Baseball Says It Wants More American Blacks In The Game, But Chooses To Ignore A Likely Reason Why There Are Not

The 2021 All-Star Game was played in Denver last night because Major league Baseball allowed race-huckster Stacy Abrams to bluff the sport into punishing Atlanta and Georgia for passing a completely reasonable law shoring up the integrity of elections—a matter MLB has exactly no business involving itself in whatsoever. The day before, MLB announced that it was committing up to $150 million to the Players Alliance, a nonprofit organization formed last year and composed of active and former major league players “aiming to build more equitable systems in baseball and increase Black representation throughout the sport.”

This is more flashy virtue-signalling with a dubious nexus to the issue at hand. The money will go toward various programs, including those to support baseball in public and city schools as well as educational grants, scholarships and additional services to the Black community. Other programs will be aimed at increasing black youth participation in baseball as well as funding leagues, equipment, tournaments, clinics and other playground activities, and that’s all, as they say, well and good.

But the precipitous decline in African American participation in the National Pastime, as first discussed here in this post on the same day as MLB’s announcement, like a lot of alleged “inequities,” may have its roots in the culture of black America rather than any “systemic” biases. To quote myself: “[B]aseball is the most diverse of the professional sports, but the number of black players has declined significantly. African American participation in the majors peaked at 19% in 1986, but on opening day 2021 the figure was just 7.6%.” I foolishly passed along the conventional (or official) wisdom about why this might be so: baseball is more expensive than the other major sports to start playing because of the equipment, and colleges hand out far more scholarship money for football and basketball.

Upon reflection, however, I realize this explanation doesn’t wash, though MLB seems to buy it, or pretends to. Baseball players have often entered the sport professionally out of high school, and continue to do so; college is not as essential as it is in other sports. Basketball is more popular in the black community for easily perceived reasons: almost all the biggest stars are black, and the NBA is demographically distorted away from whites to a far greater extent than baseball’s mix of ethnicity and race under-represents blacks. 13% of the U.S. population is African-American; over 74% of the NBA players are black, and only 16% are white. (The NBA doesn’t seem to have a problem with this, and no whites have cried “Racism!”) Moreover, basketball is easily played in urban areas, while baseball has always thrived in rural settings: it’s not an accident that the Field of Dreams is in Iowa. A lone (or lonely) aspiring young basketball player can practice shooting and dribbling all by himself on a city playground—I see this in the playground next to my home all year round. Baseball, in contrast, takes more than one person to practice (there is only so long one can stand throwing a ball against a wall like Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape”) and a massive organizating effort to pull together a real game, as well as finding an open field.

This raises another obstacle to black participation in baseball that appears to have been deliberately buried, because it goes against the narrative that if blacks don’t participate in baseball at least to the extent of their demographic proportion of the U.S. population, it must involve race-based exclusion. Frequent commenter Paul W Schlecht pointed us to a five-year-old study that concluded that a more likely factor is the lack of fathers in African-American households. “Called Out at Home” revealed the results of research by Joseph Price and Kevin Stuart, published by the Austin Institute, that showed a startling correlation between the decline in two parent African-American homes and the decline in black players on the diamond.

Correlation is not causation, as we know. However,the father-son connection has always been central to baseball, and more so than in any other sport. The most iconic baseball movies, like “Field of Dreams” and “The Natural” highlight this; it also turns up in other contexts, like Bill Crystal’s fond memories of his father taking him to Yankee stadium, which he worked into “City Slickers.” I played catch with my father as my introduction to the game, and that was important to Dad, because his father had abandoned his family when he was a boy. He viewed “having a catch” as a basic element of the father-son relationship. (Yes, he also played catch with my sister, or tried. She was hopeless.)

The researchers were struck by the fact that the steep decline in African-American baseball players began in the 1990s, about 20 years after the also steep decline in the rate of black children born to married parents. They attacked the data from many angles. One of them: after controlling for grade, gender, ethnicity, and the mother’s education, they found that high-school boys and girls alike were 12 % more likely to play baseball (or softball) if they lived with their father. The same data showed that high-school students are about 6 % less likely to play on a basketball team if their father lives in their home. Another: more than 70% of black Major League Baseball players grew up with their fathers, compared with only 40% in a matched sample.

How did I, someone who religiously combs the media and publications for baseball news and developments, not know about the study? It seems that the increasingly “woke” sports media deliberately buried it. I can’t find any hint of the study on ESPN or in Sports Illustrated, for example. The New York Times didn’t find the study newsworthy, nor did the Washington Post. The Washington Times did, but that’s a conservative publication, and you know how they are. Another conservative source that found the study worth pondering was The National Review.

“We can now say with confidence that it takes a father to make a professional baseball player, and the decline in the presence of fathers in the homes of African American children partially explains the massive 60% decline in African American representation in Major League Baseball over the last 35 years,” Price and Stuart conclude in their study. “Perhaps it’s not a huge leap to hypothesize that active fathers make a tremendous difference in the lives of their children.”

Perhaps.

70% of African-American kids are born out of marriage, and slightly less than that end up being raised in homes without fathers. Addressing that pathology would help solve a lot more important problems facing the African American community than a dearth of black Major League Baseball players, but culturally reinforced irresponsible sexual behavior and lifestyles doesn’t fit neatly into the “systemic racism” narrative, so, apparently, we are going to pretend it’s not there.

It is intriguing, however, to speculate on how baseball spending that $150 million to spark community programs convincing fathers to take care of their kids might do more to send black players to the big leagues than all the “more equitable systems” will.

15 thoughts on “Baseball Says It Wants More American Blacks In The Game, But Chooses To Ignore A Likely Reason Why There Are Not

  1. The news aggregator I look at, baseballthinkfactory.org, doesn’t seem ever to have linked to an article about the study.

    I’ve long thought that MLB’s efforts are wasted in trying to get kids involved in baseball when they’re very young. The education system has created a system where football and basketball players are local celebrities, and that just can’t be fought. I think they should focus on high school kids, some of whom are great athletes who, after puberty, can see they’re just not big enough for the NBA or NFL. Consensus is that’s already too late to get kids into the system.

  2. (Shrug) Thank you LBJ, whose “Great Society” made the welfare check replace the working man of the house and destroyed the black family, while at the same time the rise of thug culture made it the thing to fuck and truck.

  3. While still chuckling at Jack’s first reply to my comment, I was able to locate the Real Sports segment dealing with this.

    Mercifully, it’s mostly a Chris Rock bit, replete with some rare insight.

    Even more mercifully, it only includes a brief intro and epilog from Bryant Gumball; one would be hard pressed to (IMO) find a more sanctimoniously arrogant pr!ck.

  4. Daniel Patrick Moynahan was correct. Baseball is America’s Pastime but that is now past time. Baseball has grown stale and gimmicks will not invigorate it. Thankfully, the most notable are now going to the trash heap. Most of what is stated are simply common sense. The rural-urban is quite clear looking at where the influx of black talent originated in the 50s and 60s. Now baseball wishes to solve the problem like any corporate groveler would – throw money at it. I also get amused with blackness. Is being a Hispanic Black cost point on the color scale? For years of doing the racial tap dance with others, I have pointed out – with statistical data to back it up – that immigrant blacks are more successful. That increases with the second generation. PEW has some details (somewhat dated) on that. Will reparations exculed Somalians, Hatians, etc.?

    • Yeah, when the Red Sox face of the franchise was very black, American citizen David Ortiz, I find the fact that he isn’t “African-American” rather uninteresting. One thing baseball is NOT, however, is stale. The game evolves more vigorously than any sport, for good or ill.

      • Stale is a term I should have been more careful with. You and I view it for what it is. The perfect game. The most physically democratic sport. I doubt you will see Jose Altuve in the NBA or Dustin Pedroia as a linebacker. Where I (and you) see beauty, history, athleticism, and the chance to lie and speak gibberish between innings the newer generation does not. I hear it all the time from the semi or non-fans. In a recent discussion, a football fan (a truly dreadful sport to follow) hammered away at the lethargic game of baseball. I shut down the conversation with I am sure your wife enjoys 30 seconds of sex.

        • C.C. Sabathia recently asserted baseball has to become more black, which he meant to require more showboating and bat flipping and hot-dogging. The baseball way is simply the white way and not the black way. Baseball is largely white and rural and Southern and country western and conservative. He wants it to be more black and urban and hip-hop. That’s a real clash that strikes at the very heart of baseball’s culture. Baseball’s essentially old school. C.C. is essentially militating for running off all the old school “baseball men” (because they’re white) and replacing them with guys who will let the players hot dog and showboat. Do-rags for all the brothers.

          • As we have seen with the National Basketball Association and the drift away from Basics into the category of Showtime. How did that work out? Well we have had our head handed to us more than once on the international scene with people still watching tapes of Bob Cousy and playing fundamentals

            The first great influx of Hispanic players also brought some style to the game. Of course they were dismissed a showboating especially the great first baseman Vic power. I certainly have no problem with a little Pizzazz being added in.

            • My from the south side of Chicago mother bought my brother and me a pennant with a photo of the 1959 White Sox. Their first AL championship since … 1919. And we now know how THAT turned out. And then of course Bill Veck appeared and turned the Sox into a clown show from which it took decades to recover. But Luis Aparicio was my favorite player. I had no idea he was anything other than a red blooded American or didn’t care.

              I had no idea Vick “Power” was not some guy from Minnesota.

              Those were the days. Before NPR Spanish accents became so popular. Oy.

          • To be fair, the showboating is also something you’ll see in a lot of Asian leagues; even disciplined Japan loves its bat-flipping. Personally, I enjoy seeing the contrast between different types of celebrations and play-styles (professional sports are ultimately entertainment, after all), as long as coaches and veterans are able to remind players (regardless of their background) to keep their head in the game lest they show up in tomorrow’s blooper reels.

    • The All-Star Game ratings won the night, and were only a bit less (maybe) than 2019. Given that the big events in the NFL and NBA all showed huge audience drops, this shows that baseball still can attract a national audience….especially when the gimmick includes the first two-way star since Babe Ruth!

  5. Given the “there are no borders” plank in the current lefty platform, why are BLM and woke people and MLB ignoring the presence of Afro-Caribbean ball players in the bigs? Look at the results from the World Baseball Classic.

    2006 Runner up, Cuba. Fourth place, Dominican Rep.

    2009 Third place, Venezuela

    2013 Champion, Dominican Rep. Runner up, Puerto Rico (not really part of the U.S. as far as they are concerned, evidently). Fourth place, Netherlands (Didi Gregorius and other players from Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.)

    2017 Runner up (to the U.S. making their only appearance in the top four), Puerto Rico. Fourth place, Netherlands (see above).

    If it’s all about the color of your skin, why is MLB only concerned with American black players? Shouldn’t they be crowing about the diversity of their players? Tons of their players are not only black, they’re Latinx and they’re not even from the awful United States! They’re from foreign countries that, because they are not part of the United States, are, ipso facto, superior to the United States. Why are American black players a protected class? Shouldn’t MLB be glowing with pride for helping players of color all over the Caribbean achieve the American dream here in this terrible, hellish country? I mean, isn’t this verging on nationalism and white supremacism to differentiate Americans from citizens of the World? Isn’t migration a human right? Shouldn’t black Americans be ashamed of being Americans? And isn’t succeeding and making a fortune hitting major league pitching meritocratic and therefore racist and white supremacist? Shouldn’t all baseball players check their privilege and give their money to people who never got a hit in little league, like me?

    This whole thing is horse shit. With apologies to Marie Antoinette, “Let ’em play basketball and football and run track.”

  6. There’s a great “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” episode where 17 year old Will is showing a child’s baseball glove to his girlfriend, reminiscing about his childhood in Philly, with his beloved single mother. He says “My Mom taught me how to play baseball. Which is why I took up basketball.”

    And the studio audience laughs, but even as a kid I remember asking my parents what he meant. And I think of how true his comment was back in 1990 and how it’s just as relevant today, even more so.

    • A chubby, short, smart, labor lawyer and ultimately big firm partner, Cuban refugee guy I worked with in my big firm days told of his days as a kid in Cuba. He bugged his dad one day to go outside and play catch with him. Remember, this is Cuba in the ’50s and beisbol was huge in Cuba. The Triple A International League (including the Miami Marlins, our team) was truly international with clubs in both Montreal and Havana. Cubans really are nuts about baseball, and they are good at it. Anyway, Gerry’s corporate executive and no more athletic than his son father brushed his son off saying, “Let’s take a nap instead.” Knowing our strengths and weaknesses is something we can learn from our dads.

  7. I mean, it’s not an all-or-nothing type proposition; outside resources plus parental support are probably better than either alone. After all, MLB teams do put substantial resources into training and finding Latin American talent from a young age (probably because they get a lot more bang for their buck than doing so in the US for a number of reasons). Heck, Andrew McCutchen, who was raised by both parents, has noted that he still needed a good deal of outside help and luck to even get noticed in the first place (explicitly stating that if he hadn’t torn his ACL, he probably would have attempted to get into college on a full-ride scholarship instead of signing with the Pirates straight out of high school, to answer your point about the college vs high school aspect): https://www.theplayerstribune.com/articles/left-out

    Of course, it’s not like culture and upbringing is unimportant; after all, Japanese/Korean/Taiwanese-Americans are a lot less likely even consider seriously pursuing sports than their counterparts back in Asia despite being generally wealthier (yet the under-representation of Asians in MLB generally doesn’t raise nearly as much of a fuss).

    On a side note, I don’t think I’m alone in noticing that even at the high school level and below, there’s a lot more prestige placed on their basketball and football programs (for one thing, they’re generally the only two sports that get any support from school music programs, even if the music director personally prefers another sport), which is probably part of the reason why football and basketball scouts seem to devote a lot more energy to looking at school results than their baseball counterparts do. That probably also makes a difference in whether people opt for baseball or not. Personally, I care less about baseball’s popularity among any specific demographic (or even the general populace, really) per say, and more about removing obstacles which prevent people who genuinely want to play it professionally from doing so (in particular, there should be more emphasis on making good training-related resources accessible to everyone, even just from a “quality of the game” perspective, even if that often seems as difficult to accomplish as improving teaching in general).

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