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In 1947, Jackie Robinson was the first African American to play Major League Baseball outside of the Negro League. While this past April we celebrated the 71st anniversary of breaking the color barrier, the MLB is at the lowest percentage of African American players since the civil rights era. In 2017, 75 percent of the NBA and 64 percent of NFL players were black, while the MLB is only 7.7 percent (Canton 1). Because of the expenses, socio-economic transformations of the United States, and other sport’s dominating factors, the participation of African American players has diminished in baseball over the past few decades.
One of the biggest complaints about baseball in the modern era is that baseball’s pace of play is too slow. In today’s high-speed world, people don’t have the patience to understand or be entertained by a sport that has so many breaks in between every at-bat and inning. People would much rather watch a sport like football and basketball, where they are constantly moving and creating action every half minute. For example, baseball fans love to see a matchup where the two best pitchers in the league face off against each other. At the same time, non-baseball fans would get bored of a lowing scoring game. “”With constant movement in other sports, this feeds the instant gratification need of all young people, including black youths”” (Campbell 1). Rob Manfred, Commissioner of the MLB, has created new ways of speeding up the game by limiting mound visits or warm-up pitches. These new methods have helped to keep the interest going, but baseball still turns a lot of youth because of the complexity or lack of understanding of the game.
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Baseball has a serious problem with the marketing of their superstars. In basketball, players like LeBron James and Michael Jordan hold massive power over the African American community. “”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”” (Campbell 2). In addition to the MLB marketing, baseball stars themselves are also a problem to the cause of decreasing African Americans participating. When one race dominates a sport as baseball does, there is bound to be much more Caucasian superstars than African American superstars. With very few superstars for the youth to look up too, they don’t have any role models for that sport which leads to a lack of interest (Campbell 2).
Baseball is a different sport than both basketball and football where fundamental skills play more of a role than overall athleticism. Usually, the fast, tall, and strong kids will have a much easier translation to success in other sports than baseball. As a result, kids and teenagers see more success in that sport and decide to focus more on their preferred sport as they grow up. Another reason these athletes stay away from baseball is that of the grind of minor league baseball. Unlike basketball and football where you’re drafted straight into that team, MLB prospects are put through years of trying to advance through the multiple levels of playing to try and make it to the Major Leagues where they can achieve their dreams and reach financial success. What’s even worse is that while spending these years in the farm system, they are being paid below minimum wage along with not so pleasant living conditions.
Baseball is often the most expensive sport you can play out of the three major American sports. In football, pads and helmets are usually provided through the program with registration. This means that for basketball and football, the only thing a player is responsible to provide are shoes. For baseball, you need to buy a glove, bat, batting gloves, helmet, and cleats which can total up to $500. All of these items are required for each player and are specific to the size and dominant hand. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford this expense which lower-income families struggle with. “”Major League player LaTroy Hawkins pointed out: “”In baseball, you need all of the equipment “” glove, bat, spikes. [Basketball] all you need is a pair of tennis shoes. You don’t take that for granted, but a majority of kids have a pair of tennis shoes that they wear to school”” (Scheller 1). As players get more developed in their sports, they will decide to play for a travel ball program, which adds much more money to the cost of playing.
The MLB is working with the NCAA on trying to make college scholarships easier to obtain. NCAA Division 1 is only allowed to give out 11.7 scholarships to baseball players compared to 13 for men’s basketball and 85 for football. Baseball is willing to spend millions of dollars if only the NCAA would allow it. Manred explained, “”We have had conversations with the NCAA about scholarship programs and we haven’t been able to come to an agreement that was workable given the NCAA regulations.”” (Rosenthal 6). Andrew Mccutchen, a baseball player for the New York Yankees, stated: “”No matter how good you are, you’re not getting a full ride”” (Powell). This is a major problem because many low-income families can’t afford to send their kids to college to further their education and athletic ability. If the NCAA decided to expand the number of scholarships they are able to give out, there would definitely be a change in the percentage of African Americans.
Deindustrialization, suburbanization, and mass incarceration have all had an impact on African American families, causing percentages to drop in the MLB after 1981. The United States lost over 7.2 million factory jobs between 1979 and 2017. These jobs paid wages and provided money and time for parents to be able to teach and play baseball with their kids (Canton 1). Factories ended up leaving the northern states, being replaced with lower income jobs for these workers. This, in turn, forced people to work more hours to keep their income liveable. Since African American men weren’t being hired for high-income jobs, they had less time to spend with their families and less extra money to pay for sports fees.
During the 1940’s, when the MLB allowed African Americans to be able to join the league, the federal government created a program called, The Federal Housing Authority which was designed to segregate housing stock (Canton 2). This prohibited African Americans from obtaining home loans. Now, “”Only 44 percent of blacks are homeowners, compared to 75 percent of whites”” (Canton 2). Americans who have higher incomes are able to move to the suburbs where they have more space, time, and resources to develop leagues for the youth to play in.
Mass incarceration is another reason for the decline of African American baseball players. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the United States was in a war on drugs that ended up imprisoning many African Americans for nonviolent crimes (Canton 3). With many African American children without any father figure in the house, they were unable to be introduced to the sport, especially baseball where at least two people are needed to do different activities like play catch or hit the baseball. Once these men would be released from jail, it was especially hard for them to find jobs and provide for their families. Some estimates have 45% of young black children living under the poverty line (Forbes 2). With baseball being so expensive, especially travel baseball, families didn’t have the extra cash to spend on this sport.
Major League Baseball is exploring different options to flip the switch on African American participation. One of the options the MLB wants to see is an increase in urban youth academics and an expansion of the White Sox model (Rosenthal 7). Major League teams have recently stayed away from America and gone overseas to the Dominican Republic to invest in nice facilities. There are nine academies in the U.S. while places like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela offer far more opportunities in which children can learn the sport. Orioles center fielder Adam Jones stated “”Their facilities in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are outstanding. The baseball fields in Baltimore are horrible. The money that they pour into RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) is great. But the money they pour into Latin America is grand”” (Rosenthal 7).
Every team works with their youth, but no team compares to what the White Sox are doing. With spending over $400,000 on their Amature City Elite program, they take around 180 inner city players and give them uniforms, equipment, facilities to play in, and strength and conditioning coaches (Rosenthal 8). Approximately 184 players have earned college scholarships coming out of their program, including a top-five draft pick in this past year’s draft.
One opportunity right now is to take advantage of football’s spiraling issues with head injuries. Parents’ growing concern with football concussions and expanding CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) research has helped trigger a rise in kids playing baseball. “”The annual Sports & Fitness Industry Association revealed in its annual report in 2017 that baseball had the highest growth (6%) of any major sport while football declined 4.7%”” (Nightengale 2). With this growing challenge, football is having to face, baseball will only be benefiting from its rivals.
Major League Baseball is trying different things to get more African Americans into the sport. Two facts that should draw more players of all races in the game are guaranteed contracts and baseball players typically enjoy a longer career than other pro athletes. In reality, the declining participation of African Americans in baseball should worry people. Baseball can always do more in the long run, but if they push it aside and don’t do anything, the numbers will keep decreasing. With investing more time and money in the inner cities, I believe we could turn this situation around to where baseball was a much more diverse sport. Having long careers and getting guaranteed money may attract players, but will that be enough for more players to be attracted to the sport?
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