¡Pleibol! America’s Pastime Becomes a Global Obsession

Orioles Celebrating

Foreign-born players constitute nearly one in three Major League Baseball (MLB) roster spots. Does this make America’s Pastime less American?

MLB issued a celebratory press release on opening day.

“The 259 players born outside the U.S. (29.8 percent) come from the pool of 868 players (749 active 25-man roster players and 119 disabled, suspended or restricted Major League players) on April 2nd rosters and represent a record-high 19 countries and territories outside the U.S.,” MLB points out. “Previously, there were 18 countries and territories represented on Opening Day rosters in 1998 and 2016. The 259 foreign-born players and the percentage of 29.8 are both the highest figures in history, eclipsing the previous record totals of 246 players on 2007 Opening Day rosters and 29.2 percent of players on 2005 Opening Day rosters.”

The foreign invasion appears standard for the Big Four. Talent imported from abroad increasingly marks the four major North American Sports.

The NBA boasted 113 foreign-born players at the start of the current season. That’s enough talent to fill rosters on seven of the league’s 30 teams.

Hockey, more popular outside the United States than inside of it, ranks as the least American of the North American Big Four. Unlike baseball, football, and basketball, its creation came elsewhere. But Americans continue their rise on NHL rosters. For the first time in league history, Canadians did not constitute a majority of players in the NHL during the 2015-2016 season. The rise of American players largely caused the decline in players from the Great White North. Americans currently make up an all-time high of about 27 percent of NHL rosters. And last season Patrick Kane put an exclamation point on this upward trajectory by becoming the first American to win a scoring title in the league.

Football, the most uniquely American of the four major sports, unsurprisingly fields the fewest number of foreign-born players. Of the 1,700 or so athletes suiting up for NFL teams during the 2016 season, less than 60 hailed from a foreign country.

In all four sports, but particularly baseball, the influx of foreign talent provides fans a better product. Baseball without David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, and Ichiro Suzuki in the 21st century would have made the major leagues more of a minor deal. A much larger pool of players competes than did when Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth played. This inevitably makes the product better.

Baseball enjoys more competition. Unfortunately, it comes for the sport not just on the diamond—but on the gridiron, court, and ice. In 1985, baseball (23 percent) and professional football (24 percent) appeared neck-and-neck in the race for the title of America’s favorite sport, according to the annual Harris poll. Last year’s survey showed professional football’s popularity as more than double that of baseball. Considering that Harris includes college football as a separate category, this NFL-MLB split really underestimates the dominance of King Football.

Of course, jingoes could show a correlation between the decline of American players in MLB and the relative decline of MLB’s popularity. But causation remains a trickier proposition. Americans, for numerous reasons probably more related to pace of play, fan attention span, the gap between big-market and small-market teams, television trumping radio, and labor stoppages than to the heritage of ball players, follow baseball less feverishly than they once did.

Like Coca Cola, McDonald’s, and David Hasselhoff, baseball’s popularity waned in America as it exploded overseas. Baseball shows the greatness of America by exporting a U.S. product to the world. Like Hollywood, baseball makes America’s cultural footprint larger. The Dominicans, Cubans, Venezuelans, and Japanese flocking to our shores to play give fans a better game. And when the Fall Classic takes place in October, the commissioner can now pass a lie-detector test in calling it a World Series.