Baseball is a game of numbers. Rollie Fingers, Hall of Fame pitcher and Major League Baseball legend once said, “That’s all baseball is, is numbers; it’s run by numbers, averages, percentage and odds.”
OBP, ERA, WHIP, RISP, SLG, the abbreviations are endless. One number that has raised eyebrows around the league as of late is the percentage of African-American players in the MLB. The numbers are striking. On Opening Day in May 2015, 7.8 percent of the MLB was comprised of African-Americans players. In 1986, the league was made up of 19 percent African-American baseball players. Black athletes are disappearing from lineups across the league, and Bud Selig needs to address this problem in order to keep baseball relevant in America.
There are a variety of explanations floating around that paint an inadequate portrait to explain the decline of black baseball players in the MLB. The first theory is that baseball is simply too slow and plodding of a game to attract athletes. According to a Baseball Prospectus’ Game Report in 2014, the average game time has risen to 3 hours and 14 minutes. The average time it takes for a pitcher to face the next batter is around one minute. Why would young athletes choose to sit around and smack their fist into a glove when they could be on the football or basketball field, places where it is rare to see 5 seconds go by without some exhilarating piece of action? Perhaps this is part of the puzzle.
A more compelling argument points to the lack of college scholarships available for baseball players. College baseball is not a profitable sport in the same way as basketball or football. Therefore, schools fund scholarships for baseball players much less than their more fan-pleasing counterparts. In 2014, 88 percent of college baseball players were white, black athletes accounted for 2.6 percent.
In an age where top-tier youth sports are geared almost exclusively towards getting a college scholarship, it simply doesn’t make sense for young athletes to play college baseball. C.C Sabathia commented in a 2014 New York Times article, “All that factors in. How are you going to tell a kid from the hood that I can give you a 15 percent scholarship to go play baseball, or a full ride to go to Florida State for football? What are you going to pick? It’s not even an option.”
The road to becoming an MLB player is much more difficult as compared to cracking into the ranks of the NFL or NBA. Players often must spend three to five years in the minor leagues, making a pittance, before they can potentially have a shot at a big-league roster. The appeal of basketball and football in the face of such economic arguments is undeniable. These financial realities begin to get closer to the true root of the problem for Bud Selig and the MLB.
Where the crux of the issue lies is at the youth level. Youth baseball has become a big business, raking in almost $9 million annually for one of the largest organizers of competitive youth baseball in the country. According to an influential piece by Amy Shipley in the Orlando Sun Sentinel, published in 2012, the head executive of USSSA Don DeDonatis was paid $729,600 in 2011. The USSSA is the anti-Little League of youth baseball. The league focuses on competition and brings in the most talented 12-15 year olds in the country. Shouldering the burden of this monolithic youth baseball empire is the parents and families of the league’s players.
Tournaments often cost upwards of $10,000 once all the expenses of airfare, hotels, and food have piled up. Anthony Russo, a coach of a South Florida USSSA team claims in Shipley’s article that a season of USSSA baseball can cost upwards of $100,000. Russo coaches 12 year-olds. The competitive travel circuit has become increasingly monetized for the profit of those that sit at the top of the food chain, such as executive director Don DeDonatis.
The exorbitant cost of youth baseball has pushed lower-income players out of the game and restricted access to a wealthy elite. A game that was once as simple as having a ball and stick and heading out to the sandlot with neighborhood friends has turned into a hyper-competitive machine. The true source of the MLB’s lack of African-American players may be best explained by how difficult it is to fund a talented young athlete’s career on the diamond.
However, in the face of such a disheartening youth baseball landscape, there are some signs for optimism. In 2013, seven African-American players were first-round picks in the draft. This marks the highest percentage of black players picked in the first round since 1992. Bob Nightengale of USA Today also makes an astute point in his April 12 article when he states that a concussion epidemic in football may push more athletes to play baseball. 65 percent of current black athletes in the MLB are under 30 years old. The youth of this group of players could certainly lead to more exposure over the course of their careers and hopefully a positive image of the black baseball player.
When Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues in 1947, cheers erupted across the nation. Sadly, today these cheers for black baseball players are becoming few and far between. However, a restructuring of youth baseball culture and an investment by the MLB in low-income athletes can serve to reinvigorate a new generation of Robinsons, Mickey Mantles, and Hank Aarons.