Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947. Many thought that would never happen, and many fought to keep it from happening. To share the same professional field with a white man was a pipe dream for many young blacks in America. Then came Jackie. Fast forward 69 years, and the number of African American baseball players is declining. The question is, why?
Why the Number of African American Baseball Players is Declining
Like many social issues, there is no single reason; rather, there are quite a few. In this article, we’ll look at some of those issues, and what MLB and little league groups can do (and are doing) to reignite the game’s spark in African American communities.
Today, the heroes in American sports aren’t baseball players. Long gone are the stories of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio returning from war to continue their baseball careers. No more do we get to enjoy the home run races of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Today’s sports hero’s are either creative touchdown dancers or ankle-breaking three point specialist.
Baseball is quickly becoming the baby brother. Very few casual sports fans can even name the teams on which baseball’s brightest stars play. It isn’t that way in basketball and football. In a nation where a rookie quarterback beating out a veteran is a daily headline, baseball’s stars have no chance.
Adding to a lack of excitement is the length of the games and lack of action. Passionate baseball fans love to see a match-up between Cy Young-caliber aces. Non-baseball fanatics, on the other hand, are bored by a 2-1 game. Today, young people in our country are over saturated with instant gratification. With football and basketball, the movement is almost constant. The scoring and action are quicker paced. This feeds the instant gratification need of all young people, including black youths. Baseball does not.
In the African American community, sports icons wield immense power. For example, LeBron James can stick his logo on the ugliest shoes in the market and still sell $340 million worth of merchandise. Michael Jordan, who retired in 2003, has made more in retirement than he ever did in his playing days; $1.24 billion. Peyton Manning, like MJ, has made millions off the field. Baseball players, for the most part, don’t have the same nationwide appeal.
This is due in large part to the poor job MLB has done with their marketing strategies. While baseball has the most lucrative contracts in professional sports, they leave the promotion of their superstars to the companies representing them. The NBA has done a phenomenal job of running commercials over recent years, starting with it’s “NBA BIG” initiative, on to the modern day “This is Why We Play” campaign.
Baseball is lacking in this department, an area highly effective in the recruitment of young athletes. Increasingly, the parents of today are millennials who grew up infatuated with television. With the ad campaigns of the NFL and NBA overshadowing those of the MLB, it would make sense interest in the sport would diminish among American youths.
Baseball’s superstars themselves are indirectly a part of the declining numbers of African American baseball players. In the league’s history, MLB’s superstars have been largely white, and it is easy to see why. The majority of players are white. When there are more of one race playing a sport, the talent level of that race should, in turn, be higher. That is because there are more players to choose from. To put it simply, there aren’t any black baseball superstars. There are no perennial African American MVP candidates (outside of Mookie Betts, Adam Jones, and an aging Andrew McCutchen). With the African American culture being one that draws from the greatness of one another, the lack of black superstars means a lack of interest from the youths that would potentially look at them as role models.
Baseball is different than basketball and football in that a player doesn’t have to rely on physical ability as much as they do fundamental skills. In basketball and football, the most athletic player on the team is typically the best. Baseball is geared more towards how well a player can do the little things. Being tall, fast, and/or strong does not translate as often to success in baseball. In turn, athletic players see more success in basketball and football at a younger age, causing them to focus more on those sports as they grow.
Baseball is also the most expensive of the three major sports America’s youth typically play. With registration in football, a helmet, jersey, and shoulder pads are typically provided. Youth basketball requires purchase of a jersey and basketball shoes. Baseball requires the registration fee, uniform, glove, cleats, and if desired, a bat.
The expense of youth baseball is a serious problem in the African American community. With 45.8% of black youths living under the poverty line, the cost of the sport causes many parents to choose the cheaper of the three major options.
Bradford Richardson makes a great point in his article for the Washington Post about the decline of black ball players. Baseball is a sport that is typically passed on from a father to a son. In 2012, 72.6 percent of black children were born out of wedlock. With the glaring lack of fatherhood in a large percentage of the African American community, the tradition of sharing baseball, from a father to a son, is dwindling. Sadly, the MLB does not have the capability to increase the relations between fathers and children in the black community.
The Overall Problem
It is no secret that the majority of professional athletes dedicate their life to the sport from a young age. With out the excitement the sport used to bring, a lack of black heroes, the high cost of playing youth baseball, and the growth of single mother households, it’s no wonder there has been a decline in the number of African Americans playing the game. However, Major League Baseball is doing something to help fix the problem.
Major League Baseball’s Solution
Baseball is aware of it’s declining numbers and has begun efforts to get more African Americans involved in the game. The two programs making the biggest impacts are RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and the Urban Youth Academy.
RBI has seen success in the 27 years it has been in place. Justin Upton, James Loney, Coco Crisp, and CC Sabathia are all alumni of the ever-expanding program. It is in place in more than 200 cities world wide, with more than 250,000 participants each year.
The Urban Youth Academy, founded in 2006, strives to give young players of all races an opportunity to play baseball. Along with donations of old baseball- and MLB-backed coaching, UYA is doing it’s part to grow the sport among America’s black youths.
In reality, the decline in the number of African American baseball players at the major league level is a concern more than a catastrophe. Major League Baseball is trying different things to get more African Americans into the sport. The facts that contracts are guaranteed and baseball players typically enjoy a longer career than other pro athletes, should draw more players of all races to the game. However, the question remains, is that is enough?