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Study confirms: everyone overstates the decline in African Americans playing Major League Baseball

Apr 11, 2013, 10:00 AM EDT

Pedro Borbon

We talked about this yesterday, but here’s a story from MLB.com focusing on our friend Mark Armour’s research into the decline of U.S.-born blacks playing Major League Baseball. The upshot: that “27% of ballplayers were African American in the 1970s” stuff you here is pure rebop. Armour:

“What I determined, and I [analyzed data from 1947, when Jackie Robinson made his debut] up to 1986 … is that the number never got to 20 percent. The black-player number, counting all dark-skinned players, was in the high 20s for a period. But not the African-American number. All the press stuff that comes out every April compares the African-American numbers from today with the all-black-players number from the ’70s. And that’s where they make their mistake.”

The folks who peddle that 27 percent number may have their hearts in the right place, but if you’re in the business of counting noses rather than looking at the bigger picture, and you can’t even count the noses right, no one should be listening to you.

  1. Old Gator - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    Wow. MLB task forces really work fast. Can you print the report here? It can’t be more than a page and a half long, including the signatures.

    • andrewproughcfe - Apr 11, 2013 at 1:27 PM

      The real take-away from the linked article? The Red Sox’ 86 year curse was not exclusively the Curse of the Bambino. The Red Sox were cursed by their own racist policies of non-integration from at least 1947 to 1967 when Dick Williams took over as manager and brought many of his minor leaguers up with him.

      The article was about baseball writer Mark Amour, who has written that “Tom Yawkey was not the loveable old coot from my youth—he was a racist. For that matter, so were Eddie Collins, Joe Cronin and Mike Higgins. The Red Sox should have had Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays, but instead we got Don Buddin and Tommy Umphlett.” (http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2007/10/my_nolonger_lov.php). As Amour points out, racism was not the only reason the Sox lost four World Series in game #7, but I certainly would consider Boston’s racism to be a strong contributor to a nearly century-long culture of failure.

  2. proudlycanadian - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:12 AM

    There are lies, damn lies and made up statistics.

    • proudlycanadian - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:18 AM

      I include “advanced metrics” in the “made up” statistics category.

      • Jeremy T - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:46 AM

        So in your world, “complicated” and “made up” mean the same thing?

      • proudlycanadian - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:52 AM

        Even though the 2 “WAR”ing factions have had peace talks, their stats are made up. I have no faith in the accuracy of so called fielding metrics and nobody has proven to me through rigorours regression analysis that the weightings used by the “WAR”ing factions are accurate.

      • Jeremy T - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:06 AM

        Leaving aside the debate over the validity of WAR, you seem to be suggesting that WAR is the only “advanced metric” that exists. There have been tons of studies and analysis backing up the validity of, say, wRC+. Disparage WAR all you like, as it does have its flaws, but lumping all advanced metrics in with it robs you of some incredible leaps in analytical tools that have been made over the last few decades.

      • Jeremy T - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:08 AM

        But seriously, this debate has happened way too many times, and I don’t feel like talking in circles today.

      • Ben - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:12 AM

        Yeah, Jeremy’s right. I’m not totally sure about the fielding component of WAR either, but that doesn’t mean advanced stats are useless.
        But I also don’t feel like a good circlejerk today. It’s not like RBIs existed in the aether or something. They’re a totally made up with of measuring value too.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:33 AM

        lumping all advanced metrics in with it robs you of some incredible leaps in analytical tools that have been made over the last few decades.

        I always love when people take one bad thing they don’t like and apply it across the board. Paraphrasing Ken Tremendous here, but it’s like reading some terribly written novel like 50 Shades of Grey and saying, fuck you Tolstoy, your medium sucks!

      • headbeeguy - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:49 AM

        The cousin of this is to point out the flaws in advanced metrics as a way to justify a far more flawed system.

        “WAR and fielding metrics aren’t perfect…so I’m going to use RBI and pitcher wins and Gold Gloves and grittiness instead.”

      • paperlions - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:56 AM

        The same people also merrily ignore all of the deficiencies of the metrics they trot out. RBI, AVG, and ERA have many more problems with respect to what they mean and how people interpret them than any problem components of WAR have.

        …and if someone doesn’t like the defensive metrics, that is fine….but they are clearly the best available metrics for defense. Sure, they aren’t as good as their offensive counter parts, but they are better at measuring defense that RBI, HR, and Avg are at measuring offense.

  3. historiophiliac - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:19 AM

    So, maybe we’ve never succeeded at fully integrating or bringing black players into the fold?

    • Jeremy T - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:50 AM

      I guess that depends on what you mean by “integrating”. I don’t get the sense that african american players are being biased against, but it is possible that urban backgrounds, which tend to correlate to african american descent, are less optimal for developing baseball talent. So what’s the goal? Is removing prejudice enough, or should we be actively evangelizing the sport to places where it isn’t as naturally popular?

      • Ben - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:15 AM

        I’m not sure it’s a question of bias, but I do think some of the structural changes in baseball have made it, and will make it more likely that black kids will continue to choose football and basketball over baseball.
        The inability to get full scholarships for baseball, and the new draft bonus caps are just two of the ways.

        Episode 93 of the Up and In Podcast was a fantastic discussion of race and baseball with Doug Glanville, and he basically says it never occurred to his black family in Philadelphia to go to a game, before he started playing for them. Memories of racism die hard.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:23 AM

        You are assuming that it’s not “naturally popular” without subtleties at work here. If the images of baseball — and basketball, etc — are racialized for people, that’s a problem to begin with. People may “self-select” out and it is related to race instead of just personal preference or ability on a level playing field. Also, not all black people live in urban settings where they have no access to baseball. Why aren’t there more Kemps and Grandersons? That’s a fair question to ask. If black players are turned off by the image of baseball, it’s on MLB to branch out (for example, using ads for the playoffs that aren’t just Springsteen and trains — which probably have different connotations for some groups — etc). Personally, I love baseball so I’m all for evangelizing to everywhere.

        As an aside, a friend of mine told me that his coach stuck him in the outfield (as often happens to black kids) and only moved him to shortstop when his uncle pitched a fit about it. Sometimes, that kind of stuff turns people off and it’s an invisible problem.

      • Jeremy T - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:32 AM

        As is the case in most discussions, it’s probably a combination of factors. The percentages of who lives where have to have an effect, although I obviously don’t have the data to see if the effect is a significant one. Cultural expectations also most likely have an effect. However, I have nowhere near enough data or insight to know which is the more significant of the two.

      • Jeremy T - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:34 AM

        Also, notice I said “places” where it’s not naturally popular, not “people”.

      • ptfu - Apr 11, 2013 at 12:21 PM

        “As an aside, a friend of mine told me that his coach stuck him in the outfield (as often happens to black kids) and only moved him to shortstop when his uncle pitched a fit about it.”–historiophiliac

        Wait, what? Discrimination is awful in and of itself, but this is just flat-out dumb. Keeping black kids away from shortstop is completely absurd. Would your friend’s coach prevent Ozzie Smith, Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin, Ernie Banks, or Jimmy Rollins from playing shortstop? Is it that hard to play the kids where they want to play, and where they show some ability?

      • historiophiliac - Apr 11, 2013 at 12:29 PM

        Well, the point of having a group look into this is to get that data. Also, people play baseball — not places.

        If you are hearing what I’m saying with an angry voice, please adjust. This is a discussion on my end — not an argument.

        And, ptfu, this is that same problem where pitchers are mostly white (and quarterbacks) and the runners are not. I love my Tigers, but the OF is now mostly black, while the infield is mostly Hispanic and the SP’s are white/Hispanic too. That’s not to say there aren’t other factors but you want to look to see if there are patterns behind it to be sure. There’s no harm in that — being proactive b/c we are aware of our history.

      • Jeremy T - Apr 11, 2013 at 3:01 PM

        Did I respond in a way that seemed defensive or angry? My apologies if it came across that way, I didn’t think your tone seemed angry at all. And while it is people who play the sport, the people come from places. I’m not sure if I’m not being clear, or if one of us is misunderstanding the other, but I think my point is fairly simple. Perhaps overly so, which may make it worthless, but hopefully not.

      • historiophiliac - Apr 11, 2013 at 8:54 PM

        I just wanted to make sure. Sometimes these kinds of threads get angry. I was just clarifying.

        I guess I didn’t get the bit about places then?

      • Jeremy T - Apr 12, 2013 at 10:13 AM

        I was saying, since urban centers are generally a higher concentration of african americans, and baseball doesn’t really suit itself very well to urban centers, it may be a problem more of location than culture. It’s purely a theory, but it makes sense in my head :)

  4. ryand17 - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:22 AM

    At which point in US history was the population 27% African American? I don’t understand the need or the desire to artificially chase existing demographic breakdowns let alone imaginary ones.

  5. barrywhererufrom - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:39 AM

    yawn..what is the percentage of whites in the nba? that’s right who cares about that too? People will play the sport that they are drawn to. If the premise of your story is correct then the numbers of African-Americans playing baseball weren’t as high as 27%. Also like ryand17 pointed out what is the population of African-Americans in the US? I believe that baseball needs to market its great game to everyone. As a youth baseball coach I see more kids playing lacrosse where I live. Some of the reasons I hear why they prefer lacrosse over baseball is the perceived flow of the game. I believe that kids will continue to play baseball because of the challenge of the game. Like we all know the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball. Some kids will stand up to it and others will not..

    • ryand17 - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:13 AM

      Thanks for the call out! I’ve spent a lot of time working in Human Capital Analytics and I’ve never been able to figure out management’s desire to replicate demographics. Sure, they provide a baseline for comparison and can sometimes be indicative of flawed hiring and retention practices, but aiming for a goal is, in itself, discriminatory. The true aim should be to remove unfair practices and provide equal opportunity.

  6. sdelmonte - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:48 AM

    I give MLB.com a bit of credit for running that story the day after MLB announced its task force. Given that MLB.com is a house organ, it’s pretty balanced. (Same goes for NFL.com a lot of the time, too.)

  7. illcomm - Apr 11, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    wouldn’t a south American like a north American still be considered African Americans.

    • 2077james - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:12 AM

      Seriously?

    • sabatimus - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:16 AM

      I have no idea what you’re saying.

    • headbeeguy - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:50 AM

      Are you looking for Yahoo Answers?

    • pauleee - Apr 11, 2013 at 12:23 PM

      Actually (can’t believe I’m going to say this) but he has an interesting point. African Americans are descendants of slaves brought to the US. Slavery didn’t exist solely in America (US), but in all of the Americas. Therefore many Caribbeans are themselves of African descent.

  8. gregteb - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:09 AM

    Why the 34+ year old picture of Pedro Borbon, who is not an AA??

    • dluxxx - Apr 11, 2013 at 11:30 AM

      Because back in the 70′s he would have been counted in the 27% figure that is so commonly mistated.

      In all of these posts the last few days, I’m really suprised that there hasn’t been a reference to Torii Hunter’s “Imposter” comment from a few years ago.

    • blacksables - Apr 11, 2013 at 1:38 PM

      Damn, I thought it was Mario Soto.

  9. papichulo55 - Apr 11, 2013 at 12:35 PM

    This is a business issue, not a race issue. There should not be any debate that baseball
    is losing the best African American athletes to other sports. There should also not be any debate that, historically, the African American athlete has established themselves in the sports world. It is simply good business for MLB to compete for the best athletes, regardless of race.

    For starters, MLB needs to update its image. Suggestion: Mike Trout has crazy ‘Swag’,
    and can easily become the Eminem of American sports. Supremely talented and loveably loco. Maybe JayZ will help when he publicizes, hip-hop style, Robbie Cano’s next contract. Maybe MLB stars can join with music and film stars to host local baseball tournaments, like basketball’s Rucker Park. Im sure we can come up with more suggestions, and be proactive baseball fans.

    Baseball has too many old men at the wheel. Let some young folks bring some new ideas to the table. Every business needs innovation, or it falls back and loses position to the competition.

  10. Bob - Apr 11, 2013 at 1:28 PM

    Bad choice of photo for this blog post. Thought the point of the story is about African-American players born in America. The photo shows Pedro Borbon, who was born in the Dominican Republic.

    • snowbirdgothic - Apr 11, 2013 at 3:42 PM

      Agreed. In a post where it’s pointed out that the percentage of African-American players was inflated by adding in Caribbean-born players of African descent, it’s truly a misstep to use a picture of a Caribbean-born player of African descent to illustrate the author’s point.

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