The names rattle off the tongue easily. Ask Dave Stewart, the former A's pitching star, to recall the on-field landscape baseball presented to African-Americans during his youth, and it seems the chore is no more difficult than brushing his teeth.

Frank Robinson. Joe Morgan. Willie Stargell. Curt Flood.

Vada Pinson.

And those were just the ones who hailed from Stewart's hometown of Oakland. The local teams -- the A's and the Giants -- boasted Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Bobby Bonds. And, in later years, Stewart's local peers included Rickey Henderson, Gary Pettis, Claudell Washington and Shooty Babitt.

Today's list? That's like pulling teeth. For African-Americans, the playing field has seldom been more barren. A University of Central Florida study released last month put the percentage of African-American players at 8.4 percent, the lowest since the early days of integration, and down almost 20 percent from the mid-1970s.

Why? "I'd say there were a number of factors I'd call a perfect storm," says Major League Baseball executive Jimmie Lee Solomon.

"Basketball grew in its popularity, because of Julius Erving, and Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan. The shoe companies poured tons of money into marketing that sport in the inner city. So youth gravitated toward that sport, especially in urban America. There were more and more courts and fewer and fewer diamonds, because the cost of maintaining courts is far less than maintaining diamonds. So that became a barrier." Solomon says the excess of football scholarships and dearth of baseball-playing scholarships handed out by the NCAA was also one of many other factors. But rather than lament how the numbers got here, he says he's more concerned with where they go in the future, especially since one in four players today is Latino, and the Far East influence is growing by the year.

"If you look at the programs we have initiated, you can see we're trying to do that," Solomon says. "We have to do it.

"But like anything, it's going to take time."

MLB opened a Baseball Youth Academy on a 10-acre lot in Compton last season, complete with two full-sized diamonds, batting cages, equipment and instruction. Solomon says more than 2,000 kids participated last year, and that plans for opening similar academies in Washington D.C., Miami and Atlanta are in the initial stages.

Baseball also continues to see results from its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which opened in 1991.

More than 150 RBI participants have turned into major leaguers, including Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins and Florida Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis.

Still, other say increasing the numbers is a far more complex issue.

"I blame society as a whole," says Babitt, a scout for the New York Mets. "It's a reflection of what's going on in life. ... Kids sit at home and play their video games, they take a break to type out their text messages, then they go back to the video games. They're not out playing the game like we did."

Regardless the root of the problem, or even the avenues to repair it, it's clear that the African-American experience in baseball is at a critical crossroads. A quick pull of the teeth -- Rollins, Willis, and Cleveland starter C.C. Sabathia are the only African-American players from the Bay Area -- reveals that. "The bottom line," Stewart says, "is that when you look at the number of American-born blacks who are playing this game, and the numbers that are coming into this game, we're moving toward a day when there won't be blacks in baseball, period. And that's unacceptable."

Contact Rick Hurd at rhurd@cctimes.com.