Major League Baseball celebrates today its sixth annual Jackie Robinson Day, in honor of the Brooklyn Dodgers' second baseman who broke its color barrier. Sixty-seven years after that landmark call-up, many people are left wondering just how much has changed in the sport and society.
For the past week, media outlets have been circulating the troubling statistic that just 8.3 percent of the players on 2014 Opening Day rosters were black -- a significant drop from the peak of 19 percent participation in 1986 and a return to the levels seen in the 1950s. Many writers and players, such as USA Today's Bob Nightengale and New York Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia, lamented this decline while offering socioeconomic and cultural explanations and possible solutions. Others, however, seemed to think this is no big deal.
Take Reason Editor-in-Chief Matt Welch, who contends that the overall number of blacks shouldn't be the measure by which we judge racial progress in baseball, and that the decline is simply because blacks have more options in sports and other professions than they had when Robinson played. He's not necessarily wrong: Professional football and basketball, both in their infancy in 1947, have supplanted baseball as the primary destination for elite black athletes. But the percentage of black players in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association has been relatively stable over the past 25 years, while representation in MLB has steadily declined.
The problems baseball faces mirror many of the problems hockey encounters in fostering diversity: The equipment and travel are relatively expensive (especially when compared with basketball), and most big cities that have concentrated black populations don't have the space or resources for sufficient public baseball fields.
There's also the economics of higher education and the invisible hand of the NCAA: As on the professional level, college football and basketball are now booming businesses, while college baseball is a nonrevenue sport in the vast majority of schools. The NCAA has designated basketball and football among its "head count" sports, in which every participating athlete receives a full scholarship, while baseball is an "equivalency" sport, in which the amount of financial aid is limited by the league and is to be distributed unevenly among a team's roster. The NCAA also limits the number of athletes in an equivalency sport that may receive any aid at all, so while all 85 members of a Division I football team will receive a full ride, a baseball roster of up to 35 players must divvy up 11.7 scholarships among a maximum of 27 athletes. Although someone might try to tell you this is a consequence of Title IX, the NCAA instituted scholarship limitations separately from its enforcement of Title IX, and the league readily admits its purpose is to protect the interests of revenue sports.
MLB teams have also contributed to the trend, albeit unintentionally. The ubiquitous investment in Latin American player development allows clubs to foster players in their teens who are cheaper and often more major-league-ready than many American athletes (white or black) entering the amateur draft out of college. According to MLB, 26 percent of players on the Opening Day rosters were foreign-born. The sport is getting more diverse overall, but it's coming at the expense of the share of black players.
The cultural aspects are also undeniable, and run both ways: As Michael Wilbon notes, "It is not cool in most black neighborhoods to play baseball." There are fewer black MLB stars for young black kids to idolize -- Curtis Granderson isn't exactly LeBron James, and football and basketball boast far more recognizable and marketable talent. That brings us to the overarching issue that should ring the alarm throughout MLB's offices: Baseball's black problem is also its youth problem. According to Nielsen, just 9 percent of MLB fans are black, but half (half!) are 55 and older, and Viagra is actually the league's third-biggest advertiser. The sport may be bringing in more money than ever before, but as Jonathan Mahler pointed out last October, that won't be the case in 10 years unless baseball fosters its younger fan base. As the U.S. minority population continues to grow, black youngsters remain a necessary and untapped resource for the league.
A number of MLB initiatives appear to show that the league recognizes its need to foster black players at all levels. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program has worked with more than a million high school kids in underserved neighborhoods since 1989, while Jr. RBI serves as a feeder program for children 5 to 12 years old. Since its inception, more than 200 RBI alumni have been drafted into the majors, including Sabathia, Jimmy Rollins and Carl Crawford. The league even floated the idea of funding scholarships in a potential partnership with NCAA as part of its diversity push. And last year, Commissioner Bud Selig formed yet another task force "to address the talent pipeline" for on-field diversity with a particular focus on blacks.
It seems to be working. In 2012, seven of the 31 picks in the first round of the draft were black. Last year, there were six first-rounders, suggesting that efforts to revive baseball in the black community could be successful. Two years isn't enough to discern a trend, but for baseball's sake, let's hope it's a sign of things to come.
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