The Decline of African Americans in the MLB

A trip to the baseball park for a Major League Baseball game on a cool October night brings the orthodox features of a baseball game: hotdogs, the seventh inning stretch and a rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Attendees for such a high-stakes playoff game such as that one might not care to look around the stadium and see what is happening around them. However, if they did, what they saw might surprise them: the overwhelming lack of African Americans playing in the game.

Jackie Robinson was the first baseball player to break the color barrier.

To understand the full root of the issue, let us first look at the declining popularity of MLB games today in the United States. Once termed “America’s Pastime,” with the great Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Pete Rose coming to mind and making crowds roar in the stadium [1], baseball has lost the popularity it once had. The best example of this might be looking at the New York Yankees’ attendance over the years as the Yankees are somehow remarkably good no matter what year it is. In 2008, they finished 3rd in the league and their average game attendance was 4,247,000 at home. However, if you look at the 2017 season, where they finished 2nd in the league, their average game attendance was 3,146,000 at home [2]. This means that even though they performed better in the league last year than they did in 2008, their average game attendance still declined by almost 35%. That is thousands and thousands of people that are no longer interested in attending these MLB games. In comparison, when baseball was at its most popular, people flocked to MLB games as athletes were treated as heroes in society. In particular, Robinson broke the baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947 and paved the way for all the African Americans after him to have the opportunity to play in the game of baseball professionally [3].

However, since the turn of the new century, the country has become more interested in the quarterback that can throw the fanciest pass to their receiver or to the shooting guard making the 3-pointer from way beyond the arc. The overall appeal of baseball is no longer there for casual fans as the sport has no time limit and therefore can go on for hours and hours, often graced by lapses of excitement in play [3]. Therefore, people are much more likely today to turn to football or basketball in the country.

Now turning to issue of why specifically African Americans aren’t playing in the league as much as they used to, let’s first look at the statistics. Only 11 years after Robinson broke the color barrier, the MLB population of African Americans was 7.4 percent. It reached a peak in 1981 at 18.7 percent, but has since dipped to just 7.2 percent in 2012 [4]. This means that the percentage today is now lower than it was only a couple years after desegregation.

Orioles outfielder Adam Jones is one of few MLB players speaking about the lack of African-Americans in the game today.

Another proof that African Americans do not play baseball as much as the other sports is shown in the recent protests regarding professional athletes kneeling while the National Anthem is played before a game. In the NFL, dozens and dozens of players have made the decision to kneel and protest, whereas so far only one player in the MLB has made this choice so far [5]. When a reporter asked Baltimore Orioles player Adam Jones why this was the case, he responded by saying it wasn’t happening in the MLB because it’s a “white man’s sport.” [4]

The biggest influence on the declining participation may in fact be because African Americans are more likely than other ethnicities in the country to not have a father figure in their life, according to a study recently released by The Austin Institute [4]. One of the reasons cited for this claim is because as the percentage of African Americans in the MLB has declined, so has the percentage of U.S. children who are born to married parents, which is especially pronounced in the African American community.

There is a long standing reputation as baseball being a sport where father and son throw and play catch together in the backyard. Without a father or a father-like figure in their life sharing the tradition of the game, African Americans are also less likely to play baseball for fun growing up.

Another point to consider is the where African Americans usually live. According to statistics, they are more likely to live in poorer inner cities than the suburbs. It is easier to put a basketball court in a city because all you need is a small area to put cement and then it’s done and ready to be used for years to come. However, if they want to play baseball, they need a large grassy area to put the baseball field in. They also need someone that is willing to constantly maintain and mow the field. Therefore, children in the suburbs are more likely to play baseball than children in the inner cities because they have the space and resources to do it.

There also comes the point that baseball is a very expensive sport to play in a child’s youth. For example, to play on a team you have to pay the registration fee and buy the uniform, glove, cleats, and a bat, all of which are expensive. In comparison to other youth sports, for football when a child registers, they usually provide all the equipment you need to play, and as for basketball the only equipment you need for that is the uniform and basketball shoes. This is a relevant point because with 45.8% of black youths living under the poverty line, parents will be more likely to put their child in a sport that will cost them less money [3].

The reality of the situation is that African Americans will remain a small presence in the MLB unless the league starts to do something. Since noticing this trend, they have begun efforts to try and curb it. They have established both the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program and the Urban Youth Academy [3]. However, whether or not these initiatives will be enough to grow the sport back up in the African American community remains to be seen.







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