Where Have America's Black Baseball Players Gone?

by Adam Silvers

America's pastime has a serious problem.

From scandals to scoring droughts, baseball has had plenty of issues over its 176-year history.

But in the modern era, the game has never encountered something quite like this.

Simply put, the rate at which African-American players are declining in Major League Baseball is staggering, and we're left with the startling reality black baseball is on life support.

At the 2015 season, only 7.8 percent of Major League Baseball's players were black -- a stark contrast to an all-time high of 19 percent in 1986.

So why is the current number so low? Where are all of America's black baseball players, and what, if anything, can be done to try and reverse this trend?

In recent years, Jackie Robinson Day has served more as a cause for concern than celebration.

About 68 years ago, Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player in Major League Baseball.

And as you might expect, Robinson's breaking of the color barrier precipitated a great rise in the number of blacks playing professionally.

But after reaching that all-time high in 1986, the share of blacks in baseball radically decreased.

Now, the annual recognition of a man who paved the way for African Americans in baseball is serving as a wake-up call to one of the biggest problems in sports.

And make no mistake, this is a big problem.

Despite participating in the game for fewer years, African Americans have just as rich of a history in baseball as white players do.

Think not only of Jackie Robinson. Think of Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds.

To not have the next wave of these players would be catastrophic for the black community and for the game of baseball.

Theories on black baseball's decline are all over the place.

While it's a positive thing that the decreasing percentage of African Americans in baseball is openly being discussed, it's also a bit concerning we haven't come up with a clear answer as to why.

In 2007, when the percentage of African Americans in baseball was at a then all-time low, nine-time MLB All-Star Gary Sheffield reasoned it was a result of Latin players being easier to control.

Speaking to GQ, Sheffield said,

Where I'm from, you can't control us. You might get a guy to do it that way for a while because he wants to benefit, but in the end, he's going to go back to being who he is. And that's a person that you're going to talk to with respect, you're going to talk to like a man. These are the things my race demands. So, if you're equally good as this Latin player, guess who's going to get sent home? I know a lot of players that are home now can outplay a lot of these guys.

Now, Sheff's comments are definitely a bit controversial, but they're not completely out of left field.

In 2012, Latin players made up 26.9 percent of MLB players, but just 17 percent of the US population. About 84 percent of the 26.9 were born outside of the United States.

In 2014, 26 percent of all MLB players were born outside of the US and the greatest share of players came from Latin America.

Another opinion on the decline of African-Americans in baseball deals with youth level and college opportunities.

According to an article published by The New York Times last year, college baseball, compared to basketball or football, offers fewer scholarships divided among more players.

Speaking with The Times, Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia said,

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.

Sabathia also said,

Little League is not a problem. Kids love to play Little League from 5 to 12, and they've got a great program. It's from 12 to 15. It's getting them from Little League to high school baseball is where we lose them – to football, to the streets, to basketball, to everything.

On the surface, baseball appears to lack marketability to the African-American youth.

Major League Baseball doesn't have a LeBron James or a Calvin Johnson, and that hurts its marketability.

Baseball also has an unwritten code of conduct that frowns upon individuality, expression and celebration.

Go ahead and flip your bat after a home run, but don't be surprised when a 95 mph fastball comes whizzing at your head the next time you're up.

On the latest episode of HBO's "Real Sports," comedian and noted Mets fan Chris Rock gave his own take on the decreasing number of blacks in baseball.

His conclusion — baseball is in trouble — is extremely well founded.

Sure, television numbers are relatively strong for the game, but that's due in large part to an aging white audience.

What happens when those viewers are gone? The black youth isn't exactly clamoring to fill the void.

Can baseball bring African Americans back into the fold?

Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig implemented programs like RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and the MLB Urban Youth Academy, but those clearly haven't done much to reverse the trend.

In 2013, ESPN senior writer Tim Keown highlighted two important arguments that, if publicized the right way, could prove more instrumental in getting black youth into baseball than any program or league.

His arguments were:

  1. Way more players get paid in MLB than the NBA.
  2. “The money is 100 percent more guaranteed than the NFL.”

Baseball may not have a LeBron James to sell, but highlighting the NFL's concussion problem and advertising a greater shot at a guaranteed payday sounds like one hell of a marketing strategy to me.

Citations: MLB making inroads to attract African Americans (USA TODAY), Sheffield says Latin players easier to control than blacks (ESPN), 67 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, Major League Baseball looks very different (Pew Research Center), M.L.B. Report Highlights Sobering Number of Black Players (New York Times), Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (MLB Community), Urban Youth Academy (MLB), What the MLB committee will find (ESPN)