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Minors towns, major transitions
African-American players adjust to life in largely white locales
02/15/2010 10:00 AM ET
Kyle Colligan ranked fifth in the Pioneer League with 34 walks last season.
Kyle Colligan ranked fifth in the Pioneer League with 34 walks last season. (Brent Asay/MiLB.com)
"[Wisconsin was] like a foreign country to an 18-year-old black kid from Alabama. ... There was nothing in my experience that prepared me for [living around] white people." -- Henry Aaron

It's more than 1,175 miles from Mobile, Ala., to Eau Claire, Wisc. That's a 19-hour car ride, but it might as well be at the other end of the earth.

In 1952, when racial tensions were at a boiling point in many parts of the country, Hank Aaron's presence on the Braves' Class A affiliate made him a prime target for insults and ethnic slurs. Fellow Hall of Famer Willie Mays once described his Minor League time in Hagerstown, Md., as the toughest point in his career.

Fifty-eight years later, much of the verbal abuse has dissipated, but the process of acclimating to small, largely white towns -- coupled with the dwindling number of African-Americans in baseball -- has presented a new challenge for the current crop of Minor League players.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent report in 2008, only 703 of Eau Claire's 64,390 residents -- slightly more than 1 percent -- are African-American. While the small city, which takes its name from the French term for "clear waters," is no longer home to a team, there are dozens of Minor League cities with similar demographics.

And for the several hundred African-Americans in the Minors, the adjustment isn't always smooth sailing.

The only black kid in town

The mountains were everywhere. That's what stuck out to White Sox prospect Kyle Colligan as he made his way from Texas A&M to the wilds of Great Falls, Mont.

Before being selected in the 12th round of last year's Draft, Colligan -- a Houston native -- was one of approximately 48,000 students at Texas A&M. The university's enrollment is just a shade smaller than the entire population of Great Falls.

"The people are different, but luckily the people are nice," Colligan said of the Montana community whose residents are nearly 90 percent white. By contrast, African-Americans make up 24 percent of Houston's population. It's a fact not lost on Colligan, the 2009 MVP for the Rookie-level Voyagers of the Pioneer League.

"There wasn't that many black people, that's for sure," he said. "I think most of the black people were on the team with me. It was very, very limited numbers."

Yet in some respects, it wasn't at all.

Colligan was one of 13 African-American players in the White Sox organization who were not on the 40-man roster, a percentage that puts the club in the upper echelon of baseball's 30 teams. Oakland was tops with 22 reported African-Americans scattered across its five Minor League affiliates.

"We try to make [young African-American players] feel as comfortable as possible, especially at the lower levels," said Stu Cole, who managed Triple-A Colorado Springs in the Rockies organization. "You just try to tell them the do's and don't's [and] try to find out some of the places around the town that are safe and not safe.

"You got to try to be the father and the big brother."

Cole, who played nine years in the Minors beginning in the late '80s, said he was fortunate that his time in cities like Eugene, Ore., and Omaha, Neb., went smoothly.

"I have heard some cases where African-American guys have had issues in small towns, and it's mostly been in the northern cities," he added.

For Athletics prospect Chris Carter, the most difficult transition came during his first year in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.

"There were a couple places where I felt like it was kind of sketchy [and was thinking] people aren't too kind here," he said. "Nothing directly happened, but I heard a few things in the stands from people when I was out on the field."

After ending his fourth Minor League season at Triple-A Sacramento, Carter has had countless black teammates and coaches, which helped put the Las Vegas native at ease.

"I don't feel like it's just me out there," Carter said.

Still, some players, like Padres prospect Everett Williams, have grown accustomed to being in the minority.

"I'm used to being the only black player on the team," said Williams, a second-round pick in the 2009 Draft. "That doesn't faze me. I grew up the only black player."

Conversely, Williams found himself part of a rare trio of African-Americans on one team as the Austin, Tex., native was promoted to short-season Eugene to end his debut campaign. He joined right-hander Keyvius Sampson and outfielder Ty Wright to make the Emeralds San Diego's most diverse squad, despite the city's miniscule (1.5 percent) African-American population.

"On some teams I was that guy," Sampson said in reference to being the only black player. "But I never looked at it like that when we got out onto the field."

A safe haven

The baseball field has long been a comfort zone for Sampson, who missed his sophomore season in high school after pleading guilty as an accessory to simple robbery, which occurred on the way to a movie with two friends. (Sampson, who was the driver, said he was unaware of his friends' intentions and possession of weapons.)

If the Florida native's past made anyone in Eugene uneasy, Sampson never saw it.

"I had a lot of adults and kids come up to me [from the stands] and they had been reading about me and wanted autographs," he said. "There was a lot of support and love, so I wasn't too much worried about it being different [from Florida]."

For Braves pitching prospect Deunte Heath, being around his teammates helped him adjust from life in racially diverse Atlanta to rural parts of Mississippi.

Heath, one of three African-Americans to pass through Triple-A Gwinnett last season, said the teasing from teammates is all in good fun.

"[Double-A] Mississippi was a little bit of the country life, but being with the players on the team helped me out," he said.

One of those players was MLB.com's No. 1 prospect Jason Heyward, a former first-round pick who is projected to make a significant impact at the Major League level very soon. If the 20-year-old gets the call to Atlanta, he will join a growing list of African-American youngsters worth watching, including Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen and Tampa Bay's David Price.

Somewhere along the way, their stories, if not their paths, intersect.

Before reaching the Majors, players like Garret Anderson, Howie Kendrick and Nyjer Morgan made stops in places like Provo, Utah, Boise, Idaho and Altoona, Pa. -- where the combined percentage of African-Americans barely exceeds 5 percent of the population.

Representing a race

"I've managed a couple teams where's there's only been one or two [African-American] kids on the team," Cole said. "What helps right now is you get a lot of kids from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. I think that helps those kids out a lot and makes them feel more comfortable."

But the influx of Latin American players doesn't camouflage the dropoff of African-Americans in the Majors, a figure that fell from 17 percent in 1995 to a Major League all-time low 8.2 percent in 2007. While last season's number (10.2) showed slight improvement, the 2010 estimate for African-Americans not on a team's 40-man roster is only 4.7 percent.

"There aren't very many African-American players, and it's not just in here, it's everywhere. It's not just a problem, it's a crisis," Yankees ace CC Sabathia told reporters in 2004.

At the time, Sabathia was the lone African-American on the Cleveland Indians' 25-man roster.

In 2005, the National League champion Houston Astros had no black players on their World Series roster -- the first time that occurred in a half-century. At one point in 2007, six big league teams didn't have a single black player on the 25-man roster.

For the few who do make it to the Majors, the pressure is on to help increase awareness and participation among African-Americans. Just ask Tigers prospect Austin Jackson, who was acquired as part of a three-way trade that sent community service advocate Curtis Granderson to the Yankees.

Before Jackson even takes the field, he's regarded as the Tigers outfielder of the future, capable of filling Granderson's presence in center -- and around Detroit's inner city.

"The big thing is, I mean, he didn't ask for the pressure," Granderson said of Jackson. "He wants to play. I understand that, and that's what we all want to do.

"Everybody, they just want to see you work hard out there. That's it. Give 110 percent. I learned that really fast, that the fans just want to see that. If you do that,they're going to fall in love with you."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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