As an African American in sports broadcasting, Detroit Tigers commentator Rod Allen said he has beaten the odds.
One of just a handful of African American announcers in baseball, Mr. Allen’s relatively new career in broadcasting has been bright so far. Last season, paired with Mario Impemba for FSN Detroit, he followed the Tigers as the team went from having one of the worst records in the history of the game to playing in the World Series. This year he captured back-to-back Michigan Emmys in the sports analyst category.
Mr. Allen said he is thankful for his success and the accolades, but he still is concerned about the lack of minorities, both in Major League Baseball and in the broadcast booth. The opportunities have decreased for African Americans in baseball in recent decades, he said.
“When you watch the College World Series, you just don’t see many African American kids on the field,” Mr. Allen told TelevisionWeek in an interview at Detroit’s Comerica Park, where the Tigers play. “I believe that they’re just not given the scholarships and the opportunities to succeed. That’s a big part of the problem.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, baseball academies were more integral to the fabric of baseball. At these academies African American players were able to flourish and gain skills on the diamond that colleges were offering other players. Such academies have long since disappeared from the landscape.
Add to that the decrease in baseball scholarships and the fact that baseball has slowly evolved into a middle-class game.
“Look at a guy like (African American) Ron Washington, who manages the Texas Rangers,” Mr. Allen said. “He signed in 1971 for the Kansas City Royals Academy. (Tigers manager and the manager for the American League in the 2007 All-Star Game) Jim Leyland has so much respect for this guy that he named him one of the coaches for the All Star team. Putting things like academies back in the inner cities would really allow some of the African American kids to play baseball and have more of these opportunities.”
Mr. Allen started out as a TV broadcaster after serving as a hitting instructor in the Arizona Diamondbacks farm system.
With more than 30 years in the game, Mr. Allen has had stints as a player with the Cleveland Indians and the Seattle Mariners; he also played in Japan with Hiroshima of the Central League. In 1984, he played 15 games with the Detroit Tigers, earning his first World Series ring. In 2001, as a broadcaster for the Diamondbacks, he was fitted for his second.
His TV break came in 1998 after Diamondbacks Director of Broadcasting Thom Brennaman approached him during a tour at the building site for Bank One Ballpark. The two talked about life, career and baseball.
“He said point-blank that he was going to do some hiring and one candidate would be a minority,” Mr. Allen said.
During the interview process, the Diamondbacks brought in current ESPN broadcaster Joe Morgan and current MLB.com commentator Harold Reynolds, among others, but Mr. Allen eventually landed the job.
“Thom said he thought I had what it took to be a broadcaster,” Mr. Allen said. “It’s one thing to be given an opportunity, but it’s another to take advantage of it.”
Mr. Allen learned quickly, developing his own style while paying close attention to some of baseball’s best announcers.
“I’ve had some great people teach me along the way,” he said.
In 2003, Mr. Allen shifted from the Diamondbacks to the Detroit Tigers.
Arizona had brought in Mark Grace to play first base toward the end of his career, Mr. Allen said. Rumors circulated around the organization that part of Mr. Grace’s deal centered on doing TV analysis once his playing career was over.
For Mr. Allen, that likely meant he would be out of his TV gig. As he saw it, he would do radio or leave.
“The Tiger position came open, so I took it,” he said.
Detroit had one of the worst records in baseball when Mr. Allen arrived, but last season he and Mr. Impemba followed the team’s incredible turnaround that culminated in its World Series appearance (the Tigers lost to the St. Louis Cardinals).
Making the switch from the Diamondbacks to Detroit meant Allen had to adapt to some stylistic differences.
“In Arizona it was basically like two guys in a bar talking about baseball,” Mr. Allen said. “In Detroit that isn’t Mario (Impemba’s) style. He’s more nuts and bolts, more play-by-play, so that was an adjustment I had to make.”
Mr. Allen said he knows having a voice to express his concerns is a powerful thing. He also said he realizes that doing his job and earning Emmys is a big part of raising awareness of minorities’ situation in the field.
“There are many occasions when I get the chance to go into the community and speak at events,” he said. “As an African American in this business, it’s important for me to lead by example and show kids that anything is possible.
“When the door was opened for me, I knocked it down,” he added. “I felt like I could have spent more time in the big leagues, but it just wasn’t my calling. At the end of the day, it’s about expressing what I see on the field to the best of my abilities, and that’s what I’ll always strive for.”