Should We Worry About the Declining Percentage of African-American Players in Major League Baseball?

There has been much controversy recently about the supposedly catastrophic decline in the percentage of major league baseball players who are African-Americans. For instance, ESPN has a story lamenting the fact that, this year, only 8.2% of MLB players are black Americans, the lowest percentage in two decades. Baseball does indeed have a long history racial discrimination against black players, to some extent continuing even after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947. But I don't see any serious cause for concern in the current numbers.

First, the figure of 8.2% is only modestly lower than the percentage of African-Americans in the current US population (about 12.7 percent). Moreover, even this comparison is misleading because some 28% of MLB players are foreign-born, including a large number of black players from Latin America. African-Americans are 11.4% of all American-born players in the major leagues, a figure very close to their percentage in the general population. The rapid rise in the number of foreign-born players (many of whom are black themselves) has lowered the percentage of African-American players, just as it has for other American-born players. Back in 1988, only 11% of MLB players were foreign-born, compared to 28% today. The percentage of African-American players has also declined because of the increasing appeal of basketball and football to the top black American athletes (a source of competition that is not a factor in the Latin American and Asian countries that produce most foreign-born MLB players). Several decades ago, football and basketball stars earned much less than top MLB players. Not so today.

Obviously, the fact that African-American players in MLB are represented in rough proportion to their percentage of the overall population does not prove an absence of discrimination against them. However, there is little evidence of systematic racial discrimination in recent years, and indeed most of the new foreign players who have to some extent displaced both black and white Americans are themselves nonwhite. Individual instances of discrimination probably still occur and should be remedied. Overall, however, I see no reason for great concern here.

One could also try to justify concern about the declining percentage of African-American players because of the need for diversity, even in the absence of discrimination. However, MLB players today are a more diverse group than ever before - precisely because of the influx of foreign players. I'm not convinced that racial and ethnic diversity (as opposed to player quality) should be a major objective in player development. But even if it should, today's MLB - with its numerous players of all races from Latin America and the Far East - is doing pretty well. It's a lot more diverse than it ever was in the past, and considerably more so than our other major professional sports leagues.

UPDATE: I should acknowledge that it may be reasonable for MLB teams to be concerned that they are no longer getting as high a percentage of the best African-American athletes as in the past - primarily a result of competition from basketball and football. However, there is no reason to view this issue as a matter of broader social concern. And even from the baseball front offices' point of view, there is no reason for them to worry about losing this talent pool than any other of comparable size. White American athletes, for example, are also less likely to choose baseball over other sports today than in the past.

4.15.2008 2:52pm
AntonK (mail):
I second taney71: nope.
4.15.2008 2:58pm
I'm more inclined to lament the lack of African-Americans in the PGA.
4.15.2008 3:00pm
rarango (mail):
Make it three in a row. A major league non-issue.
4.15.2008 3:01pm
If people don't want to come to the ballpark, you can't stop them.
4.15.2008 3:09pm
Has anyone suggested that the dwindling number of African-Americans in MLB is due to discrimination? My understanding of the concern is that African-American youth just aren't interested in the sport. Thus, people who think declining numbers are a problem suggest outreach programs in African-American neighborhoods. I have always assumed (but do not know) that the supposed underlying problem is that baseball is deprived of athletes who would otherwise come out of the African- American community.
4.15.2008 3:11pm
I haven't read anywhere that it's because of discrimination. Baseball is worried that its sport is losing talented athletes to other sports and wants to get the best athletes. That's its worry and yeah, it has a right to be worried about that since it affects the product it puts on the field. However, it's not an "issue" as far as something that society should care about beyond those that are interested in baseball.
4.15.2008 3:24pm
I agree.
4.15.2008 3:27pm
Houston Lawyer:
Just turn the story around and ask whether we should be worried about the decline in the number of white players in the NBA or the NFL.
4.15.2008 3:28pm
Pumpsie Green (mail):
While Richard Lapchick (whose work is cited in the AP story carried on the ESPN page linked herein) runs an academic research unit, the protrayal of his work in the media (admittedly, my only exposure to it) suggests that it is little more than counting people by race and comparing the results to some desirable benchmark. For example, ESPN loves to bemoan the lack of black college football coaches, but never discusses the issue in any more detail than "there just aren't enough". Therefore, the decline in the proportion of Black American major leaguers is a crisis. It must be the lack of father figures in the inner city right? Just like Joe DiMaggio's immigrant Sicilian fisherman father taught his three sons so much that they all made the big leagues? Oh wait, he didn't care about baseball. Maybe all the blacks who don't play baseball are having dinner with the Jews and Italians who aren't professional boxers anymore. Just waiting for Richard Lapchick to tackle that issue.
4.15.2008 3:37pm

Several decades ago, football and basketball stars earned much less than top MLB players. Not so today.

If Im not mistaken, MLB players are still paid significantly more than NFL players.

The mean NFL salary is reportedly $700,00, much less than the reported MLB average of $3.1m.

NFL Salaries
MLB Salaries


The only reason I can see to be concerned with this issue (if you're a baseball fan), is the fact that the best athletes no longer play baseball, therefore producing a lower quality product than it potentially could be.
4.15.2008 3:38pm

If Im not mistaken, MLB players are still paid significantly more than NFL players.

The mean NFL salary is reportedly $700,00, much less than the reported MLB average of $3.1m.

NFL Salaries
MLB Salaries

Correction - the median NFL salary is $770,000. The average is approximately $1.4m.
4.15.2008 3:40pm
The Cabbage (mail):
For MLB purposes, is Fukudome white?
4.15.2008 3:41pm
No One:
Yawn. This is just the usual race-baiting by the usual suspects who are looking for society to put a thumb on the scales in their favor. In their world, statistics much be doctored in order to produce a disparity between African-Americans an any other group, and then the disparity must be linked to discrimination. How else can these groups continue to fund themselves?
4.15.2008 3:43pm
Alan P (mail):
It is not just the loss of athletes, but the loss of fans in the urban community that is a concern.

Baseball has been steadily losing support in the African American community for years. Go to the ball park and look at the spectators. A black face is now rare. No company likes to lose market.
4.15.2008 3:47pm

I haven't read anywhere that it's because of discrimination.

People do make that claim sometimes. IT doesn't go very far, though.

As for baseball salaries v. other sports, yes, baseball players make more money, but your odds of making it to the majors as a baseball player are much, much lower than a football or basketball player. Basketball players are usually ready at 20-22, football players by 23, baseball players are routinely in the minors 5-8 years after being drafted. Baseball just doesn't have much guaranteed money for people thinking about the draft, unless they're at the very top of the group.

By the (stupid) standards of this ESPN article, btw, the NBA is 11% white.
4.15.2008 3:57pm
rarango (mail):
MLB seems to have done a pretty good job bringing in superstars from Asia and Latin America. Does anyone have a feel for the popularity of baseball world wide? Increasing? waning? ) It is now an olympic sport is it not?
4.15.2008 3:58pm
DB Schwimmer:
One of the greatest causes for the "decline" has just been the way that the "black" players are counted. One can't tell how the counting was done in the survey mentioned in the linked article. But, there have been several articles over the past few years pointing out that the players being counted in lots of these studies have to be descendants of American slaves to be regarded as "black Americans." Black players from the West Indies, or from Africa, don't count as "black."
4.15.2008 4:02pm

your odds of making it to the majors as a baseball player are much, much lower than a football or basketball player.

Im not sure I follow. How can the odds be lower when there are approximately twice as many MLB players as NBA players? Especially given the fact that many more kids play basketball (even if only casually) than baseball.
4.15.2008 4:06pm

I'm not talking about the odds of all players, but of people good enough to be drafted. The top .1% of athletes. Baseball players spend years in the minors trying to make the majors. Most people flunk out along the way. Even most highly drafted players flunk out along the way, and a lot of the ones who make it flunk out after a brief period in the majors while they're making the league minimum ($350k).

If you're a hotshot basketball prospect as a high school senior or college freshman, you will be a basketball player for years and make millions of dollars.

Of the last 15 Cubs #1 draft picks, for example (disclaimer: the Cubs are bad at drafting and would have better results, but I'm a Cubs fan) include 6 players who played any real time in the majors and made millions of dollars in their contracts. Only two of them signed big money contracts, and one or two still have a chance to. Other players on that list made a few million in signing bonuses and nothing as players.
4.15.2008 4:30pm
edit: disclaimer: the Cubs are bad at drafting and other teamswould have better results, but I'm a Cubs fan

Rarango: baseball has been dropped from Olympics after this year.
4.15.2008 4:34pm
rarango (mail):
Careless: thanks for the update!
4.15.2008 4:37pm
I'd second the comments that this isn't about discrimination -- it's this post that is race-baiting. Even the ESPN article (which I wouldn't normally assume to be a well-reasoned piece in the first place) focuses on the fact that MLB received the best grade for diversity in hiring (the first part of the headline is "MLB gets best grade for diversity in hiring"). The point is that "a whole generation" of African-American youth isn't playing baseball anymore, and that MLB is going to need to up its efforts if it wants to regain interest in the young black community.
4.15.2008 5:06pm
Can anyone produce any example of a person of who could hit major league pitching, but who was denied employment in the league due to gender or color?

A couple decades ago, there was a feeling expressed among some black players that "the tie goes to the white guy," i.e. color was a factor in choosing the bench players and substitutes.
4.15.2008 5:17pm
Gaius Marius:
I think affirmative action quotas should be introduced into MLB.
4.15.2008 6:10pm
Paul B:
Lapchick is an embarrassment. African-American percentage of players is about equal to the national average, once you calculate it as a percentage of American players in the game, not that of all players. And most of the non-American players are Afro-Caribbeans.

Lapchick gets every other statistic wrong. He congratulates MLB for the number of Asian players, which simply refers to players who come from Japan, and to a lesser extent, Korea and Taiwan. Asian-American players are underrepresented in the majors, not that that is an issue. Maybe all the prospective Asian-Americans decided to go to MIT rather than the Yankees.

And why does he worry about women in executive positions? Shouldn't he instead be pounding the table over the outrageous fact that every single major professional sports league is lily male?

The fact that ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the sports sections of major newspapers publish this crap uncritically tells us how difficult it remains to discuss questions of race openly and intelligently.
4.15.2008 6:43pm
Ilya Somin:
I'd second the comments that this isn't about discrimination -- it's this post that is race-baiting.

I don't see how I was "race-baiting." I in no way incited hostility between racial groups. Some commentators and players - most recently Gary Sheffield - have said that there is extensive discrimination against black (or at least black American players). Even if they hadn't, just mentioning the possibility of discrimination wouldn' amount to "race-baiting."
4.15.2008 7:13pm
bob (www):
I wouldn't call it race-baiting, but you discuss the article in question as if its central issue were discrimination, when in fact the article doesn't mention discrimination at all and explicitly points to decreased interest in baseball among young African-American athletes. There may be others who feel discrimination is part of the problem, but those views aren't expressed in this article. Perhaps it would have been better to respond to an article where that concern was expressed, rather than reading it into an article where is wasn't.
4.15.2008 7:33pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"One could also try to justify concern about the declining percentage of African-American players because of the need for diversity, even in the absence of discrimination."

So what team wants diversity more than it wants a World Series? Who will sacrifice excellence on the field for color balance?
4.15.2008 8:32pm
how about the overabundance of juiced up Dominicans?
4.15.2008 10:04pm
This is purely anecdotal, but I spend a great deal of time in the "hood" or on Chicago's southside. For those of you not familiar with Chicago that means 83rd &Racine, 104th and Kingston, etc, and needless to say an area that is overwhelmingly black. There are a great many public ball parks there and last year I saw exactly two ball games going on the entire summer. All those fields sit empty or are used by Latinos as soccer fields. Today as it happens I saw a wild parrot at around 67th and King. Suprised the hell out of me. Last week I saw a black kid walk out of his house with a baseball glove on one hand. Just about as rare a sight as that parrot.
4.15.2008 10:05pm
Sorry for you sticklers out there, I should have said 104th &Hoxie. Kingston ends at around 95th street.
4.15.2008 10:11pm
Ilya Somin:
you discuss the article in question as if its central issue were discrimination

No, I didn't. I said nothing about the article's supposed concern about discrimination. Rather, all I mentioned was that this article is one of many lamenting the declining percentage of black American MLB players. I did not claim that the article attributed it to discrimination.
4.15.2008 11:06pm
bittern (mail):
Ilya, if you weren't baiting, why'd you catch so many fish?
4.15.2008 11:35pm
jms (mail):
Maybe it's that the last few black superstars (I'm thinking of Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa) didn't draw the next generation of quality young black athletes into baseball the way that players like Jackie Robinson and Ernie Banks did.
4.16.2008 10:43am
Isn't this society supposed to be all about merit? If so, why are we segregating people by race and counting them up? The only concern should be whether the most meritorious are getting the jobs, regardless of race.

Posts like this encourage the exact opposite behavior: focusing on race over merit.
4.16.2008 10:54am
Can't find a good name:
jms: Sosa would not even be considered an African-American by the standards of this study, since he is from the Dominican Republic.
4.16.2008 11:16am
Tony Tutins (mail):
Baseball should care, for its future economic health, that black people are no longer interested in watching it or playing it. But the loss of black interest is not unique; football took over as America's game years ago. Baseball is part of our pastoral heritage, when we had open meadows and little competition for our free time.

People trying to revive inner-city baseball have a tough row to hoe. Basketball is the easiest game to play, requiring only a ball, a hoop and a hard surface. I've seen kids playing basketball in an alley, using an old bike rim nailed to a utility pole. (To play soccer, all you need is a ball. Poor people around the world substitute tin cans and today's ubiquitous empty water bottle for the ball.)You can play basketball against just one other person, or you can practice shots by yourself.

In contrast, baseball requires bats, balls, and gloves for every player. To play at all realistically, you need a pitcher, a catcher, a batter, and both in and outfielders. These people need to be specially organized before play. In contrast, the mere sound of balls clanging against a backboard attracts other players. Solo practice, only possible for fungo hitters, is tedious without someone to catch the ball and throw it back.
4.16.2008 1:14pm
KeithK (mail):

People trying to revive inner-city baseball have a tough row
In contrast, baseball requires bats, balls, and gloves for every player. To play at all realistically, you need a pitcher, a catcher, a batter, and both in and outfielders.

Tony, that's purely a "modern" perspective, which may be part of the problem. Kids used to play stickball with nothing but a broom handle and a ball. You only need a few players for that. I used to play 3 on 3 baseball with a tennis ball and one souvenir bat. Bases were pieces of paper and we made frequent use of ghost runners. Yes, you want a glove for every fielder but that only means one glove for every other player. You do need more space than basketball but you certainly don't need a full diamond.

These days it seems to me that there's lots of emphasis in sports about having the "right" equipment. Thus it makes baseball look like a difficult sport to organize and play. Outreach efforts in urban areas that emphasize playing 9 on 9 in uniforms with nice fields, etc. may actually hurt the cause in the long run.

Regarding the subject of the post, it makes sense for MLB to care about losing market share anywhere. It's not remotely worth any concern for the rest of us.
4.16.2008 1:36pm
Kudos to the last two posts for finally grasping the point. MLB is entirely right to be concerned about the loss of a black audience that seemed to be there a generation ago. Everybody in the black community knows Kobe Bryant (and Steve Nash) and Daunte Culpepper (and Eli Manning), but how many can name Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins as the last two MVPs of the National League? Maybe 1 in 100?

Black is more than a color and more than an underclass. It's a market.
4.16.2008 1:49pm
(Uh-oh. Baseball. Now I will write far too much.)

Alan P and others have stated the more significant issue: Go to an MLB ballpark and try to find black people in the stands. Aside from the guys serving as ushers and selling peanuts (I'm going mostly by Wrigley and Jacobs expereince; I back the losers as it turns out)they are hard to find.

Even at the nice, new minor league park in Gary, IN, you won't find a lot of black fans. And Gary is 85% Af-Am(!).

Entertainment is a segregated industry--and even baseball is a form of entertainment, though of the highest possible order. Of course.

"Seinfeld" is remembered by 'people like me' as THE show of the mid-to-late '90s. But it never made the Top 50(!) for African American viewership. Same goes for my favorite band. "Nevermind" is THE album of my generation, but that's coming from the perspective of a North Sider. As someone noted above, things are different on the South Side of Chicago. ("The baddest part of town. And if you go down there, you best beware . . .")

I think Tony Titus has hit on one of the most significant factors. Though the cost of the equipment may not be the main issue: Dominican players can tell stories of extreme deprivation, and yet they made gloves out of discarded rags and cardboard boxes, because they just wanted so much to *play ball*.

Inner cities in the US have a high concentration of poor blacks. And one of the things most notably missing from these communities is positive institutions. *Organized* baseball at some level is a necessity if a boy wants to have a shot at playing for a good high school team. But the institutional structure that would allow this is missing in underclass neighborhoods. (By definition?)

And this may only be a factor of my prejudices, but: Baseball is the hardest game to play of the Big Three. Basketball is not a rules-driven game. Football is. But throwing, catching, and running is a fair approximation of a game at the 'corner-lot level'.

But throwing a cut fastball? *Hitting* a cut fastball? Learning to catch (the position) a pitcher who throws a cutter? These are murder to learn, and require real discipline, PLUS a coach. The most significant deprivation suffered by inner-city youth is probably the lack of adult males. So who is going to teach the next Bob Gibson to pitch down-in-the-count to the next Willie Stargell?

I grew up in a city with two MLB teams, and I never knew that playing baseball was even a choice. You just did it. Now that my nine-year-old son is trying to improve his hitting, I'm coning to realize how hard it is to play and to teach this game.

I'm a Notre Dame grad. So with the diploma comes the ability to teach a boy to throw a football. But throwing a football to a receiver and throwing a curveball to home plate are not on the same level of difficulty. If it were not for the dads of a few of my childhood friends, I would *still* not have a breaking pitch.

Baseball probably won't worry. The self-excluding demographic is not one with a large amount of disposable income compared to others. And baseball is still big with the rapidly-expanding Latin part of the populace. THIS is a group that they cannot afford to lose.

As far as quality of the athletes in the future: Just wait until the rickety Communist regime in Cuba collapses. Then every team in the Majors will get at least one Willie Mays and one Satchel Paige. The Cubanos are just amazing at producing great ball players.

So I'll leave it with this: This year, my beloved Cubs will celebrate not being burdened by past glory for the 100th consecutive year. Now, the old joke has it that the owners are moving the team to the Philippines, and changing their name to the "Manila Folders."

They should instead start playing some of their "home" games in Havana as soon as is possible. Make the Chicago Cubs the favorite MLB team of Havana's youngsers.

THEN we might have a shot. "Wait 'til *next* revolution!"
4.16.2008 2:02pm
I think the focus of the report is two-fold; first, for reasons stated above, MLB is losing market share in the Black community. The significance of this bears on the second point - owners and senior baseball executives have fewer blacks to choose from when making hiring decisions for managerial and executive positions.

Typically, managers come from former players while executives come up from lower level staffers. The decline in black (read American born blacks) participation in the game has a tremendous impact on the employment pipelines for both tracks - a trend which is fully evident in that the previous generation of black baseball players (when the numbers were highest) has yielded the highest number of black managers. This trend is not as pronounced in the senior executive level, reflecting the well-known conservative bent of hiring known commodities in senior positions. When black participation in baseball was trending upwards, there was an expectation that there would eventually be a concomitant increase in the number of black executives. Now that the numbers are dropping, the question arises; where are the next generation of black baseball executives going to come from.

This is not just race-baiting, or quota counting - in very tangible ways sports executives influence the culture of the sport, and consequently, our culture in general (see, e.g., the NBA's dress code snafu, or the current NFL flap over dreadlock regulation). Having diverse viewpoints on these and similar issues is essential to developing sports culture.
4.16.2008 2:05pm
At "The" George Washington University a few years ago, the basketball team was all black (with one or two token whites) and the baseball team was all white (with one or two token blacks).
4.16.2008 3:15pm
CCD (mail):
After reading about this report, my first thought was how does this same institute--The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports ("TIDES")--regard the diversity of the NBA, where blacks dominate in representation? I went to the institute's website and the most recent report on the NBA was for the 2006-07 year. Link. In that year black players constituted 79% of all players, up from 75%. Whites were 21%, down from 22% the year prior. Asians were less than 1%. The grade for player diversity? A+.

How is that diversity? If the ratio were 79% white and 21% black that would be a more accurate representation of the overall populace and yet the grade would probably be an F. Is this really the ultimate goal of diversity?
4.16.2008 3:38pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Should you worry?
Sure. Go ahead.
4.17.2008 12:06am
But Richard! HOW MUCH should we worry?!
4.17.2008 12:58am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
A lot.
4.17.2008 11:42am
Aw, Hell!

Now I'm going to have to go home and worry about this.
4.17.2008 5:45pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
It'll keep you out of trouble. Sort of like having something worthwhile to do, but less trouble.
4.18.2008 11:36am