At UCLA, Jackie Robinson became an NCAA-champion long jumper, twice led the Pacific Coast Conference in scoring on the basketball court, and earned an All-American nod as a Bruins running back. He hit .097 playing baseball.
Sixty-seven years after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball few African Americans stick with the game the way its black trailblazer did. Whereas African Americans comprise four-fifths of the NBA and two-thirds of the NFL, they make up just 8.3 percent of the major leagues–not exactly NHL numbers but well below the group’s 12.6 percent chunk of the overall population. Who’s counting? It’s baseball, where from the backs of cards to rotisserie leagues, numbers rule.
A new study suggests that the drop in African American participation in the sport isn’t as drastic as previously believed.
Mark Armour, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, tells MLB.com that his research shows that, contrary to popular belief, African American players in the major leagues never approached 30 percent. “To be fair, the numbers have dropped,” Armour explained. “I believe the numbers have dropped from 18-19 percent, which is what they were for about two decades.”
In other words, the numbers have dropped by about half instead of by about two-thirds. “From the 1970s through the ’90s, the numbers were in the high teens,” Armour reports. “Now they’re half that.” Armour says the high mark came in 1986 at about 19 percent.
To put things in perspective, the major leagues boast more pitchers who’ve experienced Tommy John surgery than growing up black in America. Last year’s World Series featured just one African American among the fifty players on the Cardinals and Red Sox rosters. That player, reserve outfielder Quinton Berry, made a single game-four appearance as a pinch runner for Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
Commissioner Bud Selig responded to the African American decline by creating a task force last season and in 1989 MLB launched the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities).
“[T]he number never got to 20 percent,” Armour says of a popular misconception. “The black-player number, counting all dark-skinned players, was in the high 20s for a period. But not the African-American number. All the press stuff that comes out every April compares the African-American numbers from today with the all-black-players number from the ’70s. And that’s where they make their mistake.”
Why are this generation’s Frank Robinsons and Tony Gwynns and George Fosters choosing football and basketball but not baseball? The slow-pace of the game, some have theorized, clashes with the hip-hop culture. The influx of Latin players, others point out, necessarily cuts into the number of native players on MLB rosters. Armour, tracing why the numbers trailed off in the 1990s, offers a two-word answer: Michael Jordan.
Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia arrives at another conclusion. “Baseball’s a sport where you learn how to play catch with your dad,” Sabathia told the New York Times. “There’s a lot of single-parent homes in the inner city, so it’s hard to get kids to play.”