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.”
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.