The recent Little League World Series played in Williamsport, Pennsylvania stirred up quite the hype around the country for youth baseball, especially the runner up Jackie Robinson West team from the south side of Chicago, Illinois. The team fell just short of becoming the first all-African American team to win a LLWS Championship, losing 8-4 to the team from South Korea.
But the legend of Jackie Robinson West’s historic run will live forever. They inspired the city of Chicago. To put in perspective the publicity the team gained from their meteoric rise to stardom, check this fact out: DICK’s Sporting Goods recently presented the team with a massive $164,000 check, the total sum the retailer netted from T-shirt fundraiser, money that will go to improving the Jackie Robinson West’s chapter of Little League. In past years, the T-shirt fundraising program—in which the company partners with U.S. teams that advance to the World Series at Williamsport, PA—sold only 150 to 300 T-shirts, primarily in that team’s local market.
Jackie Robinson West sold 11,500 shirts.
However, the success of the Jackie Robinson West Little League team is a rare outlier in an otherwise downward trend of participation of African Americans in baseball. Before the most recent decade’s decline, the last time baseball had such a small share of African Americans players was 1958, two years after Jackie Robinson retired from baseball. The downward trend hit a new low in 2014; 8.3% of players on MLB opening day rosters were African Americans. Hank Aaron, a former African American baseball player and 2nd all time on MLB’s home run list expressed his discontent with the issue. “I think Jackie certainly would be disappointed in the way things are today, especially for African-Americans,” Aaron told USA Today last year. “Let’s face it, baseball was down, and when he came along, he put a big spike into baseball with the way he played, and along came other great black ballplayers.”
On the flip side, participation of white people in baseball had been shrinking since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, bottoming out at 60.3% in 2004. But, since 2004, the percentage of white players has trended upward.
One of the ways Major League Baseball has tried to combat the problem is with the Urban Youth Academy Program. First started in Compton, California, and now with locations across the country, the Urban Youth Academy’s goals is to grow the games of baseball and softball while cultivating diversity, make meaningful contributions to the development of urban communities, provide safe and organized recreational activities for urban youth and, prepare urban high school players for college and professional baseball and softball programs.
Bud Selig gave a statement about his efforts to fix the problem at a recent gathering in honor of a donation towards the Cincinnati Urban Youth Academy. Selig said, “As Commissioner of Baseball, I’ve placed a priority on making sure that young people from all walks of life have opportunities to not only play baseball and softball, but also to achieve success in their academic pursuits.”
Many people believe that one of the reasons for this drop of black MLB players is the appeal of other sports, namely football and basketball. Not only are those games faster and more “exciting,” but the ladder to climb to payday is also faster. To get to the major leagues in baseball, often times prospects will spend at least 2 years in the minor leagues before making the big league. In the minor leagues, a player’s salary is vastly less than those of major leaguers, one of the reasons a group of former minor leaguers is suing MLB. According to their lawsuit, most minor leaguers are grossly underpaid, earning as little as $3,000 and $7,500 a season. To put that in perspective, a person working minimum wage would make $15,080 a year. Players in the MLB made an average of $3.4 million last year.
“The reality is when you get drafted out of college or high school, you feel lucky to have gotten drafted and you’re excited about the opportunity and you don’t look at it the same way as when you’re done,” said Tim Pahuta, a former player in the Nationals’ minor league system and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “You’re 21 and getting paid to play baseball and all you think is, ‘That’s great.’ But when you turn 30 and you’ve been playing for 10 years and you’ve got $300, you look back on your 21-year-old self and think, ‘You’re an idiot . . . Why didn’t you just go work at McDonald’s?’”
Another driving factor behind the migration of African Americans from baseball is simply too expensive to play nowadays. Lower-income families cannot afford to pay for high-priced hitting lessons or talent showcases, and unfortunately, many potential African American players struggle finacially. “Think about the demographics of the black population as a whole and how poorly we are doing as a whole as a race,” said Pittsburgh Pirates top prospect Josh Bell, who happens to be black. “It is a lot easier to go outside and run some drills with the football rather than paying for hitting lessons or pitching lessons and going to this showcase or that showcase.” In addition to lessons, getting noticed by scouts is increasingly expensive as well. As elite travel teams take prominence as the premier way to be recruited to play college or professional ball, it drives away talented athletes from lower income groups, because those travel teams can cost parents $1,500 to $3,000 each summer.
This isn’t to say that baseball isn’t diverse. On the contrary, baseball is one the most diverse professional sports leagues in the country. The Simpson Index, in the context of sports, scores a league’s diversity based on the probability that two players drawn at random will be of different races or ethnicities. The higher the score, the more diverse a league is. According to Henry Johnson at Harvard Sports Research, MLB carries a 0.542 index, second only to Major League Soccer. MLB gets its strong diversity mainly from players with Latin American roots (26.9% of all players, as of 2012), and a small portion with East Asian roots (1.9% as 2012). But this diversity is different from African American diversity in that the vast majority of Latin America and Asian players originated outside the US.
But the sadder difference between African American participation and Latin America and Asian participation is that black participation is on decline unlike other ethnicities’ participation. “You have to make some major changes if you’re serious about really getting more African-Americans into the game and staying in the game,” said Curtis Granderson, a black Mets outfielder. Many adults grew up with black stars like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Hank Aaron, but today’s youth fan base has fewer African American stars in baseball to look up to, especially compared to the NFL and NBA.
Adam Jones, African American centerfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, offers his solution to the problem. In a world where expensive travel ball teams and other high end recruiting venues are dominated by white players, African American players who have made it professionally in baseball need to do more than simply give money back to their communities. “Kids get to reap the benefits of a new park,” he notes to Yahoo. “But if you go there and talk to them, they can see that you come from the same area, have the same kind of upbringing, and you’ve found a way to make your life meaningful. These kids will see that people are looking out for them.”