Where are the Brothers?
The number of African Americans in baseball had been shrinking for more than 30 years, from a high of 27 percent of major leaguers in 1975 to an all time low of 8.2 percent in 2007. That 8.2 percent figure held steady in 2008 before Major League Baseball saw an uptick for the first time since 1975 this year when African Americans in baseball made up 10.2 percent of major league rosters.
While no one knows for sure why there was such a steep decline in African Americans in baseball for nearly 35 years, several theories have been put forward.
- Basketball and football are more embedded in the African American culture
- Baseball is perceived as slow and boring, leading the best athletes to other sports
- The better adolescent baseball players leave neighborhood ball at earlier ages to play on teams that travel hundreds of miles for games on weekends with paid coaches, sometimes pricing the sport out of the African American market
- Baseball success sometimes requires a greater level of individualized skill training than basketball or football, often with expensive private coaches involved, and that expense leads to a decline in the numbers of African Americans in baseball
- Baseball is far less glamorous a high school sport than football or basketball, which leads to the better athletes choosing sports which draw bigger crowds and receive greater local media coverage
- The space it takes for a full-sized baseball field is prohibitive in the urban areas with more dense African American populations. One can fit at least six basketball courts in the space required for one full sized baseball field.
- The equipment expense to play youth baseball is much greater than the equipment expense to play youth basketball, which sets a price barrier that may be more acutely felt in the African American market.
- Major League scouting in Latin America and Asia has increased since the 1990s, including the development of baseball academies in Latin America, which means there are fewer openings for African Americans in baseball.
Clearly, the payoff for winning at the major league level is so great, talent is so scarce, and there is so much money in the game (revenues topped $6.5 billion in 2008, compared to under $2 billion in 1995), that franchises cannot afford to let personal bias or prejudice affect their hunt for playing talent.
The problem of a decreasing presence of African Americans in baseball may be circular. As African American star power decreased on professional diamonds throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Black youth had fewer and fewer role models with whom they could relate. By the early 21st Century, some big league teams had no African American players on their rosters, which means entire pockets of the African American community could attend a baseball game or watch one on television and not see anyone with whom they could easily relate. Compare that to the experience of watching professional football or basketball on television. Young African Americans with athletic ability are more likely to want to be like Kobe or LeBron or Jason Taylor than Cole Hamels or Evan Longoria. As the African American community sees more of its own on the diamond, the interest in playing the game itself should grow and there would be more African Americans in the sport.
Major League Baseball (MLB) has set up a Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, which is administered in cooperation with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Founded in 1989, MLB’s RBI program now has a presence in more than 200 cities worldwide, and annually provides more than 100,000 boys and girls with the opportunity to play baseball and softball. RBI alumni currently playing in the Major Leagues include Carl Crawford (Tampa Bay Rays), Jimmy Rollins (Philadelphia Phillies), Coco Crisp (Kansas City Royals), and Dontrelle Willis (Detroit Tigers).
Clearly, MLB is concerned about the decrease in interest of African Americans in baseball and is spending money and effort to turn it around. Perhaps the small growth in 2009 is the beginning of a general ascent.
Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.