Where have all the African-American MLB players, once so dominant in the sport, gone? In 1981, 18.7 of the League was African-American and they made up 22% of the All-Star game rosters. On Opening Day this year African-American players made up 8.4% and recent All-Star rosters had less than 5%. African-American athletes dominate the NBA with 74% and NFL with over 65%. Major League Baseball players have long career spans and guaranteed contracts with a $4.7 million average salary, with Angel Mike Trout making $34 million this year. Except for pitching, the sport puts less wear and tear on the body. It is hard to imagine the post-war history of MLB without superstars like Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson. Why have the younger generation of African- American athletes shied away from baseball?
One of the factors is the overall decline in youth playing baseball. According to a 2015 “Wall Street Journal” article, nine million kids between the age of seven and seventeen played baseball. That figure declined by 41% by 2013. With participation in decline, youth leagues and teams have been forced to shut down or merge, which constricts access for poorer youths, making the sport whiter and more affluent. The NBA and NFL have become more dominant, and the “cool factor” for young African Americans has shifted. Latino players have flooded into the MLB. Baseball may be perceived as too long and boring for generations raised with color and action instantaneously flowing from social media and cellphones. Attention span is attenuated. The NBA dominates the inner city and the alliance with shoe companies creates a real bond. The NFL dominates America with massive television ratings, attendance, and memorabilia.
Cost may be the most dominant factor in deterring the black youth from playing baseball. Some estimates have 45% of black youth living under the poverty line, especially true in the inner city. Registration in football generally provides a helmet, jersey, and shoulder pads. Youth basketball only requires the purchase of a jersey and shoes. Youth baseball requires a registration fee and purchase of uniforms, gloves, cleats and a bat for home use. Teams in economically disadvantaged areas are often required to apply for grants or constantly fundraise to support kids who want to play. Baseball and football are cheaper for families.
MLB is well aware of the decline of African-American players and has taken steps to address the problem. The sport created the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program in 1989 to reintroduce the game in urban settings. This program is in place in more than 200 cities worldwide and had 250,000 participants this year. Players like Justin Upton and CC Sabathia are alumni. The first Urban Youth Academy was started in Compton California in 2006 and has spread to many cities. Each complex typically has two full fields, a softball field and a youth field and last year drew almost 40,000 participants.
Today’s heroes of American sports are no longer baseball players and it no longer has the PED enhanced home run races to break the record. and stimulate interest. This presents a golden opportunity for African-American youth.