April 3, 2007

Retreating On Robinson

ABC News interviewed Hall of Fame baseball player Dave Winfield on an intriguing question: what has happened to black baseball players? After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, African-American children wanted to follow in his cleat steps, and many of them did. As ABC and Winfield note and the latter laments, that has not been the case for decades now. After peaking at 27% in 1974, the percentage of blacks among major-league ballplayers has fallen to a paltry 9%.

So what happened? The children have moved to football and basketball, but ABC and Winfield miss one of the most important reasons why:

Baseball is no longer the sport of choice for America's children. Gone are the days of sandlot pickup games and summer afternoons filled with playing catch and home run derbies. Kids — especially in urban areas — today dream of dunking like Shaquille O'Neal, throwing the winning touchdown like Donovan McNabb, and signing a multimillion dollar deal at the age of 19 like 2003's No.1 NBA draft pick LeBron James. ...

Winfield, who batted .283 in 22 Major League seasons, attributes the dwindling number of blacks in baseball to "myriad factors," including lack of field space in urban areas, the availability of local leagues, the cost of equipment and improper instruction.

"There are a lot of socio-economic factors," said Winfield. "Society has changed. There used to be open spaces, and people said, 'Hey, let's play, let's go outside.' Stick ball, stoop ball, home run derby -- in the urban areas, you rarely see that anymore. There are very few spaces that developers haven't taken advantage of and, on the other end, other sports -- specifically basketball and football -- have [attracted] the great athletes in urban areas."

Without a doubt, Winfield names some of the reasons why the game doesn't capture the imaginations of black children in the same way it did earlier. Cities have less room for baseball fields, and families have less time to allow children to play it. Basketball courts fit perfectly into city environments, and football gets plenty of support from the schools, as also does basketball. With crimes against children getting serious attention, the days of allowing them to hang out in the streets unattended has started to pass -- and when they do, predatory gangs afflict those neighborhoods, replacing any thought of organized ball.

The one major change they miss, though, is the amateur draft. The modern amateur baseball draft started in 1965, and one of my favorite players, Rick Monday, was the first player drafted. The draft forced all amateur baseball players from the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico to enter into it in order to get placed with a major-league organization. It excludes players from other countries -- and that's the problem.

In the decades before the modern draft, teams scouted the country to look for hidden gems in the heartland. They encouraged children to play ball, in rural and urban areas, in order to broaden the pool. The scouts lived to find prospects who could play ball and whom other scouts had never seen, and to sign them for their own organization. The teams spent plenty of money doing that, until the draft.

Now they spend tons of money on player development, but they do it in places like Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela. The teams want to get a direct benefit from their development dollars. In the US, that's been impossible for 42 years; they can't sign kids they discover, but can only encourage them into the draft. In these other countries, they can sign the players themselves and recoup the investment directly.

What has happened is that the demographics of major-league baseball players has turned decidedly international. There's nothing wrong with that, either; MLB wants an international audience for its game, and it has to get players from around the world to build that kind of interest. This is another part of Robinson's legacy in breaking the color barrier. However, it means that African-Americans get a smaller share of the pie than they do in other sports, and as a result, they feel less engaged with the sport in their youth.

It's no accident that the peak of African-American participation came nine years after the draft; it takes that long for most of the people in the minors to work their way to the big clubs. After the draft started changing the demographics in the minors, the majors were certain to follow suit.

Baseball can certainly change that by investing more time and money in building urban programs to get children interested in the game. However, they may want to rethink the draft and the impact it has had on the sport's competitive interest in American ballplayers.


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Comments (18)

Posted by Immolate [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 6:29 AM

Ed... baseball may also want to seriously consider just how popular MLB will be when it comes to be perceived as watching a bunch of South American's play ball. Americans want to identify with their heroes.

Baseball has steadily lost ground to the NFL and NBA in recent decades. I don't think that I have a grasp on all of the causes, but can certainly see why not actively recruiting from within will be detrimental over the long term.

I have four kids who play ball and who've been active in Little League for six years. I see their participation as worthwhile within its own context, but it would be nice for a boy to be able to dream about a future in the sport.

Posted by Bennett [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 7:05 AM

Some of the most popular players in MLB are from Latin America, Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, Mariano Rivera to name a few. I think the infusion of Latin players has been very good for the game. And with more Japanese players coming in as well, the game is truly taking on an international flavor. Just another variation on the global economy.

I also wonder how much of this has to do with Title IX. Many players who enter the draft do so from college where presumably they are on some sort of athletic scholarship. With so many schools cutting programs like baseball to comply with Title IX, perhaps that is having an effect as well. College basketball and football programs are generally better funded, I think. I don't know, just a thought.

Posted by Tom Shipley [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 7:13 AM


Baseball is the most diverse sport in America. If any sport gives ANY kid a chance to see themselves in a major league uniform, it's MLB. Even with the low percentage of black players today, young black stars are moving in with the likes of Ryan Howard and Delmon Young.

Baseball's popularity has been growing the past few years, with strong ticket sales and television ratings, despite it's major stars being named Pujols, Soriano, Santana, Beltran, Ramierez, Ortiz, etc...

You also have Joe Mauer, David Wright, Alex Gordan and Justin Morneau (AL MVP) as young white stars on the rise.

Then there's Dice-K, Ichiro and Wang for Asian kids to look up to.

That's pretty much the four major food groups of the American melting pot.

Posted by George [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 7:16 AM

Could baseball be losing its attraction due to steroids? I know of no other sport that tracks records and statistics as much as they are tracked in baseball. When the records are achieved by questionable means, they mean nothing. The sport seems more hollow every year.

Posted by Cindy [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 7:20 AM

Something else to take into account is a general attitude that MLB only cares about enriching MLB. A lot of fans lost interest in the game after the 1994 strike. Many lifelong fans (like myself) have been disillusioned with MLB since they made Bud Selig Commissioner and the 1994 strike was the straw that broke the camels back for a lot of us.


Posted by capitano [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 7:46 AM

I think you are on to something regarding the amateur draft, but in my opinion the problem with baseball is twofold and both of them cultural.

First, baseball doesn't lend itself to the thuggery and exhibitionism popularized in the entertainment media today -- it's traditionally more gentlemanly than basketball or football. Obviously there are contrary examples in the MLB, but at least there is an effort to preserve tradition. You may remember that during the 2001 Little League World Series, the Bronx Little League team was warned by the umpire to stop showboating and taunting the other teams or he would declare a forfeit. It's the same team the was ultimately disqualified in the Danny Almonte scandal. The ESPN commentators fell all over themselves trying to excuse the bad sportsmanship, but the contrast between the Bronx team and every other team was vivid.

Second, in spite of all the whining about poverty in the U.S., kids who grow up here really do know how to entertain themselves without wearing $150 athletic shoes. It's still fashionable to be the best shortstop regardless of the equipment. This is the way it was 40 - 50 years ago everywhere -- city and suburb. Kids played stickball, dodgeball, softball, baseball, you-name-it in the playgrounds during recess at school and in the streets and vacant lots until it was too dark to see at night.

What are the odds of seeing dodgeball on a school playground today?

Posted by NoDonkey [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 7:51 AM

For whatever reason, inner city culture pegs baseball as being a "white" sport. I don't see what baseball can do to change that. Basketball can be played year around and in many ways, it's more fun to play than baseball is.

I go to Washington Nationals games once in a while, and the only black people in the park are the vendors. RFK is located in a black neighborhood. Meanwhile, there is a good percentage of fans who are black at the Wizards games and those tickets are far more than are baseball tickets. Nats tickets start at $5, whereas Wiz tickets start at $20, so it's not the money.

But despite that, the sport is thriving at all levels. College baseball is growing in popularity, look at how well it's doing in the SEC conference, particularly. I noticed that when I was in New Orleans recently, that all of LSUs/Tulane's games are broadcast.

With how long the seasons last, it's hard to focus on more than one or two sports anymore. I like baseball and football, myself. Hard to have time for much more.

Posted by capitano [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 8:04 AM

College baseball is growing in popularity, look at how well it's doing in the SEC conference, particularly. I noticed that when I was in New Orleans recently, that all of LSUs/Tulane's games are broadcast.

Posted by NoDonkey at April 3, 2007 07:51 AM

I agree and add minor league baseball to your list -- it's family-oriented and a good value in most parts of the U.S.

Posted by jerry [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 9:38 AM

We are forgetting the ban was not just on African-Americans but all players of African decent. To say that there has been a decline in black players in the major leagues is wrong. What we are seeing is the internationalization of MLB and that is good for the sport. If 9% of major league ballplayers are African-American then given the number of international players, many of whom are black, African Americans are indeed participating in the majors in proportion to their numbers in the population

Posted by Monkei [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 9:54 AM

Next to being at Beaver Stadium watching college football on any given Saturday in Happy Valley, baseball is the distant second, ESPECIALLY if you can watch games in the spring in Florida. Then comes pro hockey and pro football. There is nothing close on the pro level than watching a baseball game in Dunedin with a nice cold Canadian beer of your choice.

While Rudy is a classic ND movie, more great movies have been made about baseball ... forget the numbers, it is still America's Pastime.

Posted by NoDonkey [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 10:02 AM

Agree, capitano and admission prices for baseball are by far the cheapest for pro sports. You can buy a ticket for half what a movie costs.

And yes, there's less kids out playing, due to video games, etc, so getting enough kids to put together a decent sized game is hard.

If you get 10 kids together, you can have a full court 5 on 5 basketball game. 10 for baseball and you have a pitcher, 1st/2nd base, SS/3B and two outfielders. Lotta ground to cover.

I think it's good for kids to play a sport, any sport. Better than sitting inside playing video game or reading the New York Times.

Posted by NoDonkey [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 10:10 AM

"There is nothing close on the pro level than watching a baseball game in Dunedin."

I assume that's in Canada. That does sound good.

The best I've experienced is drinking an Old Style at Wrigley, at 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday, when the sun is shining and it's 80 degrees.

Must admit it beats drinking an Iron City Light in the bleachers in Pittsburgh, although that's close.

Posted by dixie68 [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 11:05 AM

I think you have missed the boat entirely when you say that more money needs to be thrown at it. More education needs to be thrown at it. Check the IQ of any baseball player against the best in NFL and NBA. You will find your answer there.

Posted by The Yell [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 5:51 PM

There's a sports complex in our town devoted entirely to amatuer baseball, softball, and soccer leagues.

Membership fee: $100
Security deposit: $50
Required Aluminum bat (2", any store): >$300
Modern gloves (any store): >$80
Cleats (any store): >$60
Ball: >$2

of course I can go play in a vacant lot with a $40 wooden bat and a secondhand fielder's mitt for $35 IF anybody else shows up, but if I expect a guaranteed schedule of games, I better pony up...

Posted by das411 [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 3, 2007 7:29 PM

So if African-Americans are 9% of MLB players now and are...hmm, well Wikipedia says 12% of the general population..how is this anything other than "enlightened" white liberal guilt?

Do Dave Winfield and Bug Selig *really* want to go back to the days when there were no Hispanic or Asian players in the bigs? Actually that might help Bud's Brewers by getting rid of the best hitter in their division, but just think of what that would do to Winfield's Yankees!

Speaking of which, wouldn't Derek Jeter make that 9.5%? ;-)

Posted by jerry [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 4, 2007 1:36 PM


That 9% of the total makes it about 12% of the American Players, i.e., right on the number.

Since many of the Latin palyers are also Black the percentage of all players is greater.

Posted by NoDonkey [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 4, 2007 1:44 PM

"of course I can go play in a vacant lot with a $40 wooden bat and a secondhand fielder's mitt for $35 IF anybody else shows up, but if I expect a guaranteed schedule of games, I better pony up..."

We used cheap bats and tennis balls. Didn't cost much.

And I had much more fun playing pickup games than I ever did playing in organized leagues.

The only thing organized sports did for me was:
1) Taught me how to exercise/train regularly and 2) Prepared me for the military.

Which moved me towards my present excellent health and my livlihood.

But organized sports are not much fun, unless you're a star and I was not.

Posted by Only_One_Cannoli [TypeKey Profile Page] | April 4, 2007 3:09 PM

Interesting point about the draft. Baseball is a slower-paced game than the others mentioned - i think that has something to do with it ... much more standing and waiting in baseball than in basketball.

Rick Monday was a better player than announcer. (i once heard Monday describe a return throw from the catcher to the pitcher as returning that "small white orb")

Rudy was an awful movie.

Baseball at Wrigley really is a unique experience - glad I made my pilgrimage 2 yrs ago. Chicago's an amazing city too.