Last Sunday was Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball; every player on every team donned Robinson's iconic "42". It's a decent memorial, but I'm sure I'm not the only blogger to note that this year, it occurred just as African American participation in baseball has dropped to 8.5%, from a high of 28% in the 70s (for comparison, African Americans make up 12.5% of the population).
What gives? African American participation in the NBA increased to 82%. In the NFL, it stayed steady at 67%. Why's baseball falling behind?
Marlon Byrd, the only African American playing pro ball in Chicago (and even he's going to be traded to the Red Sox) said:
"If you want to take polls, then take polls asking how many black lawyers do we have now, or how many black judges or black doctors there are now,"Byrd said. "Just because we're black doesn't mean we have to play sports. You can go through other avenues. If the decrease (in baseball) is because they're going into academic fields, so be it. More power to them."
This is kind of hard to argue with; African Americans certainly have more choices now than they did in Jackie Robinson's era, and the assumption that they should gravitate towards sports is actually kind of insulting. But, if that were the only thing at play here, I think the NBA and NFL would be seeing drops, too. So what's making baseball different here?
Well, for one thing, in Major League Baseball's quest to lock up Latino talent, they've kinda ignored African American athletes. Y'know, you've got the Miami Marlins selling themselves as a Latino team, the Tampa Bay Rays moving huge chunks of their scouting apparatus south of the border, and just about every team in Baseball opening an "academy" in the Dominican Republic.
On the other hand, you've got the Chicago White Sox running inner city clinics, and the Philadelphia Phillies trumpeting Ryan Howard's roots...and that's about it. Baseball just isn't selling itself to African American athletes. And why would anyone buy a product that isn't being sold to them?
I want to be careful to point out that this isn't racism, it's just a cold, calculating business move. I also want to be careful to point out that that doesn't necessarily make it more morally defensible.
But, the fact is, it's easier to attract Latino athletes- especially those from Latin American countries- than it is African American players right now. Look again at those NBA and NFL numbers. African American athletes have options. But Latino athletes don't have as big of footholds in the NBA and NFL. So it's an easier labor market for Baseball. No wonder the teams devote more resources to it.
Now, I'm not saying this is right; benign neglect is still neglect. And while the African American community doesn't need Baseball, I think baseball needs as many different kinds of people as it can get. Every institution is stronger with greater diversity; every team is better with a variety of backgrounds. And most importantly, baseball can and should do more.
Like I said, some teams get this- and if the White Sox and Phillies are successful, other teams will quickly follow suit. If they aren't, it'll take more time, but eventually, teams will figure it out. The nature of market imbalances is that they don't last forever.
Jackie Robinson's career in Major League Baseball was a huge victory for the Civil Rights Movement. But watershed moments like that aren't the end of the story, and shouldn't be confused for such. Integration is never over. It's a constant struggle for everyone to live together, and every so often, we're going to have to reevaluate where we are and change our tactics accordingly.