The Major Leagues Were Never Really As Black As You've Been ToldS

Today Tyler Kepner’s New York Times story about the dearth of African-American players in the Major Leagues quietly distinguished itself from other articles in that vein, in that it didn’t cite a popular and wrong figure about the peak of black representation in baseball.

The number that made the news peg is 7.7 percent — the proportion of non-Latino black players on opening-day rosters. It sounds low because it is. Less than 20 years ago that figure was 19 percent. But it was not, as Kepler indicates, ever so high as 27 percent, which is the figure so often cited about the mid-’70s heyday of African-American participation in baseball.

Rob Neyer has also pointed out the discrepancy, most recently this week over at SB Nation, where he patiently explained that the “27%-in-1975 figure is pure unadulterated bullshit.”

The real peak of African-American participation was under 20 percent, and it stayed around there from the mid-’70s to the mid-’90s before dropping off, most dramatically around 2000. I’m getting these figures from the same source as Neyer and Kepner: baseball researcher Mark Armour, with the Society for American Baseball Research. A few years ago he wondered how much integration had improved baseball, so he hand-counted all the black players (including Latinos; they, too, would’ve been excluded from pre-1947 rosters) who appeared in the Major Leagues between integration and 1986. His 2007 paper on the subject is up at sabr.org.

“The data I came up with myself in that period — the numbers from say 1973 to ’74 to the end of the study — is pretty flat,” Armour told me by phone. “One of the reasons I stopped at ’86: The numbers seemed to have normalized. They were 18 to 19 percent black and about 9 percent Latin.”

Eighteen percent plus 9 percent, you’ll notice, is 27 percent. So Neyer is maybe a bit harsh. The 27 percent figure does work for all non-white players. That’s not the same as “black,” but it’s not quite pure bullshit, either.

So the dropoff during the past 40 years is a bit more than half, rather than three-quarters. The more interesting question in all of this is why the decline at all. Kepner suggests it’s economic. College scholarships are scarcer in baseball than in other major college sports, for one, as teams offer only 11.7 scholarships and spread them across an entire team. Contrast that against schools’ 85 full-ride scholarships in football and 13 in basketball. For families who will have trouble paying for college, that’s real money. (Also real money in America: the difference in median wealth between white families and black families.)

Other factors surely matter as well. One that Armour floated as we spitballed was that Major League teams stock more pitchers on their rosters than in years past, and African-Americans overwhelmingly tend to be position players. He also has half-jokingly blamed Michael Jordan (i.e., the rise of global basketball stardom) for diverting kids’ attention away from baseball. “The one thing I do not think it is, is Major League Baseball not wanting black people,” Armour said. “That’s the one thing I’m the most sure of. I think it’s much more complicated.”

Looking Into the Decline in African-American Players [New York Times]