Written by Michael Barry, author of the website Baseball Underground
Over the past few years, the topic concerning the decrease in the number of African-American baseball players in major league baseball has become one that peppers sports talk radio airwaves every couple of months. While the topic is both important and sensitive in nature, I often feel it has become the new “Should Pete Rose be in the Hall of Fame” for the 2000’s, relegated to discussion on days when sports-talk personalities have “nothing better” to talk about. This is not, however, due to a lack of sensitivity about the subject on the talking heads’ part. Rather, I believe that it is for three reasons: a.) How or why did this happen; b.) Is it, as it appears, race related; and, c.) How, and is it even possible, for us to “fix” the “problem?”
I’m no historian, but, quite frankly, the issue of African-American participation in baseball can be tackled quite easily from a common sense point of view. Everyone is looking for some magic pill that can “fix” the “problem” with one easy stroke of the brush. However, things just aren’t that easy because, what we are dealing with is an issue that took decades to create.
The Negro Baseball Leagues operated from 1920 through the 1960’s and gave African-American baseball players, who were not allowed to play in the major leagues due to the Jim Crowe policies in place at the time, a place where they could play and enjoy the game they loved. When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson in 1945, it changed not only Major League Baseball and American culture forever, but it also commenced the end of the Negro Leagues. Obviously, Robinson was only the first player to leave the Negro Leagues for the majors. Other organizations soon followed Rickey’s lead and started plucking the best players from the Negro Leagues, relegating the league to minor league status. However, soon players were being signed and sent to the minor league affiliates of the major league clubs and, fifteen years after Robinson was signed, the Negro Leagues were extinct.
During this time, the National Football League also came into existence. While originally an integrated league, the NFL stopped signing African-American players in 1927, only to follow baseball’s lead and reintegrated in 1946. However, during the time of reintegration, player salaries and playing conditions were poor, the league was still expanding and had not yet stabilized, so baseball was still a more attractive option to many athletes.
It was also during this time, in 1946, that professional basketball emerged in the United States, when the Basketball Association of America was founded. In 1949, the BAA merged with the National Basketball League to form the seventeen-team NBA. However, in 1950, the league consolidated to eleven teams. This process continued until 1954 when the league reached its smallest size of eight teams. Obviously, due to downsizing, there was an excess of qualified players for the new league, which hurt its appeal with potential players.
However, the NFL and NBA soon stabilized and gave America the “Big Three” sports options. Baseball was no longer the only venue for professional athletes. They now had options. In the 1960’s, the American Football League (started in 1959) was so successful, it merged with the NFL. During this period, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlin became huge stars in the NBA, giving young African-American athletes their first significant role models since Jackie Robinson. With more options, new role models, and the ability to choose to play in the minor leagues for peanuts or go straight to playing on television, it’s no wonder fewer and fewer African-American athletes were choosing to play football and basketball as opposed to baseball. Especially when you consider the fact that these other leagues do not have the decades-long history of turning away potential players solely based on the color of their skin. And these facts are supported by the timing of the decline of African-American players in the MLB. In 1970, thirty percent of major league baseball players were of African-American descent. Today, that number is around eight or nine percent, depending on where you get your information. Considering that it takes roughly ten years for an impression on a youth to show itself during that youth’s adult decisions, it is easy to see that the emergence of Russell and Chamberlin, the stability of the NFL and the advent (and appeal of playing on) television easily became strong contributors to young African-Americans choosing to play sports other than baseball.
Which brings us to our second question, Is this race related? And the answer is, No. The racial divide we see in baseball has nothing to do with race. It does, however, have everything to do with socioeconomic. It cannot be ignored that baseball has become an expensive sport. Unlike the days of the Negro Leagues, the equipment needed to play the game has become increasingly expensive. Baseball gloves cost upwards of $80 and, for a decent high school metal bat, you can easily drop over $200. This, obviously then, has more of an issue with the baseball equipment companies than it is with the game itself. Because of how the equipment companies currently price the equipment needed to play the game, they have turned baseball into a suburbanite sport. Unlike basketball, where a $25 basketball can last you years, or football, where the schools provide the players with the pads and kids can always play touch football without pads, baseball has just become too expensive for a blue collar middle class family with more than one son to invest in. With less expensive alternatives out there, it’s obvious why many African-American athletes have chosen other sports.
And, the bottom line is, we’re already making strides to remedy this situation. Since the 1990’s, Major League Baseball has made strides to promote baseball to the African-American community. With the RBI Program and by joining forces with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, we are seeing an increase in African-American participation in the sport. A farm never bears its best crop in its first year. It takes years of planting, reseeding, seeing what works and what doesn’t, before you achieve a consistently good crop year-after-year. We are now seeing the fruit of those labors appearing in Major League Baseball, with players like Jason Heyward, Adam Jones and Andrew McCutchen as some of the brightest rising stars in the game today. I predict that, over the next ten years, we will see even more African-American players emerging from these programs and having a positive impact on our National Pastime. There is no magic pill. We just have to give our crops time to grow.