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The Number of African American Players Has Dwindled Since the 80s, But Why?

Last September, San Francisco Forty-Niners Quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a stand, or rather, he took a knee. He sat, and later knelt, during the National Anthem prior to kickoff and within weeks, dozens of other NFL players were following suit. This article is not going to be an argument about whether or not he was right, whether he had the right to do so, or whether it should cost him his career. I have my thoughts on the subject, and I’m sure you have yours. This article is about baseball.

Several weeks after the flare of controversy surrounding the NFL protests, a USA Today reporter asked Orioles outfielder Adam Jones why there hadn’t been similar protests in Major League Baseball, and whether we could expect them in the future. Jones’ answer set off a swirl of controversy of its own when he responded, “We already have two strikes against us already, so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game. In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us. Baseball is a white man’s sport.’’

This response took people by surprise, especially white fans who considered Jones’ remarks to be way out of left field. But, the truth is that Adam Jones is right. Baseball is a white man’s sport and the numbers not only prove it, they show a troubling trend in African-American players and fans.

On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson made his Major League debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers, integrating the modern sport of baseball and breaking the color barrier. Every year, on April 15, every single player, manager, and umpire wears Robinson’s number 42 on their jerseys.Embed from Getty Images
42 is the only number in the history of baseball to be retired from all 30 Major League clubs in deference to a single player. From 1947 forward, the number of African-American players in Major League Baseball rose, almost steadily, to about 15% – a number that just about matches national demographics. In 1986, only 31 years ago, that number was at 18.3% and it has fallen ever since. A decade later the number stood at 16%, not precipitous but a definite drop, and a decade after that it stood at 9%. A decade later, 6.7%, the same as the percentage of African American players in 1956. Sixty-nine African American players were on Opening Day rosters in 2016, this year that number fell to sixty-three. Conversely, the percentage of white players in baseball has never, in its history, dipped below sixty percent. Respectively, the percentage of African-American players in the NFL and NBA are 68% and 74%. The question is, where have all the African American baseball players gone, and why?

The short answer is that there is no short answer, but I do have a few ideas. Before I get into them, I want to stress that this article is, in no way whatsoever, an indictment of Major League Baseball, its practices, or its commitment to diversity. While the number of African-American players has fallen dramatically, the number of Latino players has risen just as dramatically and the number of players from other countries is steadily increasing.

But, let’s think about that sharp rise in Latino players, especially players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, because we might see a trend that gives us an insight into the sharp decrease in African American players and in white fans not realizing they were leaving. Think about how baseball in marketed to Latin American players, especially players like Jose Fernandez who immigrated to this country and was given the opportunity to change his entire life’s circumstances by playing baseball. It is marketed as an opportunity, a way to fulfill your dreams. In short, it is marketed in much the same way that basketball and football are marketed to inner city youth, as a way out of their current situation and an opportunity to become a millionaire. Baseball isn’t marketed that way to anyone, really, in the United States. While baseball contracts are the largest of the three sports, LeBron James’s contract may pay more annually but it’s still a $99 million-dollar contract and the largest football contract is Andrew Luck’s at $140 million, the fact is that to get one of the big money contracts you have to play for years. Five years, in fact, is the amount of time that a player coming into the league must play before he is eligible as a free agent. Prior to that, he is subject to league minimums and arbitrations. Let’s not forget the hundreds of players who come into the league and never even sniff the Bigs. None of that is different from any other sport, but the immediacy of basketball and football are appealing.

Baseball is also expensive, making it a difficult game to play for low-income youth, and while I don’t want to start an economics debate, there is no doubt that a far higher percentage of African American children live at or below the poverty line than any other demographic. A good glove can cost upwards of $50 for a youth player and $150 for an older player. Cleats can cost well over $100, a bat more still. In basketball, you buy a pair of sneakers and you grab a ball and play. By yourself even. Not so in baseball.

Baseball, as Graham and I have pointed out in previous episodes of Out of Left Field, is a slow game. It isn’t as exciting and fast-paced as basketball and football. There is very little in the way of contact in baseball. Kids, all kids, want to play and watch a game that is entertaining, fast-paced, and exciting. Baseball, for many, simply doesn’t fit that bill.

And, possibly most damning of all, baseball is unchanging, un-evolving, and it doesn’t allow for the affectation that is popular, though controlled for the most part, in other sports. In football, if you score a touchdown you celebrate and no one tries to hurt you for it. In basketball, if you knock down a go-ahead three and pump your fist or show emotion, no one throws the ball at your head. But, in baseball, there is an archaic mindset that celebrating a homerun or showing emotion on the field is wrong, disrespectful even, and next time you’re up you’re probably going to get drilled. During the World Baseball Classic the Latin American teams, especially, showed a huge amount of emotion on the field and they were having a really great time playing the game. After the tournament, many people – most vocally Ian Kinsler – gave them a helping of crap for it. There is this stick-in-the-mud ideology that says you can’t be emotional and have fun playing the game. Who wants to play a game that they can’t have fun playing? This isn’t just bad for getting African American youth into baseball, it’s bad for baseball in general.

At the end of the day, the fact is that fewer and fewer African-American kids are getting into baseball, leading to fewer players playing professionally. Is it a cost issue? A marketing issue? An issue with the identity of baseball? Is it that only 24% of African American adults identify as baseball fans, compared to 87% for basketball? Yes. To all of those things. The problem is, like any other major issue, difficult, individualized, and nuanced. For that reason, so must the solution be.Embed from Getty Images

  • Leevon Grant

    Chris, I think you might have overlooked a huge problem…youth baseball has changed drastically in the way players are involved. It now focuses on travel teams and elite competition. Local summer leagues are dwindling and left largely unsupported. The path to high school baseball and beyond is now controlled by a new guard, and caters to those families with disposable income and time.

    • Christopher Furry

      Leevon, that is a great point and, while I didn’t mention the expense and inaccessibility of post-Little League baseball in the article, it is a huge concern. However, this trend begins in Little League and goes forward from there.

  • Tom Hogan

    Certainly not as expensive as hockey when your son wants to be a goalie.

  • Anthony Grosso

    And What’s Basketball and Football?

    • Christopher Furry

      Anthony, I think you’ve either completely missed the point of the article, or you simply didn’t read it. The article is about the sharp decline in African American players not only in Major League Baseball, but at ALL levels of baseball in the last 30 years. This isn’t about equality, it’s about a troubling trend in baseball and why it might be happening.