The History of African Americans in Baseball Part 4
- Updated: December 29, 2008
Since that high point in the 1970s, the percentage of African Americans has steadily dropped over the past three decades to just over eight percent in 2008. Many cite the decrease of African Americans in the game as having something to do with the fact that MLB was not doing what they needed to do in order to bring the history of famous African Americans in baseball to the forefront of baseball communities (Anderson 219). If this claim is true, it has become a problem, because young African Americans have had fewer people with whom they could identify in the game of baseball, and thus have less reason to want to play the game. This claim further stated that since the league has not done enough to keep Robinson and others in the limelight, they are in a perpetual cycle because now if they try to do this, it will be even harder since there is less of an overall knowledge of what happened during the 1940s. The effect of this knowledge has changed the landscape off and on the field. Since the population of African American players has diminished, it has also lowered the population of African Americans who would be qualified to take one of the openings in the front office of a baseball team. And those numbers continue to drop: “despite the uproar over the lack of African Americans in MLB management [since] 1987, little had changed ten years later” (Anderson, 2001, p. 217). While it is not newsworthy these days when an African American is hired for one of these positions because of their skin color, the percentages, since the late 1970s, have steadily decreased (Anderson, 2001, p. 218).
By the early 2000s, the race issue became public to an extent, and people started to really notice the lack of African Americans in the game. Many players, including All Stars CC Sabathia and Torii Hunter, went public with the issue, claiming that they often felt lonely on the field not simply because they were two of the few players who were African American, but because when they look in the stands they can usually count the number of fans with their skin color who are present at the game. The problem is not just that African Americans are not learning the game, but the fact that the fans may be deprived of some good talent may be an issue. Since no one is taking the time to teach these African Americans the game of baseball, the public may miss the opportunity to see the next great African American baseball player simply because they were never handed a baseball. “If it’s true that young black athletes with choices are being drawn to other sports in greater numbers and that distractions such as video games are cutting the pool of potential players across the board, then the declining numbers of black players in the majors today figures only to inspire even fewer tomorrow” (Wittenmyer, 2004, p. 4). The teaching about baseball to African Americans has become so minimal that a recent African American coach was surprised to see one of his players wearing a hat from a team in the Negro Leagues, and when he commented on it, the player responded by saying he was wearing the hat because he thought it was cool and that his coach must be kidding about the old league (Winfield, 2007, p. 16).
While many studies have been done to address factors that may have had an effect on this situation, they have mainly focused on aspects that are very difficult to change such as social, financial, economic, and geographical situations. There is without a doubt a surprisingly low number of African Americans in the game today. “Despite the record attendance figures and huge labor contracts, the game has diminished in popularity [to African Americans] over the last thirty years due to many factors, some subtle and others quite obvious” (Winfield, 2007, p. 4). With the percentage of African Americans in professional baseball continuing to be at all time lows as the seasons progress, it is obvious that the problem may be too far out of control to be fixed at this point. Due to all of the factors that are pushing African Americans away from the game in today’s world, young black people would have to exhibit exceptional ability from the time they picked up a mitt and get a lot of supportive messages to have the push to continue in the game of baseball (Hanssen, 1998, p. 605).
The decrease of African Americans in baseball is mysterious. If baseball once was African Americans first choice as a sport when they had their own league, one has to wonder if the integration of MLB was actually the real start of the decline in interest since it inadvertently ended some of the African Americans’ favorite teams. While the fact that there were a few African Americans in MLB could hold the attention of the African American community for a while, after the feeling of achievement wore off, they did not have as much reason to continue to follow the game since they still had a hard time relating to the majority of the players because they could not picture themselves succeeding as a certain player if they were not the same skin color. The black press at the time, even though many of them would end up jobless with the integration of baseball, fought for what they believed to be right for the country: “black newspapers . . . became a more activist and sometimes confrontational press in agitating for the integration of Major League Baseball in the late ’30s and the 1940s” (Kaszuba, 2007, p. 199). This means that the newspaper employees were more concerned with the long term societal affects of the integration of baseball than the short term during which they would lose their jobs. With this in mind, one has to remember that baseball quickly got to the point where fans would not even notice if they saw multiple African Americans on a team because it was the norm.
During the mid-1970s, it was not uncommon to see All Star teams from both leagues that were nearly half African American. At that point, baseball was still in first place of sports leagues in America in terms of television ratings and attendance. Baseball was America’s Pastime at that point with very little competition. During the plateau of African Americans’ participation in baseball in the mid-1970s, they made up around thirty-five percent of the league’s players. In 2008, the percentage reached an all time low, coming in at just over eight percent. The 1970s was a time when other sports were starting to take off as the NFL was solidifying their Super Bowl and the NBA was expanding across the nation. Both of these happenings have shown to grow their respective sports’ audiences throughout the last century, diversifying people’s sports interests (Steinberg, 2008, p. 21). The commissioner and others working in the league office have to figure out how they can address the issue of declining African American participation in baseball, or one day, the league may be segregated for very different reasons.
Bill Jordan is a contributing writer to BaseballReflections.com and can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PS – The bibiliography will appear after the last (4th) part of this paper.