A New Theory on Why There Are Fewer African Americans in MLB

Matt Schwartz of the Hardball Times has just written a couple of provocative articles on why the number of African American players in MLB has declined so dramatically since the early 1980’s.   You can find them here and here. I posted several lengthy comments on the second article.

Schwartz’s theory is that wealth and weather are the biggest factors, rather than declining interest among African American youth in baseball compared to basketball and football, in explaining why there are fewer African Americans in major league baseball now than there were at the peak from about 1975 to 1985.  While I agree that weather plays a factor (more MLB players, particularly the major league replacement level players, are coming from Southern California, Florida, Texas and the Gulf Coast, where the best young players can and are playing baseball year round), I’m not sure that wealth plays as big a factor as Schwartz claims.

Schwartz may well be putting the horse behind the cart — as the game gets whiter, because young blacks are losing interest in playing baseball, the predominantly white neighborhoods where  players are coming from are wealthier, simply by virtue of the fact that predominately white neighborhoods are wealthier on average than non-white or mixed neighborhoods, based on literally hundreds of years of racism and white advantage over non-whites in American society.

I also have doubts about some of Schwartz’s methodology and the data sets and/or studies he uses to make his case.  For one, he trumpets the rise of major leaguers from supposedly “white” and wealthy counties like Orange County in Southern California.  However, he apparently does not distinguish between what Americans as a particular matter consider “white”, i.e., people of European descent, and Mexican Americans, who are typically treated as “white” for purposes of census data, but have been discriminated against mightily in American history (for example, the 500,000 Mexican Nationals and Mexican Americans summarily deported during the Great Depression).  A lot of Mexican Americans from southern California and Texas are playing in the majors now — they’re not black, but they’re not exactly “white” either.

As I say in one of my comments to Schwartz’s second article, my own admittedly limited personal experience is that young African Americans, as a group, just aren’t as interested in playing baseball as they were 30 or 40 years ago.  Schwartz largely attempts to refute this claim by arguing that there are still enough African American superstars in the game to keep young African Americans interested in baseball.  I don’t buy it.

African Americans have certainly seen that there are far fewer major leaguers who are black than there once were, while the NBA and the NFL features a majority of African American players.  Schwartz claims that the percentage of African American players has remained constant in the NBA and the NFL since 1991, which means that African Americans aren’t focusing more on those sports, at least over that time period.

Again, I think his data sets aren’t sophisticated enough to support his conclusion.  If, in fact, the percentage of NBA players who are African American have remained constant since since 1991, the NBA issued statements on the race of its players don’t take into account the fact that there are far more foreign players (from Europe, Africa, Latin America, China, Australia, etc.) in the NBA now than in 1991.  I would bet dollars to donuts that there are fewer American-born white players in the NBA than there were in 1991, and that’s even taking into account the fact that race probably still plays a factor in deciding the last two or three spots on many NBA rosters where there is a surplus of similarly talented players.  The players on NBA courts are overwhelmingly black, but the fans in the stands are still overwhelmingly white.

At any rate, Schwartz’s pieces are interesting and thought provoking, even if the evidence he presents may not be adequate to support his conclusions.

Explore posts in the same categories: Baseball History

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