The Staggering Decline Of Baseball In The African-American Community
Since 1981 -- when African-Americans represented 18.7% of all Major League Baseball players -- the sport has seen a steady decline in the demographic's representation. Heading into the 2015 MLB season, only 7.8% of the league is African-American. That's a 70% drop in 34 years.
Here's what that looks like.
The explanations for this dramatic change are as varied as the demographics themselves. Some blame cutbacks in public funding, some point to an uptick in the popularity of basketball and football, others point to the increase in Hispanic players as a possible explanation (though the participation of white Americans has not changed), while some even suggest that the decline is simply an illusion created by poorly collected data.
C.C. Sabathia offers the lack of baseball scholarships, relative to basketball and football, as another contributing factor.
“If I had a choice, I would have had to go to college to play football, because my mom couldn’t afford to pay whatever the percent was of my baseball scholarship," he said last year. "So if I hadn’t been a first-round pick, I would have gone to college to play football because I had a full ride."
Though the real explanation for the decline is undoubtedly a combination of cultural and economic factors, Sabathia's account stands as definitive example of how an African-American high school kid could be driven away from baseball before he even realizes his potential. There comes a point where the Jameis Winstons and Russell Wilsons of the world stop putting their eggs in the baseball basket and focus soley on other sports -- like the ones where you put things in baskets. This seems to be at the heart of the demographic shift and it snowballs from there.
With fewer African-American Major Leaguers, predominantly black high schools have fewer successful Major League alumni to compel younger kids to stick with the sport. Fewer kids playing baseball means even fewer pros, which means a more homogenous televised product and that further deters diverse participation. When you extrapolate Sabathia's story and realize that college baseball is only 2.6% African-American, you can understand why the MLB's percentage is the lowest it's been since the late 1950s.
African-American kids simply don't consider baseball to be a legitimate option because college baseball doesn't care about fostering diversity. It's 88% white. That right there is your smoking gun, folks.
Today on Huffington Post Live, Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson commented on the NCAA's bizarre decree that Little League superstar Mo'ne Davis would not be eligible to play in college if she profited from her sudden fame. "People want to see her, they want to talk to her, they want to compensate her," Granderson said. "Let's find ways to maybe put that towards her college education fund."
...Or just let her make the money, go to college, play baseball and stop leveraging a inner-city child's earning potential with their education. It's not like she's playing pro ball in Japan. Relax.
Whatever the solution to this cultural shift -- if there even is a solution -- baseball needs to collectively change its appeal to most of the United State. As it stands, the sport is hemorrhaging younger viewers, which certainly isn't slowing the game's demographic shift. If history is any indication, the change will be slower than a Yankees-Red Sox playoff game.
[Data via The SABR Baseball Biography Project]
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