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The Decline of African-American Players in Baseball

by Joel Eckhardt, TRESL Staff

In 2010 and 2011, the Texas Rangers won the first two AL pennants of their otherwise mediocre existence. In both cases, they clinched the pennant with a roster littered with a roughly equal mixture of white and Latino players, with one 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 roster itself has only one African-American contributor, the team leader is a New Orleans-bred African-American baseball lifer who still makes his home in that city’s Ninth Ward.

Texas Rangers Manager Ron Washington

This construction of an 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, has given MLB an “A” grade for  its racial hiring practices in each of the last three years. MLB has steadily increased its number of minority managers, coaches, and front office employees. The overall number of minority players is also increasing, largely due to the increase of Latino players from 13% in 1990 to around 27% today. However, this progress comes while the number of African-American players in the game has decreased from 17% in 1990 to a paltry 8.5% in 2011. What has caused this decline?

Expense. Baseball is inherently more expensive to play than other sports, because of the cost of equipment and 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, traveling teams dominate elite youth baseball (pre-high school), and playing with these teams costs 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 are relatively cheaper to play.  This disparity in the costs of playing the respective sports has contributed to the NBA and the NFL being made up of roughly 80% and 70% African-American athletes, respectively, while MLB lags far behind.

Marketing. Another factor causing the decline of African-American baseball players is the way the game markets itself. Curtis Granderson, an African-American, All-Star center fielder for the Yankees, says that when he played with Detroit, the team displayed white players on all of their billboards around town, despite the presence of black stars like Granderson, Gary Sheffield and Jacque Jones. Other All-Star-caliber African-American players like Ryan Howard and Carl Crawford cannot break into the household name category. Furthermore, Barry Bonds, arguably the biggest African-American baseball star of his generation, is mostly vilified rather than celebrated as a result of his suspected steroid use. As a result, baseball has chosen to mostly disassociate itself from 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 baseball, and there simply are not enough of those players today.

Economics. An under-discussed factor is the evolution of the economics of the game. A black athlete who grows up in America may not enter into the MLB draft until he’s 18. A player picked in the first round of the draft (the only round where a player picked has better than a 50-50 chance of playing in an MLB game at some point) receives an average signing bonus of over $2 million. Meanwhile, most Latin American players sign with a major league team at age 16 for a six-figure contract. Only recently did the elite-level Latino 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. These are simply “very pragmatic business decisions” 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 in 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, the team’s 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. Half were white. None were 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 proves a winner, one can expect it to be mirrored by other organizations, and the number of African-Americans in the game may further decline as a result.