Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Decline of African-American Players in Baseball

In 2010 and 2011, the Texas Rangers Major League Baseball Club won the first two American League pennants of their otherwise mediocre existence.  In both cases, they clinched the pennant with an active roster littered roughly equally with a mixture of Anglos and Latinos, except for one lonely African-American – 41-year old journeyman relief pitcher Darren Oliver.  However, the Rangers do have an African-American manager who America is falling in love with – the always enthusiastic, hyperactive Ron Washington.  While the playing roster itself has only one African-American contributor, the team leader is none other than the New Orleans bred African-American baseball lifer Washington, who still makes his home in the city’s infamous Ninth Ward.
This construction of a Major League Baseball (MLB) team is less surprising than it probably should be.  The MLB Racial and Gender Report Card, issued annually by The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, gave MLB an “A” for its racial hiring practices in 2011.  This grade follows “A” grades in both 2010 and 2009.  Major League Baseball is receiving credit for increasing its number of minority front office employees, managers, and coaches.  The overall number of non-white players is also increasing, largely due to the percentage increase of Latino players in the game from 13% in 1990 to around 27% today.  However, this progress comes at a time when the number of African-American players in the game is steadily decreasing, from 17% in 1990 to a paltry 8.5% in 2011. 

Several factors are often cited to as the reasons for this decline.  One is that the sport itself is inherently more expensive to play than other sports, because of both the cost of equipment and the cost of joining a league. A good bat can cost between $300 and $600, and on top of that, a player needs gloves, batting gloves, and uniforms.  Furthermore, youth baseball (pre-high school) has become all about traveling teams, which cost a significant amount in both fees and traveling expenses.  Finally, at the collegiate level, NCAA Division I schools only award 11.7 baseball scholarships a year, reduced from 20 in 1981.  These costs push young African-Americans towards sports such as basketball and football, which can usually be participated in cheaply by comparison.  This disparity in the costs of playing the respective sports has contributed to the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) being made up of roughly 80% and 70% African-American athletes, respectively, while MLB lags far behind.

Another factor causing the decline of African-American baseball players is the way the game markets itself.  Curtis Granderson, an All-Star center fielder with the New York Yankees who is also black, says when he played with Detroit that the team showed white players on all of their billboards around town, even though their roster had several black stars such as Granderson, Gary Sheffield and Jacque Jones.  Other All-star caliber African-American players such as Ryan Howard and Carl Crawford cannot seem to break into the house-hold name category.  Meanwhile, Barry Bonds, who is arguably the biggest African-American baseball star of his generation, is mostly vilified rather than celebrated as a result of his suspected steroid use, and right or wrong baseball has chosen to mostly disassociate itself with Bonds since his retirement from the game.  Young black athletes need star players that are both adequately marketed and look like them in order to retain their interest in the game, and there just is not enough of those players in today’s game.

A factor that perhaps is not discussed enough is the evolution of the economics of the game.  A black athlete who grows up in America cannot enter into the MLB draft until he’s 18, and a player picked in the first round (the only round where a player has a better chance than not to actually play an MLB game at some point) will get an average signing bonus of over $2 million.  Meanwhile, most Latin American players are signed at age 16 by a major league team for a six-figure contract, and only recently did elite-level Latin players begin receiving seven-figure deals.  As a result of both the age restriction and higher signing bonuses in America, teams sign three to four Latin American players for every young African-American athlete.  It is simply a “very pragmatic business [decision]” according to Jimmie Lee Solomon, the MLB executive vice president for baseball operations.

This brings us back to the Rangers, who were well-known to be in dire financial straits for the years leading up to their first pennant in 2010.  While the Latin American players on Texas’ current roster are mainly the product of shrewd trades, their commitment to signing and developing young Latin players is shown in the makeup of the team’s prospects: in both 2010 and 2011, 50% of the Rangers’ top 10 prospects were Latin born players.  50% were white.  0% was African-American.  The Rangers are now generally considered to be among the smartest teams in baseball, and one reason is their harvesting of cheap talent in Latin America while passing over young black players who cost more and are subject to more stringent labor restrictions.  As long as this model is a winning model, one can expect it to be mirrored by other organizations, and the number of African-Americans in the game may even further decline as a result.

Joel Eckhardt

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