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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.

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