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Should We be Concerned About the Low Percentage of African Americans in MLB?

Today MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, the 67th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color barrier by playing his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  For some, it’s an occasion to marvel at how much social progress we’ve made since then.  For others, it’s a time to be mindful of how far we still have to go in terms of racial equality.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale seems to be in the “others” camp.  In a column headlined “As MLB honors Jackie Robinson, can it reverse a trend?” Nightengale notes that African Americans are remarkably underrepresented in our national pastime:

MLB, which will honor Robinson again Tuesday by having every player wear No. 42, has the lowest percentage of African Americans in uniform since 1958.

The African-American population in baseball is virtually unchanged from a year ago at 7.8%, according to USA TODAY Sports’ survey of opening-day rosters and disabled lists.

Nightengale also repeated comments by baseball legend Hank Aaron made in a recent interview : “When I first started playing, you had a lot of black players in the major leagues. Now, you don’t have any. So what progress have we made? You try to understand, but we’re going backward.”

MLB apparently agrees with Aaron’s “going backward” sentiment, and has taken a number of steps to do something about it, including its annual Diversity Business Summit that wrapped up today.  Even though MLB is obviously making efforts to encourage greater participation by African Americans, it’s fair to ask how much they can be expected to do.

Last month, former MLB executive Jimmie Lee Solomon wrote a sharp piece at Huffington Post that attempted to explain why the percentage of black MLB players has fallen so dramatically.  Some factors have more to do with preferences and choice rather than inequality.  For one thing, many African American teens are more interested in pursuing other sports:

Success in baseball is less determined by athleticism then it is in football and basketball. You can take a great athlete and introduce him to football, basketball and baseball in his late teens. History has shown, that he has a much better chance of succeeding in football and basketball than in baseball. The reason is because baseball is dependent upon a collection of skills which are usually learned early on in life, where football and basketball success is more based on athleticism.

Solomon also points out that the overriding barrier to entry is cost.  Playing basketball only requires a ball and shoes, and basketball courts are staples of public parks everywhere.  Baseball equipment (bats, cleats, gloves) is not only more expensive, but a baseball diamond is more costly to maintain.  Although it’s easy to see that high costs could disproportionately affect urban communities, it’s ultimately a race neutral disadvantage – basketball is more affordable to everyone regardless of ethnicity.

Another big factor is that MLB teams have focused recruitment efforts in Latin America.  While this has contributed to lower African American representation, international representation is off the charts – more than 26% of MLB players are foreign-born.  With that in mind, Reason magazine’s Matt Welch points out how arbitrary the notion of diversity can be:

The population over-representation now comes not from American-born players with black skin, but Caribbean-born players with black skin: According to the Census, just 0.4 percent of U.S. residents are “Black or African American Hispanic,” yet fully 9.6 percent of MLB players hail from the (comparatively impoverished) Dominican Republic alone. At some point obsessing over skin pigment in the context of baseball becomes a pretty weird exercise.

I would be loath to minimize the impact that racial inequality still has in the U.S., particularly in the criminal justice system.  However, as far as MLB goes, I’m not sure the relatively low level of African American representation is evidence of “going backward” – particularly given the overall diversity of the sport, and the opportunities black athletes have elsewhere.  Of course, if MLB’s outreach efforts produce a higher percentage of African American players in the next few years, more power to them.

(Image: Scott Cunningham/Getty)