something Oliva warns that if more Blacks don’t soon start choosing baseball, or at least appreciating it as an opportunity, it will be gone.
“Pretty soon…[baseball] won’t have anybody [Black],” predicts Oliva, who also addressed those who decry the growing number of Latin American players in the majors. “If someday Cuba and the United States have a relationship and open Cuba, you [will] see [more] players in the minor and major leagues from other countries,” he pointed out.
It bothers him that American-born youth, especially those of color, aren’t taking more advantage of opportunities to play the game he dearly loves. “There’s no reason why here in America, at least, they can’t attempt to play.”
Next week: This columnist’s first-ever Major League Baseball All-Star coverage with a recap of pre-All Star activities.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected].