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April 15, 2008

Prospectus Today

Eight Point Two

by Joe Sheehan

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In what has become an annual tradition, we were informed today that baseball's rosters number only 8.2 percent of its makeup from African-Americans, the lowest level in decades.

In what is also an annual tradition, I scratched my head and wondered why I should care.

Maybe it's because I'm too young to have any memory of overt racial conflict in America. Maybe it's because I grew up in a mixed-race neighborhood, played in mixed-race sports leagues and attended mixed-race schools. Whether it was any or all of those things, the obsession of many with race in sports-or more accurately, non-white participation in sports-has always fallen flat with me. I have always seen sports as the one place where race doesn't matter as much as it does elsewhere. If you have game, you play; if you don't, you don't. I can't say my being a white kid was never an issue in a neighborhood that was trending towards first-generation Dominicans, but I can say that on the courts of Inwood Park, your ability to ball was a hell of a lot more important than anything else.

On any given day, you might see 10 Hispanic guys in a run, or five Hispanic guys, three black guys and two white guys. Or six white guys, three black guys and one Hispanic guy. You showed up, you called "next," you got your five and if you won, you stayed. It wasn't a utopia and I'm not presenting it as such; I'm saying that on the court, game to 20, with the netless rims and aluminum backboards, your skin color was less important than in any other place I knew. You didn't get to run because of your race; you got it because of your game. Biases existed, but whether they persisted was entirely tied to how you played ball.

So when I read that African-American representation on rosters is at a low point since the early days of the game's integration, I don't understand the importance. I analyze baseball decision makers for a living, and I am certain that the decisions they make are, in toto, as race-blind as the basketball courts of Inwood Park were in my adolescence. That is to say that while individuals may harbor biases, and may even act upon them in their words or actions, how they build baseball teams is not subject to racial discrimination. How they select players for their organizations is not subject to racial discrimination. Baseball and, in fact, all professional sports at the highest levels are as meritocratic as any entity in human history.

Moreover--and this gets to the point of the press release--there's nothing MLB is doing or not doing that would discourage young men of any race from playing baseball. If anything, MLB has bent over backwards, to the point of pandering, in an effort to associate itself with the minority heroes of its past, to fund the development of baseball talent in African-American population centers, to market the top African-American players in today's game, and to make inroads in the game's management for African-American executives. At some point, you have to acknowledge the determined efforts of Bud Selig-who has driven all of these initiatives-and stop using a silly number like "percentage of African-Americans on rosters" to beat the game into submission.

The 8.2 percent figure quoted is the product of trends that no amount of MLB money and power in any one direction will arrest. In part, it reflects a change, occurring across three generations, from baseball to basketball as the preferred sport of African-Americans. There is nothing wrong with this, and so much of the perceived problem is attempting to make it wrong. People's tastes change; witness the rise of NASCAR and the decline of ice hockey for two other examples in the American sports world. Yet Richard Lapchick, who has made a career of this, solemnly notes:

Baseball has probably lost a whole generation here. African-Americans just aren't playing it at this point. They're going to have to increase their efforts.

Why, exactly, does MLB have to "increase their efforts"? The integration of Major League Baseball was a critical moment in race relations in America, and is no doubt in part responsible, in a limited way, for the fact that a black man is within months of the presidency. However, if over time the game becomes less popular among that segment of America's population, why is it a crisis? Why is it MLB's problem if this particular group of people prefers to watch and play football and basketball, or ignore sports in favor of other entertainments or careers, so long as MLB itself not erecting barriers to participation and enjoyment? If anything, MLB is doing the opposite; short of coercing the NCAA to change scholarship distributions, which would likely change the incentives involved in choosing sports among youth, what can MLB do that it isn't already doing? More money? More programs? More artificial, self-conscious events such as the Civil Rights Game?

If, as a group, African-Americans prefer to play and watch other sports, that's a perfectly valid choice. I can disagree with it, because I love baseball and I think people who don't are missing out, but that's the same for anyone who doesn't like the game. To say that MLB has to "do more" is proffering a solution in search of a problem.

The 8.2 percent figure, as compared to where the number peaked back in the 1970s, has nothing to do with MLB somehow acting in a manner that would exclude African-Americans. It has to do with changes in the mix of the player pool that has served to lower American participation in the game at the same time. The game is global now, with talent from all over the world. Pointing to "8.2 percent" and building a case around it is exactly as dumb as using Prince Fielder's home-run total to say that he's the MVP.

I come back to this: why should we care? Baseball is wildly successful at the moment, with record revenues and attendance, with a new peak reached in terms of play, with fans in all parts of the world getting exposed to the game. As an industry, baseball has not reverted to its pre-World War II past, and watching any game on any day will tell you that. Rosters are a melange of colors and nationalities; by any reasonable measure, baseball is the most diverse of all the major sports. Only by a bastardized definition of "diversity" could you compare the NFL or NBA favorably to MLB in that regard.

Baseball is a meritocracy. In the year 2008, it has absolutely nothing to be ashamed of its racial composition, its hiring practices, or its outreach programs.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Rosters,  Baseball America

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