June 28, 2008
Can Of Corn
Every so often, you'll run across a story lamenting the fact that the number of black ballplayers in Major League Baseball is on the decline. Indeed, it's a verifiable fact that the percentage of African-Americans playing the game at the highest level has decreased significantly over the years. According to Dr. Richard Lapchick, sociologist and author of the annual "Race and Gender Report Card," the percentage of black players in MLB has remained the same or declined in every year since 1994. Today, that percentage stands at 8.2 percent, the lowest figure in the 20 years that Lapchick has tracked the numbers, and one that marks a precipitous decline from the levels of 1975, when 27 percent of the player population was black.
These numbers raise three vital questions: Why has this occurred? What can be done about it? And has the apparent "death of black baseball" led to an increase in white participation?
Let's take the last question first. Here are the percentages of white players in MLB over the last full decade (again, numbers courtesy of the RGRC):
Percentage of White Players in MLB 2007 59.8% 2006 59.5% 2005 60.0% 2004 63.0% 2003 N/A 2002 60.0% 2001 59.0% 2000 60.0% 1999 60.0% 1998 59.0%
As you can see, save for a slight spike in 2004, the percentage of white players has been mostly consistent. The obvious assumption, given these numbers and the decline in black players, is that the presence of Latino and Asian players is on the rise. Such is the case; in 1990, Latinos and Asians constituted just 13 percent of major league rosters, and these days that figure stands at 31.9 percent. Thankfully, I've yet to encounter anyone who asserts that major league scouting and development is some sort of racist construct, and the rise in prominence of Latin and Asian talents proves that it isn't (sufficiently for me, anyway), despite the cratering percentage of black players in the game. So the game isn't becoming more whiter, because compared to 1990 levels (when fully 70 percent of players were white), it's become measurably less so. Whether this is sweet relief, cold comfort, or thoroughly irrelevant depends upon your point of view. But in any event, the racial shifts in baseball haven't been in the service of creating more opportunities for white players. (The hope is that no one ever believed otherwise.)
Insofar as the causes of black decline are concerned, it's easy to wander into a complicated thicket of explanations. However, among the many reasons posited, two of them-mingled and interrelated ones-stand out as being both relevant and consequential. One is the demise of baseball's social import within the black community, and the other is the economically narrow nature of contemporary youth baseball.
On the first point, the reasons are many. It's more challenging for inner-city kids to organize a baseball game than it is to play pick-up hoops. The NBA and NFL, because they have no affiliated minor league systems, provide quicker paths to material uplift. Baseball's reputedly slow pace might not appeal to the younger generation, and the relative dearth of high-profile black stars likely hurts the game's standing within the community. Taken alone, these reasons seem hackneyed and simplistic, but cumulatively they make sense.
Of these, the only perception that's both awry and correctable without corrupting the native merits of the sport is the second one: that MLB can't provide financial opportunities as promptly as the other two major sports leagues. Thanks to the NBA's one-and-done rule and the NFL's mandate that draftees be out of high school for at least three years, contrary to its reputation MLB does allow for immediate riches. Also, as J.C. Bradbury of Sabernomics points out in a thoughtful piece on the subject of blacks in baseball, MLB offers a scholarship initiative for any player who signs a minor league contract. Baseball should obviously do a better job of communicating the fact that these opportunities exist, and what they mean for the African-American community.
In my opinion, however, the real problem is the current direction of youth baseball. In particular, the importance of year-round select teams is an emergent trend that's somewhat troubling. Participation on such teams costs parents thousands of dollars annually, which essentially restricts those leagues to the upper middle class and above. It is not, nor should it be, controversial to observe that in general terms, black families are less likely to be able to afford their children these opportunities than your garden-variety white family is. I would argue that this, probably more than anything else, should be of concern to baseball. Kids who can't afford to play baseball regularly quite obviously lose out on essential development time, and they have fewer sets of eyes on them as they progress. As a consequence it's little wonder that baseball, at the apprentice levels, becomes a bit monochromatic. This effect cascades upward, and the result is a paltry fraction of black players at the college level, as well as in the minor leagues. Of course, some of us like to think of sports as the last meritocracy. In the topmost leagues, this generally holds true (at least relative to the public sector and the balance of the corporate world), but in the developmental stages of baseball the economic and environmental factors can't be ignored.
On a fundamental level, it's comforting to know that there's nothing conspiratorial about the racial trends in baseball. That black athletes have other options and that, in the main, they're being replaced by Hispanic players and those from the Pacific Rim speaks to baseball's heartening blindness when it comes to the talent pool. The reduced black presence, however, is something of a cultural defeat. As New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden wrote in his excellent and necessary 40 Million Dollar Slaves, "black style" was once a pioneering and alluring part of the game. Jackie Robinson had it on the bases; Willie Mays had it in the field. There are of course so many more examples than just those two. Without the memory and myth of Josh Gibson, the gracious pride of Buck O'Neill, the unyielding subversiveness of Dick Allen and Reggie Jackson, and Barry Bonds' impossible attainments and complicated place in history, baseball would be far less interesting, far less competitive, and far less human.
If baseball cares about breathing life back into black baseball-and it's clear that Bud Selig is nothing if not earnestly dedicated to racial equality within the game-then they need to consider expanding the "academy" initiatives that are already bearing fruit in Compton, California, and are soon to do so in Atlanta and Houston. Selig has already seen to the care and feeding of the RBI Program, and that's a good thing. But the next step--other than flooding the streets with Sonny Vacarro types and their predations--is to subsidize the select-team system. That means setting up a system of scholarships or grants to send African-American kids of lesser or even average privilege (but of substantial talents) on those year-round baseball jaunts. That, more than focus groups or marketing ruses or attempts to tailor the game, would make the greatest difference.
First, though, baseball needs to realize that it has nothing to apologize for in terms of on-field diversity; it's a global game that is manifestly colorblind. However, the American determination that must be made is whether there's the will to undertake the ground-up initiatives needed to reengage black athletes. There's a strong and courageous legacy to be revived. Shall we revive it?
For more on the intersection of sports and politics, check out Spolitical.