The Declining Share of African-American Baseball Players, Part 2

Superstars like Barry Bonds didn't necessarily get young African-Americans onto the diamond (via rocor).

Superstars like Barry Bonds didn’t necessarily get young African-Americans onto the diamond (via rocor).

Over time, warm weather and income have become useful ingredients for the development of baseball players. As I showed yesterday and in March, regions with warmer weather have created more baseball players in recent decades than they had historically, as have counties with higher income.

Importantly, the combined effect of weather and income has been extremely potent for creating opportunities for young players to play year round. These development opportunities have escaped potential players from poorer regions. Yesterday, I used data from Mark Armour and Dan Levitt on baseball player races over the last few decades to demonstrate that this effect has been geographically widespread. Historically black areas that have produced many ballplayers haven’t created as many players in recent years; wealthier and less diverse counties have produced more.

African-Americans’ Interest in Major League Baseball

Many people commenting on the March article said they believed that there were fewer black major leaguers because the African-American young people had simply become more interested in other sports, such as football and basketball. Based on J.C. Bradbury’s study showing that the share of black players in the NFL and NBA had not increased over time, I was skeptical. If black children were becoming more interested in those sports, there would be more black players in them over time.

However, there is another way to study this by using the data I have gathered in these studies on race in baseball. If the argument is that black children are less interested in baseball because they do not see as many black stars as in other sports, then perhaps the locations where there have been more prominent black superstars would not have seen the same declines. We will see below that this is not the case.

The following table lists the top black players by WAR who played at some point during the 1985-99 seasons, with the teams where they produced at least 10 WAR during those seasons. I selected those years because I thought they would match pretty well with the 1980-89 born players, which was the cohort with the sharpest decline in black players.

Top African-American Players for Children of the ’80s
Name WAR Teams where they had at least 10 WAR (Years)
Barry Bonds 164.1 San Francisco (93-07), Pittsburgh (86-92)
Rickey Henderson 106.2 Oakland (79-83, 89-93, 94-95, 98), Yankees (85-89)
Ken Griffey Jr. 77.4 Seattle (89-99, 09-10), Cincinnati (00-08)
Derek Jeter 73.7 Yankees (95-14)
Frank Thomas 72.4 White Sox (90-05)
Eddie Murray 72 Baltimore (77-88, 95)
Lou Whitaker 68.1 Detroit (78-95)
Barry Larkin 67.7 Cincinnati (86-04)
Ozzie Smith 67.6 St. Louis (84-96)
Tim Raines 66.4 Montreal (79-90), White Sox (91-95)
Tony Gwynn 65 San Diego (82-01)
Gary Sheffield 62.5 Florida (93-98), Dodgers (98-01), Atlanta (02-03), Yankees (04-06)
Kenny Lofton 62.2 Cleveland (92-01)
Willie Randolph 62.1 Yankees (76-88)
Dave Winfield 59.9 Yankees (81-88)
Andre Dawson 59.5 Montreal (76-86), Cubs (87-92)
Dwight Gooden 59.2 Mets (84-94)
Fred McGriff 57.2 Toronto (86-90), Atlanta (93-97), San Diego (91-93), Tampa Bay (98-01, 04)
Chet Lemon 52 Detroit (82-90)
Jim Rice 50.8 Boston (74-89)
Tony Phillips 46.6 Detroit (90-94), Oakland (82-89, 98)
Kirby Puckett 44.9 Minnesota (84-95)
Ellis Burks 44.7 Boston (87-92, 04), Colorado (94-98)
Torii Hunter 42.5 Minnesota (97-07), Angels (08-12)
Darryl Strawberry 41.5 Mets (83-90)
Albert Belle 41 Cleveland (89-96)
David Justice 40.4 Atlanta (89-96), Cleveland (97-00)

The top two players on the list played large shares of their careers in the Bay Area—Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds. If the decline in black players in the 1980s were due to black youths not rooting for black players growing up, then you would expect that this would not have been as extreme in the Bay Area. However, the number of black players born in the Bay Area has followed a similar trend as the rest of the nation: eight born in the 1940s, 13 born in the 1950s, 14 born in the 1960s, 11 born in the 1970s, and just seven born in the 1980s.

The changes in California outside the Bay Area do not appear to be based much on the race of local stars to root for, either. The decline in Southern California has been similar to the Bay Area, with a rapid ascent from 15 black players born in the 1940s, 37 in the 1950s, 39 in the 1960s, 22 born in the 1970s, and then just 14 born in the 1980s. Without hometown stars like Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds—but with similar trends in income inequality—the effects look similar in both areas.

Even within Southern California counties, the trends do not seem to be based on black youths having a black superstar player to root for. For each team that I looked at, I checked the top five position players by WAR from 1985-99 and the top three pitchers. For the Dodgers, this included no black players. But the Padres’ best hitter was Black—Tony Gwynn. He was by far the most prominent Padres player. But the decline in San Diego County was even more prominent than the rest of Southern California, going from eight black players born in the 1960s, down to two in the 1970s and another two in the 1980s.  Although San Diego County did continue to produce players, and actually produced more in the 1970s and 1980s than in the 1960s, this was increase was only among white and Latino players.

Across the country the patterns are similar. In colder areas, opportunities have declined on a relative basis but more so for poorer counties. In warmer areas, opportunities have expanded but mainly for richer counties. California was one state from which more black players were appearing in the majors than would be expected by population alone, but many other states in the southern part of the country went from developing black players at a rate proportional to their share of the population to  half the rate you would expect.

If interest in the sport were based on having black superstars on local teams, states in the South that have historically rooted for the Rangers and Astros would probably have experienced a sharper decline than states that have historically leaned toward  the Braves. Many of the Braves’ most prominent hitters during 1985-99 were black, including David Justice, Ron Gant, Lonnie Smith and Fred McGriff—not to mention a legacy that includes Hank Aaron.  Fewer Rangers and Athletics have been black. Yet we see similar trends in declining black players.

Two tables below summarize some relevant states to study. The first shows those states where the expected number of black players was at least 10  in one of the five decades studied. I have added the teams that local fans would have been most likely to root for. The second lists the five position players with the highest WAR and the three pitchers with the highest WAR from each of the teams on the list. African-American players are underlined (e.g. Andruw Jones is not underlined).

Total African-American Players Relative to Share of State Population
State Team(s) with most fans E(B) 40s B 40s E(B) 50s B 50s E(B) 60s B 60s E(B) 70s B 70s E(B) 80s B 80s
NY Yankees, Mets 3 4 7 5 12 14 12 5 4
FL Now: Marlins, Rays; Historically: Braves 7 5 10 6 21 22 21 10 22 13
GA Braves 4 4 8 6 10 13 14 11 13 4
AL Braves 8 19 12 15 7 8 10 12 5 4
MS Braves 7 6 10 11 8 9 15 12 8 7
TX Rangers, Astros 7 12 11 17 15 17 14 12 15 8
LA Astros, Rangers, Braves 9 16 7 12 13 14 9 1 7 2
IL Cubs, White Sox 4 3 7 7 12 12 15 8 6 3
CA Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Athletics, Angels 8 28 22 63 28 60 29 43 20 23
Select States’ Top Players for Children of the ’80s to Watch
Team Top 5 Position Players ’85-’99 Top 3 Pitchers ’85-’99
Dodgers Mike Piazza, Mike Scioscia, Raul Mondesi, Eric Karros, Pedro Guerrero Orel Hershiser, Ramon Martinez, Fernando Valenzuela
Angels Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds, Wally Joyner, Brian Downing, Chili Davis Chuck Finley, Mark Langston, Mike Witt
Padres Tony Gwynn, Ken Caminiti, Benito Santiago, Bip Roberts, Roberto Alomar Andy Benes, Andy Ashby, Bruce Hurst
Giants Barry Bonds, Will Clark, Matt Williams, Robby Thompson, Kevin Mitchell John Burkett, Scott Garrelts, Mike Krukow
Athletics Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Terry Steinbach, Dave Henderson Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Mike Moore
Rangers Ivan Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Ruben Sierra, Julio Franco Kevin Brown, Nolan Ryan, Bobby Witt
Astros Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Bill Doran, Glenn Davis, Kevin Bass Shane Reynolds, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan
Braves Chipper Jones, David Justice, Jeff Blauser, Dale Murphy, Andruw Jones* John Smoltz, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine
Cubs Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Sammy Sosa, Andre Dawson, Rick Wilkins Greg Maddux, Rick Sutcliffe, Frank Castillo
White Sox Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Carlton Fisk, Lance Johnson, Harold Baines Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez
Yankees Don Mattingly, Bernie Williams, Rickey Henderson, Paul O’Neill, Derek Jeter Andy Pettitte, David Cone, Jimmy Key
Mets Darryl Strawberry, Howard Johnson, John Olerud, Keith Hernandez, Dave Magadan Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, David Cone

*Next three highest WAR were Ron Gant, Lonnie Smith, and Fred McGriff, all of whom are American American.

Team loyalty lists come from this map, and article on ages of fans is here.

As mentioned above, the patterns in California do not seem to suggest relatively slower declines in black players in the Bay Area as the prominence of star players for the Athletics and Giants might suggest. Similarly, the declines in Texas and Louisiana, where fans would have rooted for mainly white and Latino star players on the Rangers and Astros, look very similar to those in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama, where fans would have rooted for many Black players on Braves teams.

Two colder regions of the country where there could have been many black players are Chicago and New York. Yankees fans have been able to root for Derek Jeter and Rickey Henderson, and Mets fans have had Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden leading the charge—and earning rings. Although fewer Cubs hitters have been black, three of the top five White Sox hitters have been, including the most prominent, Frank Thomas. However, both New York and Illinois have experienced rapid declines in black players, even more than total players have declined.

Overall, the geographical trends in players do not seem to be based on black children choosing baseball only when they see local stars. The trends are consistently based on income and weather, and the variation in the race of star players across teams does not seem to follow any trend that relates to where black players have been born.

At a national level, it is even harder to justify a claim that black players have not been very prominent in baseball. The NBA certainly had Michael Jordan, but the best baseball players have almost all been black at well until recent years. The top position player by WAR in the 1960s was Willie Mays, in the 1970s it was Joe Morgan, in the 1980s it was Rickey Henderson, and in the 1990s it was Barry Bonds. Even in the 2000s, it was Alex Rodriguez. The top three position players by WAR since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier have been Barry Bonds, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. There simply is no evidence that Black children born in the 1970s and 1980s would not have seen black superstars. It seems far more likely that income and weather explain the trend we have observed.


None of this means that changing the trend is easy. Certainly a preference or bias against baseball among black youths would make it difficult to grow the share of black players. But opportunity is a hard problem to solve as well. Given the same access to traveling teams and equipment, there would probably have been many more black players born in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s, but how to provide this to everyone is not clear. Identifying talented youth might be the best step toward efficient expenditures, but it would still require Major League Baseball or some other funding source to step in and help.

Another common argument to explain the decline in black players is that there are far fewer college scholarships for baseball than for football or basketball. This is true, but more of a complement to the opportunity-based pattern I have documented than a substitute for it. However, the NFL and NBA also prohibit high school students from playing professionally immediately after graduation. So, this factor could push young people toward baseball, rather than away from it. The net effects are not clear. Solving the scholarship issue is difficult as well: More football and basketball scholarships are available because these sports generate much more revenue for colleges.

Opportunity matters. Solving the problem is more complicated than identifying it, but what these articles show is that creating opportunities for talented youth is essential. Outside of issues of fairness and equality, it should matter to baseball fans that we get the best product possible on the field. There is a reason that major league baseball is more popular than college baseball — it has to do with talent level. Baseball is better and more exciting because of expanded opportunities for Latin Americans. Creating opportunities for disadvantaged youth in America to grow as ballplayers in the way that wealthier families have enabled their children would raise the major league talent level even further.

References & Resources

Matt writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and models arbitration salaries for MLB Trade Rumors. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Swa.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
9 years ago

Hmm, I actually don’t look at it as a decline, but as baseball slowly converges on the expected demographics of the United States. For instance, African Americans are approximately 12% of the US population, and Americans are approximately 70% of the MLB, thus this means that the 8% of MLB players who are African American are an expected amount due to demographics.

Baseball is a diverse sport, you have tall guys, short guys (Pedroia), thin guys (Ichiro), fat guys (Prince Fielder), and so on. I would say that due to the rise of sabermetrics and the rationalization of the sport, old biases are being slowly eliminated in baseball, which should bring MLB demographics more in line with the population as a whole. For instance, “old time” scouts would probably be more likely to overlook a fast Asian guy, since “everyone knows black people runs faster”, which denies opportunity for certain groups (asians, fat people, etc).

Other sports like Basketball are less diverse than baseball, almost every single NBA player is tall and muscular. Which demographic group is more likely to be tall and muscular? African Americans.

Its not African Americans who are underrepresented in baseball, but they are overrepresented in other sports.

Matt Swartz
9 years ago
Reply to  *****

That would make sense if not for the fact that baseball players are disproportionately from areas with warm weather, areas with an above average representation of African-Americans.

The tables show that relative to what you would expect based on state birth rates by race, nearly every state has fewer African-American players than it would by chance. Given how many players are from Georgia, for example, you would expect more African-American players than there are in the league.

The disconnect is income– warm states tend to favor those with higher incomes, so you don’t get the share of African-American players you would otherwise expect.

9 years ago

“Based on J.C. Bradbury’s study showing that the share of black players in the NFL and NBA had not increased over time, I was skeptical. If black children were becoming more interested in those sports, there would be more black players in them over time.”

Maybe football and basketball have reached a saturation point. How much blacker can, for instance, the NBA get?

“Its not African Americans who are underrepresented in baseball, but they are overrepresented in other sports.”

I bring it back to this: What physical characteristics and skills do the three major sports require? A 7-foot-1 guy is usually ill suited for baseball and football, but he might be perfect for basketball. A 6-2, 340 pound guy is usually ill suited for baseball and basketball, but he might be perfect for the NFL.

Which of those characteristics are best represented by which races?

I’m not saying you’re wrong to explore all possible explanations, Matt, but some of these, I think, are real reaches. My $.02.

Matt Swartz
9 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

“Maybe football and basketball have reached a saturation point. How much blacker can, for instance, the NBA get?”

The NBA is only 75% Black, not 100%. If there was a disproportionate shift in racial preferences for basketball, that would have probably have gone up. And I’m sure if there were travel leagues for basketball that disproportionately benefited Black children like there are for baseball that disproportionately benefited white children, and these travel leagues dominated the landscape of showcasing for NBA teams like they do for MLB teams, it probably would go above 75%.

9 years ago
Reply to  Matt Swartz

“travel leagues for basketball that disproportionately benefited Black children”

Isn’t that AAU ball? Those tournaments aren’t showcases for the NBA because they’re showcases for the colleges, which are in turn showcases for the NBA.

What I kind of meant about the saturation point: If American blacks represent just a small proportion of MLB players, and then that percentage goes up a few ticks, that’s a big increase. If the NBA is 75 percent black and the percentage goes up the same few ticks, it’s meh.

I’ll just toss this out: It seems like the 25% white representation in the NBA increasingly comes from outside the U.S. So we could just as easily ask: Why is the percentage of white Americans playing in the NBA declining?

Chris Coh
8 years ago
Reply to  Matt Swartz

Why is this a problem?

Can anyone honestly say that there is a legitimate barrier holding African American children back from the baseball diamond? First of all, data shows that the MLB as a league, is actually the most open and tolerant in terms of race. The MLB lacks any evidence of pay premium to white players, black players have actually become more likely to be voted in to the All-Star game than their white counterparts, and there is no evidence of race discrimination in the HOF vote. Evidence of discrimination in terms of job promotion is the least of any of the major leagues, and has declined so precipitously since the new agreement that there is 0-to-weak correlation. So customer discrimination does not exist here by current research, and employer discrimination barely does if at all at least in terms of promotions (sources 1-2). Some of the totally fallacious studies that tried to skew their dataset to find readings even had to be totally obvious for a weak correlation testing only the bottom 25% of players, in a small dataset and excluding black non-US born from black US born. Even then the findings indicated a wage premium for hispanic players–many of them who identify as black.

The whole poverty argument is clearly ignoring the fact that many of the games best players come from the poorest areas in the United States and the world–playing the game with milk cartons instead of baseball mitts. When including black-hispanic players from the Caribbean Islands and Central and South America, nearly 20% of the MLB has predominantly African genes. Others, come from extremely densely populated urban areas, playing the game on the black top with a stick. This is how’s it’s been as long as the game has existed, and the data supports this. In the whole “climate and income” reasoning for the lack of black baseball players, it’s pretty clear that climate is the main explainer. And frankly, there are so many factors that retain a covariance with income in this case, that income by itself is a shitty conclusion.

This difference now, is that there isn’t active segregation keeping African Americans from playing in wealthy leagues and there’s even substantial funds being funneled from the owners and PR executives into pushing black youth into the game. They’ve captured white fans already–about 95% of tickets are purchased by them and TV ratings are higher in their households than ever. One of the major avenues remaining for revenue potential is non-white, populace living in colder regions.

The numbers don’t lie, marginal increase in ticket sales in professional sports are related to %black athletes along a bell curve, showing the most error in hockey (where there are >1% non-white players).

So they just want more money. That’s what this is all about. Let me repeat, it’s just about making extremely wealthy investors more money. Nothing more. These are the assholes that demolished Yankee Stadium in favor of replacing it with an abhorrently classist and narcissistic castle with a mall, an over-priced steakhouse and a bunch of wallet-busting luxury boxes. It’s basically honey to attract egoist douchers that their income on hedonism.

It’s sort of sickening listening to all of this bleeding-heart, feigned concern–and even the nerve of throwing in Jackie Robinson’s name and story into the mix. JR is a true hero and this is just a money grab. Robinson didn’t dedicate his life to making sure that every professional sport meets some standard for participation from black athletes. And frankly, if he did, that would be totally racist and 100% against what he stands for. Robinson was part of a movement to end a racist (mostly white) majority from keeping the black and minority community perpetually bonded to the ghettos via separatism and the refusal to encourage black role models. In essence, he was a freedom fighter.

But I return to my original question. Why is this continually considered a problem? Unless you’re completely naive, or in the business of making sure the already-wealthy make more money for services that are being substituted for funds going into other forms of entertainment, what is so important about this issue?

If anything, it would be detrimental to force even more money into pushing poor, young African American males into a deeper obsession with careers in professional athletics? Athletics make up a tiny portion of a very large and wealthy United States job market, and can only support a small fraction of the black community. There’s a ridiculously high failure rate for careers in professional sports, with large negative earnings on average.

However, there are plenty of other jobs in other sectors in this country that are many times more accessible to citizens with little money to invest in education. Pursuing jobs like accountant, stock broker, police officer, doctor, nurse, lawyer, electrician, soldier, sailor, pilot, city bus driver, teacher, architect, software engineer to name a few would make much more sense as they have much higher lifetime expected payoffs.

Yet, in the US relatively few from the poor black community pursue these careers. To make these careers more accessible to them, there are schools, mentoring, housing, healthcare, public safety and other support programs that could use a portion of the interest and investment that is aimed at telling more black athletes that they should choose sports–a career that has a vary low probability of payoff–instead of one of the many alternatives. The in-country demand for pro athletics as entertainment is close to saturated, an increase in jobs on the field isn’t coming, and many of the traits necessary for worker efficacy are expensive/impractical to acquire (long legs, throwing arm, exceptional eye sight etc…).

Given how many black athletes there are in US professional sports in general, relative to the amount of black US citizens there are, and given the amount of extremely expensive skills necessary to make a career in these sports (exceptional eye sight, throwing arm strength, large hands, long arms and legs, strong bones etc…), it’s actually alarming that there isn’t a correction that has decreased their numbers in that particular job market.

That’s an indicator that there are substantial barriers in other job sectors that are forcing black youth away from pursuing them. Again, professional sports have an unbelievably low expected payoff, and a rational job consumer will choose a career with as high an expected payoff as possible. So why aren’t we asking why more of the poor black community aren’t members of professions in healthcare, engineering, aerospace, architecture, design and the arts etc…? Why this petty obsession with increasing the amount of black athletes in a sector that they already dominate the market in? The only identifiable reasons I can see is that there’s still some (racist) beliefs that different races are inherently blessed with different skills and pursue careers accordingly. Science and research as disproved these believes as irrational–to an irritatingly over-done extent.

Simply put, this shit isn’t getting our society anywhere positive.

If you really give a fuck, then start supporting a movement that has an actual foundation and will help your society. Lower the barriers to poor blacks (and the poor in general) that obviously exist in many other sectors outside of professional athletics. And if there’s any useful research in terms of racism in the pro athletics job market to be had, it would no doubt be worthwhile to study the unbelievably low percentage of other races in certain sports, or the disparity in pay and race, or the regional racial makeup of a community and the correlation with employment, demand for certain phenotypes on the field etc…

The US is made up of just 12% African Americans, yet they make up 3/4 NBA basketball players, 7/10 NFL football players, nearly all olympic short-distance sprinters etc… And in the MLB, where there’s all of this worry by (mostly wealthy white people) that there aren’t “enough” black athletes in the professional game. I’d like to point out that the percentage of black baseball players even now resides at a level that is expected compared to the US population. And again, because that community completely dominates the labor force in the two other major professional leagues, what’s the worry? And by the way, when there were more anti-black barriers to entering the MLB in the 1970’s-1990’s), there was a large African American population in the game (3/10 players in 1975) but lower in the NFL and NBA than now. Especially with this two decade-long focus on recruiting a black baseball following and opening the job in poor areas in the US and globally, it further indicates that demand for jobs is relatively inelastic and the proportion of black athletes has settled at a sustainable level relative to their portion of total US population. Pointing to poverty, racism etc…doesn’t tell the story and it’s a tired research.

I’d also like to note that there are <1% white and hispanic players at multiple NFL and NCAA football positions like defensive back and running back despite there being such a large number of white college students and white athletes in general. I find this as alarming, if not more.

And by the way, the whole income argument for job accessibility in sports is a fallacy. The population examined in most of these studies was too broad, not accounting for the differences between family income level, expected career payoff and job selection. For instance, wealthy children spend less time on the field than any other groups, and they are more willing to substitute professional sports careers with other careers depending on differences in expected payoff etc. In essence, they have the ability to make more choices later in the game–forgetting about the investment cost they've already paid.

Having less income does not make it substantially harder to excel in a career like baseball by any stretch. Poor players often forgo other activities and focus solely on pursuing sports instead of education in other areas because they lack the resources to not specialize early (few choices). In short, they ditch class for 24/7 focus on a particular sport. Wealthier athletes don't specialize this early, and will often forgo front-loaded payoffs for greater back-loaded payoffs. Anyway, this isn't a barrier to baseball because baseball is somehow more expensive in terms of player development, it's a barrier because pro sports in general require athletes to attend school for a certain amount of time before entering the league. Ethically speaking, we don't allow child labor in this country and we ask that all children go to school until a certain age–regardless of their preferences. Because so many poor athletes (are allowed to) forgo education all together early (often by lack of mentor/parent to intervene), they can't end up ruining their chances at pro sports later. Although, they often find ways around this via pay-offs, impersonation at junior college, forged transcripts etc.

But in pro baseball, these regulations are remarkably loose, not requiring a college education and only a high school diploma. No player even has to even attend 1 college class, all they need is to complete a free, tax-funded public education. For those not born in the United States, they don't even require that.

Look at the family incomes levels of today's MLB population–players like Rollins, Sosa, Rivera grew up poor.

Also, they neglected to address the differences in participation in sports in general between city and rural communities. There's data that indicates that poor high school students in the city are more likely to continue to pursue a pro sports career than wealthy athletes from the city. Do a cursory google scholar search. So, wouldn't it make more sense that sports that necessitate a large plot of land like football and baseball be more to be popular in rural areas where land is cheap? The true cost of player development isn't substantially different in the NFL vs the MLB, and neither is equipment, and both sports come with a high risk of catastrophic injury. The baseball labor market is many times larger than that of pro football, with a minor league system and recruiting from all over the (often developing) world. The NFL does not have this.

It's idiotic and racist to simply expect that the black community make up a disproportionally high number of athletes in every pro sport. Are they allowed to pursue a career that doesn't include manual labor and a high level of lost investment?

Finally, if you are buying into the camp that teaches that there are inherent differences in skills among races, and black athletes dominate pro sports because they are simply genetically superior in aerobic activity, that is your choice. But consider that with this belief, you're giving merit to the beliefs that white Europeans have superior IQ and intelligence etc. These are the beliefs that created slavery and genocide etc…Once you enter into this club, it's hard not to be racist prick. If you're even acknowledging that there are ties between race, genetics and athletic skills, then why is it so unbelievable to you that certain pro sports may have more members of a race vs another? At the very least, be consistent.

The data shows that 1/9 US citizens is black, that a large proportion of that community is poor and in need of career options, that pro sports are a terrible career for anyone that can't afford to lose millions of dollars in capital/development investment and opportunity cost, but that 7/10 NFL players, 3/4 NBA players, 1/12 MLB players are black (1/5 when including black non-US). Put that all together and ask yourself, why the fuck do I care about this? Is there really a problem here?

Some Sources:

Hanssen, Andrew F. and Torben Andersen. “Has Discrimination Lessened Over Time? A Test Using Baseball’s All-Star Vote.” Economic Inquiry. Volume 37, 1999: 326-352.

Voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame: The Effect of Race on Election Date." Industrial Relations. January, 2003. p. 87-100. Discrimination in Professional Basketball

9 years ago
Reply to  bucdaddy

There were some interesting comments along these lines following Matt’s original piece in March. And count me among those who would be interested in participation data at lower levels, as someone who has lived in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and seen the all-encompassing reach of basketball.

9 years ago

Has anyone investigated if there’s a bias in the marketing of baseball vs other sports?

9 years ago
Reply to  hopbitters

That’s what I was wondering. Major League Baseball seems to position itself as the old-school, overly patriotic game and maybe that strategy doesn’t play quite as well in the African-American community.

I’m also curious about who the competing NFL or NBA stars for each city would be during the same time frame. For instance, Ricky Henderson and Barry Bonds were also competing with Jerry Rice and Tim Brown in the NFL.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago
Reply to  Tyler

Have you ever seen the way the NFL markets itself? How much more can you wrap yourself in the flag than the NFL? I understand your point, though, that baseball is perceived, and, to some extent, markets itself as a sport for traditional America. On the other hand, if you look at it another way, football is the game that seems to focus on those “traditional” American values. Moreover, the NFL has made a conscious effort to downplay things that might appeal to a non-middle white populuation, such as end zone celebrations, non-standard uniforms, etc. Several years ago, the NFL made an effort to prohibit doo-rags under helmets. Who do you think that was aimed at? In fact, IMO, the whole No Fun League meme,where the NFL keeps strict limits on what players can wear to an almost ridiculous extent, seems aimed at black players.

My point is, yes, baseball may be perceived as an “old-school” game as you say, but why aren’t African-Americans turned off by the culture of the NFL, which is far more regimented and would seemingly be contra to the values of many minorities?

I think, frankly, you have to look at the game itself, which is increasingly skewing older in its demographics, not just to African-Americans but to whites as well. Moreover, the income issue, I think, relates to more than just participation. Baseball is a much better game in person than on TV while football, especially, is much better on TV. If income is a factor, you might be more inclined to watch a game on TV than pay for a ticket.

9 years ago
Reply to  Tyler

“Baseball seems to position itself as the old-school, overly patriotic game and maybe that strategy doesn’t play quite as well in the African-American community.”

Patriotism doesn’t play well in the African-American community?

That’s an odd thing to say. Especially considering that African-Americans (13% of the population) make up about 18% of those in uniform defending this country.

9 years ago

Eh… Do you really think that African-American kids are able to tell that Dominican players with predominant West African ancestry are not “black”? Especially in the days before they had twitter accounts, and even moreso before they were constantly interviewed on Sportscenter? Seems like a pretty dubious premise.

Torii Hunter has complained in the past that most people don’t even realize this shift has taken place. I think that’s probably true for the casual fan.

9 years ago
Reply to  Matt Swartz

I wouldn’t expect to, because I wouldn’t expect much variance in Black + Latino stars by region over any significant time period. In short, this is a question I wouldn’t ask (no disrespect intended).

9 years ago


Is there some tie to a sport’s public popularity and the income of the families of kids that play the sport? I’m just spit-balling, but for a sport like, say, hockey, or lacrosse, without a lot of popularity behind the sport there’s less civic support for the sport, so it leans more on the incomes of the participants to fund its operation? Fewer sponsors for youth leagues mean more families have to fund the leagues themselves, thus requiring more high income families to make leagues viable?

9 years ago

It may be worth noting that the trends in team movement and ballpark construction that started in the 1950s were to move MLB parks out of urban areas easily accessible even to poor folks (white and black) who could scrape together the price of a ticket and walk to the park, and into the white suburbs (not so accessible, and increasingly more expensive, and perhaps a little hostile). Basketball, meanwhile, never left the cities. I don’t mean pro basketball, but places where kids could go and see neighborhood heroes, all those playground legends who were maybe just a tick or two below the pros.

Post-integration, baseball still seemed to send a message: We’d rather cater to suburban (white) people who can afford the luxury of a car to drive to the park.

That trend seemed to reverse itself some, with Baltimore and Cleveland and Pittsburgh and others building fine ballparks in their downtowns (ah, but the notion of downtown has changed quite a bit since the days of Ebbetts Field and the Polo Grounds, hasn’t it? Where once they were places where people actually lived, now they’re essentially empty centers of commerce).

But now we find the Braves reversing the trend again, moving from downtown and into a (as I understand it) wealthy white suburb. What’s the message baseball sends there, to kids and other people who might like to come to a game? I might be wrong about this, but it seems to me that basketball arenas have usually been in downtowns.

Satoshi Nakamoto
9 years ago

The author says that preference for basketball and football can’t be the answer because the ratio of black pros in those sports didn’t spike.

This might be an incorrect conclusion.

The black kids might indeed have shifted towards basketball and football. Why didn’t the ratio of blacks in the NBA/NFL significantly increase? Well, just because a ton more black kids shifted away from baseball doesn’t necessarily mean that a matching increase will occur at the pro level.

A lot more black kids might have started playing basketball and football, but that simply left a much larger number that didn’t make the cut. It may have just increased the bar for what it takes to become a pro in the NBA/NFL.

Why didn’t the ratio of White NBA/NFL players shrink? Well there’s a lot more White people in America. And if the bar is being raised for blacks to go pro it’s being raise for Whites too. But whites and blacks are both basically eating the same food so the whites were also becoming bigger and faster.

9 years ago

To show that income and year-round play (good weather) are the main factors rather than a loss of interest in baseball by young African Americans, you would have to show that the number of African American players on little league and high school teams has not declined from the 1960’s through the present. If the same numbers of African American youths are still playing the game relative to the number of white youths playing the game, but higher percentages of white high school players are being drafted out of high school or being recruited to college programs and lower percentages of African American high school players being drafted or recruited, then your conclusions would be valid.

My own subjective and admittedly limited personal experience is that far fewer African Americans are playing little league and high school baseball now than did in the 1960’s or 1970’s, and that it has little to do with white boys beating out black boys for high school roster spots.

Your comparison to the NBA and the NFL also has problems. If weather and wealth are such big factors, why hasn’t that trend also shown up, albeit to a lesser degree, in the NBA and NFL? Also, the idea that the make up of NBA players hasn’t changed much since 1991 fails to take into account a couple of things. First, there are far more foreign players in the NBA now than there were in 1991. I would bet that the number of American born white players has declined since 1991.

Also, you fail to take lingering racism into account. For the bottom two or three roster spots on each NBA team, with many similarly talented players vying for these spots, do you really think that teams do not take race into account when the audiences for NBA games are far whiter than the players on the floor? If you don’t think so, I remind you of Donald Sterling.

9 years ago
Reply to  Matt Swartz

I just don’t buy your thesis. It doesn’t explain why African American grade schoolers and high schoolers are electing not to play baseball at their schools or in little leagues where they aren’t competing against wealthy kids for roster spots, because there aren’t any wealthy kids in their schools or in their neighborhoods.

In the mid-1990’s I had a friend who taught and coached baseball at Galileo High School, an inner-city school in San Francisco that once produced the Dimaggios. The school in the mid-1990’s was predominantly African American and Asian American (ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese). My friend complained mightily that he couldn’t get any African American kids to try out for the baseball team, while the school’s basketball and football teams were full of African American kids.

Also, you don’t really address my comments on the NBA. I strongly suspect that relative to the size of the talent pool from which the NBA now draws (much of the world, including all of Europe, Latin America, Africa, China, Australia, etc.) the number of African Americans in the NBA relative to the overall talent pool has increased significantly since 1991, even taking into account the likely fact that white American players disproportionately get the last two or three roster spots on NBA teams for racial/fan base considerations.

9 years ago
Reply to  Matt Swartz

Matt Swartz wrote: “The problem is that your theory doesn’t explain why there has also been a decline in the prevalence of white players from poorer counties or the decline of all players from colder states.”

Interesting point. And how deeply should we attribute the connection of a player to his “state” (i.e. place of birth, grew up, high school, college)?

For example, Reggie Jackson was born, grew up and attended high school just north of Philadelphia. But attended Arizona State University.

Lou Whitaker was born in Brooklyn, but when he was a year old his family moved to Martinsville, Virginia.

Willie Randolph was born in South Carolina. But before he was a year old, his family moved to Brooklyn, where he would grow up and attend high school before being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Point is, I think further study is warranted in where to “assign” a player as being from. Not sure that simply looking at places of birth for the general population and that of ballplayers is the best approach. There are some important variables for potential ballplayers (high school and collegiate careers).

james wilson
9 years ago

“Creating opportunities for disadvantaged youth in America to grow as ballplayers…”

Tripe. Patronizing tripe. Encouraging a kid, any kid, to fritter his life away chasing a career in professional sports reveals how little you think of them. One chance in a hundred, if he’s really good.

The great black American love of baseball ended with integration. With basketball and football, it began with integration. For whatever reason, or no reason at all. Stop wringing your hands, white boy. Black people don’t care. Dominicans don’t care. Buy a dog.

9 years ago

If wealth is as important a factor as claimed, why are we seeing more and more Latin players from humble origins in the MLB system? Further, Latin players in the game are still disproportionately dark skinned, which generally means that they are coming from less economically privileged segments of their home countries. If wealth were so important, wouldn’t we also be seeing Latin players getting lighter skinned, since income and racial disparities are even greater in countries like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, Columbia, and Venezuela than they are in the U.S? Shouldn’t the children of the wealthy be dominating baseball in those countries also, which quite clearly they are not?

9 years ago
Reply to  Burly

Burly wrote: “If wealth were so important, wouldn’t we also be seeing Latin players getting lighter skinned, since income and racial disparities are even greater in countries like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Panama, Columbia, and Venezuela than they are in the U.S?”

I would hope the study correctly assigned players from Puerto Rico as being U.S.-born.

9 years ago

Is the trend the same for hitters and pitchers?

9 years ago

As a 47 year old African American, I would like to offer my insight into this discussion. I think this has to a lot to with many African American children growing up in single parent households. With the mother being the only parent at home. When I was growing up in the 1970’s, my dad use to take me and my brother to MANY games at Wrigley Field. Chicago Cubs were the “home” team in our house. My dad got me involved, interested, and still a big baseball fan. Today’s boys may not have that same expirence…so maybe they are pushed to football or basketball. I am not saying this is the answer, but just my opinion. I also played basketball (being from NW Indiana), but baseball was my #1 sport.

adam smith
9 years ago

You hit it in your penultimate paragraph. Have you looked at the number of players who are entering professional baseball through colleges vs those entering right out of high school over the course of time? All speculation on my part, I’m too lazy to do the research, but my guess is that an increase in college players over the years (and subsequent decrease in the number of high school players drafted and signed,) would explain some of the decline in African American professional baseball players. It would also explain why wealthier counties are producing more players. The climate factor is self evident…baseball is played outside in good weather, and in spite of Dr Andrews wanting you to play less often, the fact is that the more you play the better you become. It is interesting that, while the draft, and especially the first round, is predominantly college oriented, (roughly 70% of the draft comes from college,) your list of great African American players has more players drafted out of high school than out of college. And there are more first rounders on your list from high school than from college. As you mentioned, there are far more opportunities for scholarship in football and basketball than there are in baseball. Football equipment is provided by schools. Basketballs are cheap. Baseball has become an expensive sport from the entry level on up. If my son is a good athlete and has more opportunities to acheive a college scholarship in football or baseketball, I am pushing him in that direction–especially if I can’t afford all the baseball gear, fees, and travel expenses. It’s about opportunities.

9 years ago

I fail to see any relevance in any of this information…who really cares about the demographics of a sport exactly matching the demographics of the population…its ludicrous to even think that scenario is even possible. It isn’t, it never has been and it never will be. Leagues take the best players regardless of their ethnic ancestry..maybe some black kids just aren’t interested in athletics because like many kids I know, they are completely turned off to sports because of the piss poor examples of human beings many athletes, regardless of race are. This whole discussion is absolutely insipid and is an exercise in absolute futility. The absolute LAST thing this country needs is a baseball welfare program. Because that is exactly what you are talking about. Some people will just have to realize that life isn’t fair, you can not be anything you want to be and you will not have access to every advantage that everyone else does. That’s life, deal with it, get over it, move on.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago

The Braves situation is a chicken-and-egg scenario. Atlanta is extremely spread out and most of the Braves fans-at least according to the team’s accounts-come from the northern suburbs and, obviously, are white. Atlanta’s public transportation-like most southern cities-is not particularly good and traffic is terrible, making it difficult to get to the stadium from the suburbs and attendence has been relatively weak for years. Whatever the issues involved, it’s not really the team’s fault that the fans do not come from the inner city. (This is ignoring the issue of public funding for ballparks in the first place.) Did the Braves move to get away from the inner city or did they move to go where their fans were?

One commenter suggested that the last few players on NBA teams are white in order to appeal to white audiences. I find that hard to buy. Even if people are racist, how many are going to buy a ticket just to see some white guy sitting on the bench? Aside from Donald Sterling, it just seems weird to me as a business matter that teams would care about the race of their 12th man. Most white people who go to basketball games are going to see the stars, not some guy whose only role is to give up his seat during timeouts. To me, you would have to posit an incredible level of racism to say that this makes any difference; people that are that racist are hardly going to attend games where the vast majority of players are non-white. It’s not as if white kids are clamoring for [random 12th white guy] shirts.

I tend to agree with one commenter that it’s pointless to try to chase after some perfect demographic make up. Not every activity is going to look like America. From a business standpoint, it obviously makes sense for MLB to look for ways to increase interest in the game in all segments of society, but it may not be realistic. I do think there is an income factor and, if so, it’s a far bigger issue than MLB can address. My daughter is helping to coach a Harlem RBI t-ball team this summer. Will these kids grow up to play or even be interested in baseball? Who knows?

Steely Glint
9 years ago

What does it matter why any ethnic group is under- or over-represented in any activity? No activity will ever represent a perfect cross-section of America; people can and do make choices. Some of them will seem puzzling from the outside, but the choices are nonetheless valid.

Are there any MLB-constructed barriers to the entry of any particular race or ethnicity? There are certainly not, so the MLB is not at fault here. Shall we now attempt to force uncondtitional racial quotas on the situation, or shall we endorse freedom of choice for all?

The correct answer is obvious.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago

In fairness, the issue is not racial quotas; the issue is marketing the game to a larger segment of the population. MLB should be concerned from a business standpoint if a significant segment of the population is not interested in the game. And, to the extent that participation mirrors interest, the declining numbers of African-American players is problematic. (That’s different than saying you need African-American players to increase interest among the African-American community. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But, the more interest in the game, you would expect greater participation.) That includes young people as well as the demographics are skewing older for baseball. To that extent, it makes sense for baseball to make some effort to reverse the decline in interest, not just among African-Americans, but among younger people as well. As fans of the game, we should want the game to appeal to more people. However, I do think it’s unrealistic to expect every segment of society to be equally represented in every actvity.

Steely Glint
9 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

This racial logic would indicate that we should also try to increase the number of white players in the NBA so as keep the white audience interested – which is, of course, kind of silly on the face of it.

I want the best athletes who want to play to be the ones playing pro sports. And, like many if not most people, I don’t care about their color or ethnicity, just that they are the best available.

Like Martin Luther King, I long for the day when everyone is judged by their accomplishments and their capabilities and not the color of their skin.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago

No one is saying to bring black players in regardless of their ability and you know it. But, if you want the best players, regardless of race, then you should be concerned if the best African-American athletes are not going into baseball; not because they are African-American but because they would improve the talent pool in baseball.

I don’t really understand why it bothers you that baseball, like any business, would want to expand its appeal and, therefore, would look for ways to increase interest in baseball among African-Americans. Businessess try to market to specific demographics all the time.

Michael Bacon
9 years ago

First, if you want to know why Americans of African descent have opted out of baseball, why do you not simply ask them? And I do not mean asking former MLB players like Barry Larkin and Doug Glanville, although it would be interesting to hear their thoughts on the matter, but ask the ones with no interest in baseball why they have no interest in baseball. Baseball has always been a game passed from father to son, and statistics have shown a large number of Americans of African descent have come of age without a father. One of the reasons being the fact that the US puts more people behind bars than any other country in the history of the world, and the majority of them are people of African descent.
The fact is that it is becoming more difficult for a fan, no matter the pigmentation of his skin, to support players who make so much money, especially since We The People were Bushwhacked by the Banksters in 2008. I have read that the Dodgers and Giants of New York would ride the subway to the game along with the fans. Today the exorbitantly paid players are in a different world from the fans and it has fostered resentment, as has the high price of a ticket to a game, not to mention the so-called, “luxury boxes” built to keep the upper crust from the hoi polloi. MLB is reaping what it has sown.
Why do you call Americans of African descent “Black”? Just as Caucasian people have different shades, so do they. Why do you call Derek Jeter “Black” when he is of mixed race, as are the vast majority of the citizens of this country. I believe Mr. Jeter has a father of African descent and a Caucasian mother. Why do you not categorize him as “White”?
I was born in the Great State of Georgia and happy when the Braves moved South from the city that made Old Milwaukee beer famous. I was a fan of, and rooted for, ALL Brave players. I pulled for Hank Aaron, and his brother Tommie, just as much as I pulled for Phil Niekro and Joe Torre. My best friend, the Legendary Georgia Ironman (in chess) favorite Brave was the “Beeg Boy,” Rico Carty. What mattered to us was the content of their slash line, or ERA, not the color of their skin. One can make a case that the Braves helped to make Atlanta the “city too busy to hate.”
People of color have not turned their collective back on MLB because they lack star players but because the game has left them behind; turned its collective back on them. The same thing is happening with caucasian middle class fans. As one former fan told me recently, “It cost more than I can afford to take my family and the game takes so long, ending long after we need to be in bed. The game drags on so long now what with all the pitching changes allowing more time for even more commercials that I have become bored with baseball. The game lasts so long that my sons cannot watch a whole game, so why watch any at all?”
MLB is fast becoming a game for only the wealthy; the one%. Half the country is on food stamps and the other half is on disability. How are those people going to afford the price of a ticket? Older people still watch, and listen to a game on the radio because it puts them in touch with the past. The next generation could care less. This bodes ill for baseball. I predict in the future Bud Selig will be looked upon as the worst MLB Commissioner in the history for myriad reasons with the fact that he was asleep at the wheel while this was transpiring being foremost among them.

Michael Bacon
9 years ago

I wrote this in reply to part 1, “The map from the NY Times, and every map I have seen during my lifetime (born in 1950) shows the Confederate South lagging behind no matter what is being studied. Therefore you simply cannot judge the South the same way you judge the other sections of the “United” States!”
Take a look at the map provided by the NY Times today in the article, “Where Are the Hardest Places to Live in the U.S.?” (
Just look at the states of the old Confederacy. And it has been this way ever since the War For Southern Independence. I rest my case when it comes to judging the South!

Chris Coh
8 years ago

Also, off topic but I want everyone to know that there’s shit load of price fixing and collusion in the MLB–much more than in the NFL but much less than the NBA.

The owners have a long history of fixing games, and revenue sharing is another way of reducing competition further. The playoffs are a crapshoot completely, but that’s no mistake. And the demand for the game has become less tied to winning over the years, and regional market size is becoming less tied to revenue as TV and internet have introduced out-of-market fans. Put all of that together, and there’s no a substantial interest between the owners to create pre-determined outcomes to maximize profits for all.

Look at the combination of World Series and playoff teams annually. It’s almost always some combination of a large-market club with slumping revenue (Tigers, Royals, Rangers, Marlins, Rays, Rockies, Giants, Angels, D’Backs) from 1 region and another team that is a proven winner and/or from a large market with inelastic demand from another region (Red Sox, Yankees, Giants after their revitalization and initial wins). There is never a combination between two small market or poor teams anymore, there is rarely a combination of 2 teams from the same region unless that region comprises almost a third of the league’s total revenue (New York and tri-state area.)

Playoff revenue is not determined solely by number of wins, but by finding the apex of the curve where interest and mid-term ticket revenue as it at it’s peak. So creating an exciting series is the motivation, the opposite of creating truly fair competition. The playoffs were created as a method to create revenue anyway. It’s totally absurd, in a sport that plays 162 games, revenue sharing and has such a high degree of randomness that the best teams barely win 60% of the time, that there was a need to created playoffs with 2 wild card teams, 1, 5, 7-game series and 3-4 rounds to determine the best team. There’s the probability of coin toss of winning a series over such a short sample, however if the league-owned umpires who sign away their rights and are protected from examination by the media/players/fans don’t call a fair game, it’s very easy to determine outcome. It’s almost as easy as it is in the NBA, where the game is so obviously fixed that ownership doesn’t hide it from players and coaches anymore.

I worked in the back office of a prominent east-region team for quote some time before taking a higher paying job elsewhere.

Southern Baseballer
8 years ago

I witnessed the decline in African-American interest in baseball growing up in the South in the 80s and 90s. The author can say what he wants, but it was UNDENIABLE, and it was not about ‘opportunity’ or ‘disadvantage’ or ‘racism’. When I was much younger in the 70s and 80s, the good black athletes played all sports, including baseball. And believe me, in my community and the others around me, they were mostly from poor backgrounds, poorer than blacks are now. But those guys would catch a ride on the back of a pickup truck with whoever to get to baseball practice. I new a black guy who, in the off season, left after school and worked a 4-12 shift at a factory every day. But he quit his job during baseball season, and the needed money he got from it, because he loved the sport. Up until the late 80s, the local HS baseball teams were always about the same percent black as the school populations around them, and the black kids who were the star players in little league went on to be stars on high school teams. Then, somewhere around the mid to late 80s, I noticed that the good black baseball players in the little leagues around me quit playing baseball right around the 13-14 year old age. These same poor black kids would still pile 10 to an old junker car if a basketball gym was open a county away just to shoot hoops, but that motivation disappeared where baseball was concerned. And believe me, the coaches used to beg them to come out for the team at first until it became plain they weren’t even considering it.

My opinion? I think the opposite of the author. I think blacks have dropped participation not because they are poorer. Heck, they were MUCH poorer in the 50s-70s than they are now. I think it may be because they are LESS poor. More black kids now have cars and video games, just like their white counterparts, and they’ve been discovering there’s other stuff to do besides pack on the back of a pickup truck to come to baseball practice.