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Digging deeper into the decline of African-Americans in major league baseball

May 9, 2013, 5:02 PM EDT

Rico Carty

Last month we had a series of posts about how fewer African-Americans are playing major league baseball than they used to.  The context of all of this was the annual report in which Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports at the University of Central Florida releases numbers which purport to show the decline.

Mark Armour, friend of HBT and baseball researcher extraordinaire, had done some research on this back in the day and was quoted in the New York Times and other places noting that Lapchick’s study overstated the decline because it was counting apples and oranges. Specifically, Lapchick was using data which lumped together U.S.-born blacks and black Latino players to represent overall black participation in the 1960s through the 1980s but excluding black Latino players from today’s game. That’s some bad science, my friend.

Well, Mark has gone back and re-done his research in order to (a) bring it up to date; and (b) control for some various variables. His report can be read at the SABR website today, and it’s absolutely fascinating, regardless of what you think about black participation in baseball.  The two key takeaways:

  • The percentage of African-Americans held steady between 16% and 19% between 1972 and 1996, but has since decreased by more than half. This is still obviously a sharp decline, but nothing approaching the 27% figure Lapchick usually cites; and
  • A non-trivial part of the decline can be attributed to the fact that the two positions which are least-commonly filled by black players — pitcher and catcher — now take up a greater number of roster spots than before due to changing pitcher usage patterns.

The second bit doesn’t change the overall thrust — there are still fewer black players and this is so for reason other than roster changes — but it’s really, really neat and I had not thought about it before.

I highly recommend Mark’s very readable and very insightful article. Both for its own sake and because it throws some actual research into an area that is so often polluted with politics.

  1. stoutfiles - May 9, 2013 at 5:33 PM

    This crap again? The decline in baseball is related to the increase with football/basketball. Basically, if all your friends/family/idols are playing one sport, you’re likely to follow.

  2. joelwrobinson - May 9, 2013 at 5:44 PM

    Bout that time again, huh?

  3. tombstone7 - May 9, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    MLB has done a poor of job of being visible in the Black Communities around the country, imo. I grew up in the 60’s and my generation during that period played baseball every spring, but with the emergence of Latin players who were equally as talented, but from poor countries were easier to recruit & MLB said goodbye to the African- Americans…..we felt it!

  4. wihalofan - May 9, 2013 at 6:07 PM

    What’s the big deal? I realize the study is looking at the drop in African-Americans, but there’s been a drop in White participation too. It just goes along with the make-up of the US:
    US Baseball Dif
    Whites 72.4% 63.0% -9.4
    African-Am 12.6% 7.8% -4.8
    Hispanic 16.4% 27.2% +10.8
    Asian 4.8% 1.9% -2.9

    Plus, the increase in deserving hispanic players has caused less roster spots for the other three groups (8% in 1962 to 26.9% in 2012).

    • rcali - May 9, 2013 at 10:26 PM

      Darn you for pointing out the truth!

      Also, what category does Ryan Braun fall into? He was born in America but has a Jewish heritage that probably did not originate from Nebraska. Should there be a category here for Jewish-American? How about Nick Punto and Anthony Rizzo? Where is the Italian-American line items?

    • louhudson23 - May 10, 2013 at 8:06 AM

      That is all well and true….at the ML level,however…..African American participation is down at every level. Skill based sport places less of a premium on pure athleticism that lacks a “cool” factor it once possessed,combined with lack of scholarships at college level and big money in what are frankly easier sports to play from day one……..big and fast means almost certain potential in basketball and football ,they are bonus attributes in baseball and mean less to a young man looking to succeed from day one……

  5. rickditka - May 9, 2013 at 6:12 PM

    Black kids are shamed into quitting baseball. You are referred to as “baseball boy” by the other kids. They give up playing to avoid the pressure. Sorry everybody, that’s the answer.

  6. hojo20 - May 9, 2013 at 6:26 PM

    Why doesn’t someone sign Brien Taylor if they’re so interesting in forcing black people to play baseball.

  7. mazblast - May 9, 2013 at 6:33 PM

    Someone spent the time and money on a study to “prove” what we already knew–that the increasing urbanization of the black population and the increased popularity of basketball has significantly reduced black participation in baseball.

    • genericcommenter - May 10, 2013 at 10:01 AM

      Probably has more to do with specialization at an early age. When I was a kid athletes played sports year-round and had one for each season. Race didn’t matter too much. Maybe if a white guy wasn’t great at basketball he would wrestle or do some sort of track and field. If a black kid didn’t do baseball, he might do track. Or even tennis! Everyone was doing something. Sometimes they would do 2 sports in the same season if the coaches allowed. I knew kids who played football and soccer at the same time, played basketball and baseball. Best black athlete I knew played football, basketball, baseball, indoor and outdoor track. He was a great pitcher and CF with power. He ending up as a starting RB at a D1 school. If he had specialized too much he probably would have missed that chance. Basketball was his sport early- he was a star 5’10 PG in 8th grade, but that was his peak.

  8. jayquintana - May 9, 2013 at 7:00 PM

    Why isn’t there a study about the decline of white Americans in the NBA? Oh, that’s right, nobody cares. If white Americans don’t want to play basketball in large numbers, what’s the issue?

    • genericcommenter - May 10, 2013 at 9:53 AM

      White Americans do play basketball in large numbers. I see comments about basketball becoming more popular- that doesn’t apply to just black kids. White kids want to “be like Mike” ( or Lebron) just as much as black kids. So do Asians- they want to be Lebron not Lin.

  9. BigBeachBall - May 9, 2013 at 7:20 PM

    I dont see skin color… I just see players…

  10. historiophiliac - May 9, 2013 at 7:32 PM

    As I noted before, a friend of mine who played baseball in school was steered to position in the outfield and only moved when his uncle had a fit about it. His sense is that this is common, and that’s why his uncle was sensitive to it. If so, that could be a problem, especially as blacks are so underrepresented in the catching and pitching positions.

  11. baseballisboring - May 9, 2013 at 7:56 PM

    I had a black guy tell me yesterday at Foot Locker “I can’t watch that shit. It’s like a sunflower seed eating contest.”

    Not sure his thoughts represent all black people…but it was a damn good line.

    • gloccamorra - May 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM

      That’s the Michael Jordn influence with basketball. A friend of mine from Iowa, a basketball nut, claimed Baseball was like watching paint dry. MJ is also responsible for basketball players wearing bloomers instead of gym shorts.

    • louhudson23 - May 10, 2013 at 8:13 AM

      Part of this is due to the rise of isolation coverage of baseball. The essence of the game is missed when close up shots are jump cut from player to player without the suspense and inclusion of ball,runner fielder……I have taken several non fans to Minor League games over the years(including African Americans) and each and every time they are astounded at the action and excitement of a live game which shows the game as it occurs…literally saying it doesn’t even seem like the same game they have attempted to watch on TV.

  12. thebigtim2012 - May 9, 2013 at 10:00 PM

    Why does it matter. It’s not because of anything rascist right? Then so what

    • hansob - May 10, 2013 at 9:18 AM

      it matters because the level of competition decreases. Let’s say it continues on the this trend. Maybe the next Andrew McCutheon or Torii Hunter never plays baseball. Is baseball a better game with them not playing? I don’t know that most people are concerned that blacks are being systematically excluded as much as the fact that when the % of kids playing a sport decreases, you decrease the level of competition when those kids grow up.

  13. swu32733 - May 10, 2013 at 12:53 AM

    The fact is American kids just don’t play baseball anymore.

    • genericcommenter - May 10, 2013 at 9:49 AM

      My local Little League always has a waiting list of kids, with parents willing to pay 10x what it cost for me to play 20 years ago. When I was a kid, a town of similar population had around 6 teams sponsored by the local hardware and general stores.

      As an aside, one of my son’s coaches last year was a (black) former NFL player and his son was a teammate. The top 2 ranked kids in his league were black twins, and the # 3 was a young black kid playing up whose dad was a college and Arena League QB. So I see a lot of black athletes with a pedigree in other sports not being steered away from baseball.

  14. wallio - May 10, 2013 at 7:58 AM

    Where’s the article on the decline of white players? Or Jewish players? Or one talking about how there’s still virtually no Europeans (of any country) in the MLB. Fact is unless your Latino or Asian, your demo in the league is dropping, fast. So why do we have to just focus on blacks?

  15. yousuxxors - May 10, 2013 at 10:04 AM

    you don’t need to play in the minors for years to get into the NBA and NFL . basketball and football are 100 times more popular among black communities. they also are now more popular nationally.

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