With the celebration of Jackie Robinson Day earlier this month, I read quite a bit of commentary on African-American participation in baseball. This post contains some of my thoughts on the issue.
There is no denying that the percentage of Americans-Americans in baseball has declined over the past few years. A recent report The 2008 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball by Richard Lapchick with Nikki Bowey and Ray Mathew has documented this trend over the past few years. The report is an excellent source of data on the recent racial trends in baseball.
The game has the lowest percentage (8.2) of African-Americans in the two decades that we have published the Report Card. That number is less than half what it was in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, when African-Americans made up 17 percent of the players, and less than the percentage of blacks in the general population of the U.S. (12.3 percent).
I understand that this is disappointing, but the overall trend of African-Americans and Latinos is positive. When we look at African-Americans and Latinos together, the percentage of non-whites rose from 1991 until 1997. And a large contingent of Latinos includes players who would have been considered black during MLB’s days of segregation.
In fact, the percentage of players who are white has dropped substantially since 1991.
According to the Report Card:
MLB has been remarkably consistent in terms of the percentage of white players. Between the 1997 and the 2007 seasons, 58-60 percent of the players have been white in each season.
Yes, but this is misleading. Look at what happened from 1991–1996. In 1991 68% of major-league players were white. The percentage of white players slowly decreased until 1997 when it reached 58%. (Aside: What the heck happened in 2004? It looks to be an outlier, and it is hard to tell because the 2003 data is not reported in the study. I am suspicious of a data-gathering problem, but it is also within the realm of random fluctuation.) It seems that both black and white players are being replaced by Latinos. Now, some of these Latinos are Americans, but many of them are immigrants who were groomed in training camps in their home countries. Teams have found it cheaper to rely less on the amateur draft and sign players whom they can identify before other teams. Because of the relative poverty to US and Canadian players, these players are a cheap substitute.
But, we really already knew this. I am still curious why African-American participation has declined in the past decade, while white participation has stayed the same. A discussion of potential explanations for the black-white racial gap in baseball follows.
First, let’s look at the simplest explanation. Could it be that the population of baseball-age African-American men has decreased relative to white males? The graph below maps the percentage of U.S. males ages 25 to 34 for African-Americans and whites.
The white percentage is actually decreasing while the African-American percentage increasing. However, the change is small for both races. So, let’s cross this explanation off our list.
The most popular theory that I hear is that African-American athletes are choosing to play football and basketball over baseball. The popularity of these sports in the 1980s and 1990s—along with the success of a few notable black athletes—caused young African-Americans to choose these sports. But this theory has one big problem, according to the Racial Report Cards for the NFL and NBA, there hasn’t been much change in racial make-up since 1991. In the NBA, African-Americans have typically comprised 75% of the league. In the NFL, African-Americans have comprised 66% of the league.
The competing leagues lack MLB’s trend of declining African-American participation, which indicates that what is affecting baseball’s racial make-up is not affecting the NBA and NFL. More important is the fact that these sports do not appear to be substitutes for baseball. African-American athletes don’t appear to be abandoning baseball for the other major American sports leagues. Some athletes may choose other sports, but those who don’t play football and basketball, choose to do something other than play baseball.
One difference between white and African-American communities is wealth. Could the difference in wealth affect the ability of these two groups to play baseball? It is possible that baseball requires more financial resources than other sports; thus, African-Americans, who are poorer than whites on average, are crowded out from playing baseball.
Looking at both the past—when current baseball players may have made an early decision to shun baseball—and present, there does not appear to be any obvious changes financial differences that might explain the fluctuation of the racial gap in baseball participation. Though African-Americans are less wealthy on average, the changes in wealth track the changes in whites closely over time.
Another possible explanation is that playing baseball requires greater community involvement than other sports. Basketball involves a small number of participants, a hoop, and a ball. Community and school leagues are widespread. Organizing full-fledged football is a bit more complicated than basketball, but simple games of touch football are quick and easy to organize. The strong support in schools, with weekly games also serving as an important social gathering, may also contribute to the popularity of the sport.
While baseball can be played on a sandlot, it is not as easy to self-organize as basketball or football. Though I always loved baseball and played in organized leagues until I was 14, I don’t recall a single informal neighborhood game. The biggest obstacle is the need for an umpire. I played numerous pick-up basketball and football games despite never playing in an organized league. If a community lacks the resources to organize local youth leagues, as well as travel leagues for exceptional adolescents, then potential baseball players may not have the opportunity to play baseball. And because of a lack of early exposure, even athletes who wash out of basketball and football don’t have an interest in playing baseball.
What measures might we use to measure community support? The General Social Survey has a few questions about sports participation, but I could only find one that is captured over time: Membership in Sports Club. The graph below plots the responses by race over time.
The dotted and dashed curves represent quadratic fits of the data. Participation in sports clubs has been dropping for both races, with the biggest drop-off beginning in the late-1980s. This could explain the drop in baseball participation for both African-Americans and whites, but it doesn’t say much about the disparity between the groups. Anyway, I’m not even sure what a “sports club” really means, but it includes participation in all sports, not just baseball. I’m not sure that this survey information provides a good measure of community support, but it was the best that I could find.
Similar to the need for community support, it is possible that family support is important for supporting a athletic activity. The demands for family participation may be greater in baseball than for other sports, because of higher costs of organization for baseball, relative to other sports. If there are changes in family structure that may hinder family support, then this could affect participation in baseball.
Below, I list two graphs of family characteristics by race. The first lists out-of-wedlock births by race; the second lists the percentage of 16-year-olds living with both parents. The marker labels indicate the average year at which youth in each cohort will make their major-league debut.
There is a noticeable difference in out-of-wedlock births for African-Americans beginning in 1965–1969, which includes players who will enter the majors in 1991. The out-of-wedlock birth rate is declining for both races, but there is a bigger drop-off for African-Americans. In terms of living with both parents at age 16, the decline doesn’t fit with the drop-off of African-Americans in the majors.
Differences in family structure might explain some of the difference in baseball participation, but this isn’t a very satisfying explanation all by itself. If I saw a similar divergence in sports club participation, then I might have some more confidence that family and community structure are the main problem—it still might be, I’m just not convinced, yet. Still, I think it highlights the potential importance of MLB’s RBI initiative (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), which promotes youth baseball for disadvantaged youth.
Baseball is supported at most middle and high schools, which ought to help make up for deficiencies in providing youth sports opportunities that are not supported outside of school. But I wonder: what incentives to coaches face? At most high schools, football is king, with basketball a close second. A coach who wants to keep his job will steer the best athletes to these sports. In addition, college recruiters have incentives for building strong relationships with high school coaches to encourage students to attend particular schools. In return, recruiters may offer favors to coaches—favors that MLB scouts cannot or will not offer in return.
This would explain the decline in baseball participation for African-Americans and whites, but I’m not sure it explains the disparity. It is possible that black youths are more likely to get a job than play baseball than whites, so that if when these sports fill up, whites go play baseball while African-Americans abandon athletics.
As a final note, I wonder why more African-American athletes chose to play football and basketball over baseball. With the minor leagues, the financial payoff is more certain and higher than the other sports, where you must work as an unpaid college athlete before earning a real paycheck. And if education is a concern, it shouldn’t be. MLB offers a scholarship program for any player who signs a minor league contract. You get a scholarship after your playing days are over. Why aren’t we seeing a movement of African-American talent towards the sport with the highest financial returns? I think this question is key to understanding the racial disparity in baseball.
There are just my thoughts on the issue. Nothing really jumps out at me as an obvious cause, nor do I think there is an easy solution. MLB’s current focus on providing support for youth leagues in the inner city is probably a good idea for promoting baseball to African-Americans.