What Caused the Decline of African-Americans in Baseball?

With the celebration of Jackie Robinson Day earlier this month, I read quite a bit of commentary on African-American participation in baseball. This post contains some of my thoughts on the issue.

There is no denying that the percentage of Americans-Americans in baseball has declined over the past few years. A recent report The 2008 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball by Richard Lapchick with Nikki Bowey and Ray Mathew has documented this trend over the past few years. The report is an excellent source of data on the recent racial trends in baseball.

The game has the lowest percentage (8.2) of African-Americans in the two decades that we have published the Report Card. That number is less than half what it was in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers, when African-Americans made up 17 percent of the players, and less than the percentage of blacks in the general population of the U.S. (12.3 percent).

I understand that this is disappointing, but the overall trend of African-Americans and Latinos is positive. When we look at African-Americans and Latinos together, the percentage of non-whites rose from 1991 until 1997. And a large contingent of Latinos includes players who would have been considered black during MLB’s days of segregation.

In fact, the percentage of players who are white has dropped substantially since 1991.

According to the Report Card:

MLB has been remarkably consistent in terms of the percentage of white players. Between the 1997 and the 2007 seasons, 58-60 percent of the players have been white in each season.

Yes, but this is misleading. Look at what happened from 1991–1996. In 1991 68% of major-league players were white. The percentage of white players slowly decreased until 1997 when it reached 58%. (Aside: What the heck happened in 2004? It looks to be an outlier, and it is hard to tell because the 2003 data is not reported in the study. I am suspicious of a data-gathering problem, but it is also within the realm of random fluctuation.) It seems that both black and white players are being replaced by Latinos. Now, some of these Latinos are Americans, but many of them are immigrants who were groomed in training camps in their home countries. Teams have found it cheaper to rely less on the amateur draft and sign players whom they can identify before other teams. Because of the relative poverty to US and Canadian players, these players are a cheap substitute.

But, we really already knew this. I am still curious why African-American participation has declined in the past decade, while white participation has stayed the same. A discussion of potential explanations for the black-white racial gap in baseball follows.

Population Size
First, let’s look at the simplest explanation. Could it be that the population of baseball-age African-American men has decreased relative to white males? The graph below maps the percentage of U.S. males ages 25 to 34 for African-Americans and whites.

The white percentage is actually decreasing while the African-American percentage increasing. However, the change is small for both races. So, let’s cross this explanation off our list.

Brawn Drain
The most popular theory that I hear is that African-American athletes are choosing to play football and basketball over baseball. The popularity of these sports in the 1980s and 1990s—along with the success of a few notable black athletes—caused young African-Americans to choose these sports. But this theory has one big problem, according to the Racial Report Cards for the NFL and NBA, there hasn’t been much change in racial make-up since 1991. In the NBA, African-Americans have typically comprised 75% of the league. In the NFL, African-Americans have comprised 66% of the league.

The competing leagues lack MLB’s trend of declining African-American participation, which indicates that what is affecting baseball’s racial make-up is not affecting the NBA and NFL. More important is the fact that these sports do not appear to be substitutes for baseball. African-American athletes don’t appear to be abandoning baseball for the other major American sports leagues. Some athletes may choose other sports, but those who don’t play football and basketball, choose to do something other than play baseball.

One difference between white and African-American communities is wealth. Could the difference in wealth affect the ability of these two groups to play baseball? It is possible that baseball requires more financial resources than other sports; thus, African-Americans, who are poorer than whites on average, are crowded out from playing baseball.

Looking at both the past—when current baseball players may have made an early decision to shun baseball—and present, there does not appear to be any obvious changes financial differences that might explain the fluctuation of the racial gap in baseball participation. Though African-Americans are less wealthy on average, the changes in wealth track the changes in whites closely over time.

Community Support
Another possible explanation is that playing baseball requires greater community involvement than other sports. Basketball involves a small number of participants, a hoop, and a ball. Community and school leagues are widespread. Organizing full-fledged football is a bit more complicated than basketball, but simple games of touch football are quick and easy to organize. The strong support in schools, with weekly games also serving as an important social gathering, may also contribute to the popularity of the sport.

While baseball can be played on a sandlot, it is not as easy to self-organize as basketball or football. Though I always loved baseball and played in organized leagues until I was 14, I don’t recall a single informal neighborhood game. The biggest obstacle is the need for an umpire. I played numerous pick-up basketball and football games despite never playing in an organized league. If a community lacks the resources to organize local youth leagues, as well as travel leagues for exceptional adolescents, then potential baseball players may not have the opportunity to play baseball. And because of a lack of early exposure, even athletes who wash out of basketball and football don’t have an interest in playing baseball.

What measures might we use to measure community support? The General Social Survey has a few questions about sports participation, but I could only find one that is captured over time: Membership in Sports Club. The graph below plots the responses by race over time.

The dotted and dashed curves represent quadratic fits of the data. Participation in sports clubs has been dropping for both races, with the biggest drop-off beginning in the late-1980s. This could explain the drop in baseball participation for both African-Americans and whites, but it doesn’t say much about the disparity between the groups. Anyway, I’m not even sure what a “sports club” really means, but it includes participation in all sports, not just baseball. I’m not sure that this survey information provides a good measure of community support, but it was the best that I could find.

Family Support

Similar to the need for community support, it is possible that family support is important for supporting a athletic activity. The demands for family participation may be greater in baseball than for other sports, because of higher costs of organization for baseball, relative to other sports. If there are changes in family structure that may hinder family support, then this could affect participation in baseball.

Below, I list two graphs of family characteristics by race. The first lists out-of-wedlock births by race; the second lists the percentage of 16-year-olds living with both parents. The marker labels indicate the average year at which youth in each cohort will make their major-league debut.

There is a noticeable difference in out-of-wedlock births for African-Americans beginning in 1965–1969, which includes players who will enter the majors in 1991. The out-of-wedlock birth rate is declining for both races, but there is a bigger drop-off for African-Americans. In terms of living with both parents at age 16, the decline doesn’t fit with the drop-off of African-Americans in the majors.

Differences in family structure might explain some of the difference in baseball participation, but this isn’t a very satisfying explanation all by itself. If I saw a similar divergence in sports club participation, then I might have some more confidence that family and community structure are the main problem—it still might be, I’m just not convinced, yet. Still, I think it highlights the potential importance of MLB’s RBI initiative (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities), which promotes youth baseball for disadvantaged youth.

School Incentives
Baseball is supported at most middle and high schools, which ought to help make up for deficiencies in providing youth sports opportunities that are not supported outside of school. But I wonder: what incentives to coaches face? At most high schools, football is king, with basketball a close second. A coach who wants to keep his job will steer the best athletes to these sports. In addition, college recruiters have incentives for building strong relationships with high school coaches to encourage students to attend particular schools. In return, recruiters may offer favors to coaches—favors that MLB scouts cannot or will not offer in return.

This would explain the decline in baseball participation for African-Americans and whites, but I’m not sure it explains the disparity. It is possible that black youths are more likely to get a job than play baseball than whites, so that if when these sports fill up, whites go play baseball while African-Americans abandon athletics.

As a final note, I wonder why more African-American athletes chose to play football and basketball over baseball. With the minor leagues, the financial payoff is more certain and higher than the other sports, where you must work as an unpaid college athlete before earning a real paycheck. And if education is a concern, it shouldn’t be. MLB offers a scholarship program for any player who signs a minor league contract. You get a scholarship after your playing days are over. Why aren’t we seeing a movement of African-American talent towards the sport with the highest financial returns? I think this question is key to understanding the racial disparity in baseball.

There are just my thoughts on the issue. Nothing really jumps out at me as an obvious cause, nor do I think there is an easy solution. MLB’s current focus on providing support for youth leagues in the inner city is probably a good idea for promoting baseball to African-Americans.

13 Responses “What Caused the Decline of African-Americans in Baseball?”

  1. Cliff says:

    I think a part of this is rooted in “year round baseball.” Many relatively affluent, predominatly white, suburbs have boys playing baseball all year round. That doesn’t appear to be common before the early 1980’s. The boys that play all year transform their “tools” into “skills” by playing more often.

    Then, around the same time, Major League Baseball also instituted statistical analysis. When distilled to its essence, statistical analysis looks for “skills” (walk rate, isolated power, strikeout rate) by looking aat the past. Older conventional scouting looked for “tools” (how hard can he hit it, how hard and straight can he throw, how fast is he) as observed now and tried to project how they would get better or demonstrate themselves in the future.

    I don’t know how to prove it, but I strongly believe the biggest things are the suburban year round ball coupled with the “strait to the big time” of basketball and football (to big time college football, then NFL). When players enter professional baseball, almost nobody fails to spend a long apprenticeship in an unglorious environment.

    Another thing is the cultural environment in baseball. The Lastings Millege high fives to the crowd after a home run a few years ago, for example. In basketball or football, that would have been mildly annoying, at most, but probably acceptable. In baseball, other players, coaching staff and many fans didn’t like it.

  2. Simon Oliver Lockwood says:

    One helpful chart that is missing is a break-down of American-born (or North American-born so as to include the Canadians) players by race. That way you could determine how much of the change is due to teams picking white players vs. black players and how much is teams picking foreign players vs. domestic players. Of course some of the Latino players are American-born as well.

  3. Zach says:

    I’m not sure why the decrease in black MLB players qualifies as “disappointing” and is a problem that needs to be “solved.” Is it also disappointing that the percentage of white players is declining? The answer is no. It’s neither encouraging nor disappointing. It’s just an observed trend.

    What would be disappointing is if systematic racial bias was being implemented such that qualified black and white players were being excluded. However, there does not appear to be any evidence that this is ocurring, except for Gary Sheffield’s recent comments. Why should we encourage more players (percentage-wise) from any given race to play any professional sport? We should encourage the best players to play, regardless of race.

    That being said, this trend is very interesting from a social perspective and to the extent that its research reveals some systematic bias and/or racism. The problem is that the trend is identified as inherently undesirable when it, in and of itself, is not.

  4. Jason S. says:

    Very interest subject and good responses so far. On a related subject, I have wondered why the Braves are 100% completely disinterested in Asian born players.
    The organization doesn’t even try to sign anybody from the Japanese or other Asian leagues and it seems clear to me that they have made a very conscious decision about this. Is that really a good decision? Or is it more about them being too cheap to scout over there, so put all their eggs in the Latin American basket?

  5. Tucker says:

    I think there are still a couple of incentive related things that could be affecting it. First is that the upside gains for baseball are not really as high as for basketball or football. The gains in particular in the forms of national awareness and sponsorship income are much smaller in baseball. Does C.C. Sabathia get the same status gains that LeBron or Chad Johnson get? I don’t think so. Second I don’t think that the returns from baseball are clearly advertised. The bonuses that the Upton brothers received aren’t as well known as the contracts for the top 5 picks in the NBA or NFL drafts. Further the NFL gets an advantage by in essence advertising the total upside gains by having non-guaranteed contracts with artificially inflated values. Finally I think one thing would be to look at where African-American players were drafted. We’ve seen a few very, very good African-American players come up relatively recently- Sabathia, Crawford, the Uptons… but most players in the majors aren’t high school players who get drafted before the fifth round. I’m not sure how to do it but I’d like to see a study of where African-American players were drafted. I have a feeling that a) they will be drafted out of high school and b) there will not be as many in later rounds.

  6. Cliff says:

    Jason S.,

    Other than the Dodgers and Mariners, I would say the Braves have moved in Asia about as much as anybody. What the Braves haven’t done is hit the “posting” market to buy players from the Japanese clubs. I thought Fukudome was a good potential pickup. The big thing is that the Japanese marketing opportunities are something that players from other places don’t have.

    Maybe Australia will become a major venue for the Braves with Moylan and Stockman.

  7. C.D. says:

    Very interesting read. A few weeks back I was looking at this issue. I was wondering if Puerto Rico’s inclusion in the draft and the changes we saw there could apply to what has been happening with African Americans. I think the lack of proper programs to develop talent is not as available and that there is a wider gulf between casual and serious players these days. Also, even with MiLB scholarships, I have to imagine the real and jerryrigged scholarships offered by every level of college football (yeah, I went to a DIII school and we gave out “academic” scholarships to some of the football players) have to outweigh the number of opportunities given to African Americans by baseball.

  8. ChuckO says:

    I don’t pretend to know why there are fewer blacks in baseball now, but I will offer the following observation. I live in Atlanta in a racially mixed neighborhood. However, most of the whites are single, or childless married couples, so the kids in the neighborhood are overwhelmingly black. I have seen these kids playing football in yards, and in the streets. I have seen them playing basketball with baskets set up in driveways, or at a nearby park. However, I can’t recall ever seeing these kids playing catch, hitting a ball with a bat, or playing any semblance of baseball.

  9. Rick says:

    All I have is observations as a coach of LL and Pony ball and as the father of a HS player in the western part of Cobb County, which is very racially diverse area. I started coaching 11 years ago and in T-Ball we had about 8 teams with 12 or so players per team with a breakdown of around 60/40 white to black. When they moved up to the next level there were fewer teams with less black players. This held true every time my son moved up a level. In Pony Ball there were 4 teams and the ratio was about 80/20. At the same time in the loical yout FB and BB leagues the ratio was and is about 10/90 white to black.
    Our HS team is about 50/50 right now. That will change when the current senior class graduates. The numbers will move back down to about 80/20. We play in Region 5AAAAA and most of the teams have 1-3 black players. One is mostly Hispanic.
    I think that the reasons are numerous.
    1. The cost of travel, or year-round, ball. It cost about $5000 per summer of one kid to play travel ball for an elite team.
    2. Lack of scholarships at the D-1 level. D-1 schools have 11.7 scholarships per year to give out. You do the math on that one. Most players have to get an academic scholarship or have rich parents to play D-1 ball.
    3. Cost to play. It is expensive to just play rec ball. You have the cost of cleats, glove, maybe a bat and some of the uniform. It’s over $100 to play LL. Closer to $150 I’d imagine. LL will subsidize players who can’t afford to play though.
    4. Marketing by the NFL and NBA. They just do a better job of marketing their players and teams. Kids and parent respond to that and want to play BB or FB more than baseball.
    Here in Cobb, the high schools get no money besides the cost of field maintenance from the county. Every team in all sports, and all extracurricular activities, have to raise every dime that it takes to run the program from the cost of the baseballs to uniforms to buying new equipment. Some programs in the county are able to raise $100,000 every year.
    I think as more black families keep moving to the suburbs that we will see more blacks involved in the game again.
    Regarding the comments about stats. Scouts are the ones who go out and watch the HS players and recommend them to be drafted. Teams don’t rely on stats very heavily for amateur scouting. It’s all about potential for HS and college players. Sure, there is some evaluation based on the numbers, but not as much as you think.

  10. jay says:

    with all these stats, I would like to know which teams have who.
    Which team has the most whites.
    Which team has the most blacks.
    Which team has the most Latinos.
    Which team has the most asians.
    am I missing someone?

  11. Bob says:

    The 2008 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball [Emphasis added.]

    You bloggers are so typical! You only report the bad news! Why not highlight this result?

    On the upside, the number of women playing major league baseball has remained steady for decades.

  12. tangotiger says:

    JC, good stuff.

    Isn’t it possible to look at the overall black pro athlete population and say
    a) that it has declined,
    b) that a smaller slice of that pie goes to MLB and a larger slice to NFL, NBA

    So that the combination of the two results in a cancelling effect for NFL, NBA to make it look like they are unaffected?

    Also, MLB has seen a rise in run scoring, resulting in a drop in small ball (meaning stealing bases), and maybe even less reliance on fielding. And perhaps black ballplayers are disproportionate in these types of ballplayers. The Vince Colemans et al may simply choose to be a RB or WR.

    I will presume the height of the black ballplayer may have been the height of the SB revolution.


  13. Marc Schneider says:

    There is some self-selection going on it seems to me. For example, I think white kids are often discouraged (or discourage themselves) from playing basketball because of the idea that they cannot compete with African-American kids. Similarly, perhaps a lot of African-American kids see baseball as a “white” sport and feel uncomfortable with what they perceive as the “culture” of the sport. They are being replaced by, largely poor, Latino players that come from countries where baseball is still the dominant sport.

    I tend to agree with one of the earlier commenters; as long as all groups have opportunities, I don’t see why we should particularly care about the ethnic makeup of particular sports at any given time. (There is a problem, however, with the lack of opportunities that inner city kids have to play baseball because of the lack of resources and poor facilities.) A few years ago, there was a thought that the NBA was too black and that white fans would not support it. But that has been pretty much disproved.