Within her piece about MLB’s sponsored television series Pitch, set to air on Fox next spring, author Kendra James asserts that "as a black fan, baseball hasn't always loved [her]." A year earlier, Chris Rock referred to black baseball fans as an "endangered species." Both affirmations signify the recent cultural discourse that the African American experience and baseball do not socialize. This assumption, along with claims regarding that baseball is a "sport for the rich" and the rhetoric emphasizing the pace of the game, appear to disenchant many potential black American athletes and spectators.
When we think of color within MLB, or even on the Red Sox roster, the first name that comes to many minds is David Ortiz, but Papi and his peers do not identify as black, and prefer to be identified by their Latin heritage. Coming off of his impressive 29-game hit streak, Jackie Bradley Jr. stands out on this roster for more reasons than just producing exceptional numbers. JBJ, along with teammates Chris Young, David Price and Mookie Betts, represent an uncharacteristic MLB roster that includes four black Americans, the most on a team’s active roster in 2016.
After the league celebrated its 13th Jackie Robinson Day in April, USA Today released an updated report tracking the African American demographic portrayed by the 2016 season. Just eight percent of MLB players are African American, well below the national population of roughly 14 percent.
These numbers are jarring, and it’s startling that in almost 30 years, the proportion of black American players has dropped by nearly ten percentage points. According to a study released by the Society For American Baseball Research (SABR) in 1986, MLB was 18.3 percent African American. This same study indicated that the percentages of Latin Americans within the league began exponentially increasing at the same time as black American numbers steadily were declining. But does this correlation between the two deviations suggest a causation? In theory, this might be more than a fortuity.
Is Baseball a Sport for the Rich?
When discussing the racial discrepancies that exist across MLB, the immediate response to the predicament is to criticize the system that propels youth baseball players a chance to play.
The current culture is reliant upon how involved a prospective player’s parents can be in their child’s process. Not only are there a conglomerate of pay-for-play leagues, but there are travel teams that have weekly tournaments, and opportunities for parents to hire the best private coaches for their children.
The system doesn’t appear to cover young players unless their parental figures are just as invested emotionally and financially in their child’s dream. In JBJ’s case, his father drove buses and his mother, a retired state trooper, opened a restaurant fueled by southern homestyle cooking. Additionally, Willie Betts recalled having to drive "[his son] to tournaments two or three weekends a month."
Baseball in the United States has become similar to a college fraternity. For participation, most Greek organizations charge around $700 per year in dues. The cultish breeding of the game’s youngest could possibly be responsible for what some perceive as the entitled and arrogant behavior of Washington National’s Bryce Harper, who was paid at nine years old to schedule impromptu performances on multiple youth travel teams.
Contrary to popular belief, half of Boston’s black American roster were able to attend schools that provided the young baseball hopefuls with opportunity. Outfielder Young attended Bellaire High school in Houston, Texas ––referred to by Texas Monthly as–– "arguably the city’s best public school." While Tennessee-born Price is an alumnus of Blackman High School, which is defined as a "pacesetter school," a term that is used to describe the most progressive high schools in the nation.
Not all prospective players are fortunate enough to attend a high school that attracts baseball scouts and coaches, though. In his editorial entitled "Left Out," Pittsburgh Pirates’ Outfielder Andrew McCutchen reveled in "the miracle" as to how he was even discovered by AAU coach Jimmy Rutland. The All-Star recalls Rutland taking McCutchen in "as if [I] was another one of his sons." Due to financial difficulties at home for the Floridian, "[Rutland] helped pay for [my] jerseys and living expenses."
Is that why athletes are switching to basketball?
Due to these never-ending expenses, it is rational for African American athletes to veer their sights toward the free throw rather than the long ball. Basketball is a more accessible sport: in urban areas there are more opportunities to engage in a pickup game free of charge. Besides the hoop, players desire only sneakers and a ball. In 2012, a study indicated 6.95 million American kids were playing basketball relative to 5.61 million sticking around on the diamond.
Not only is basketball more convenient and more reasonable for less privileged children, but the sport along with football can provide athletes with full collegiate scholarships. As stated by McCutchen, baseball is a sport "that no matter how good you are, you’re not getting a full ride." This is due to the overwhelming profit produced by collegiate basketball and football programs. "Many low-income kids don’t have the option of going to college to develop their game and get an education," the Pirates’ center fielder said.
A common modern complaint about our great American pastime is the game’s speed. In addition to financial constraints preventing more black Americans from giving the sport a try, resistance has developed because of negative connotations that deem the sport "boring" in comparison to its higher paced counterpart.
In an interview with pop-culture magazine Complex, hip-hop legend, avid baseball fan, and Public Enemy frontman Chuck D explained in his relationship with the sport how this "endangered species" can be rescued: "So when people say baseball is boring, yeah it’s boring because you don’t have the time to understand, to grasp it. Don’t just say it’s wack because you don’t understand."
Maybe that is the answer for why commissioner Rob Manfred grapples daily with the pace problem. Could this cry that baseball is "boring" be a reflection of the velocity of our contemporary society?
Chuck D considers the evidence that the game is difficult to pick up independently without an outside influence, or in his case, it was his father who provided proper baseball pedagogy. If a young child doesn’t have a parental figure infatuated by the game, does that lessen their probability to learn the ins and outs of baseball? Are the rules presented on the court that effortless? Do potential students of the game have limited time to understand the inner workings and its beauty?
This is a reasonable claim to make about basketball’s inherent rise and baseball’s simultaneous fall, but another justifiable consideration lies in the culture basketball has galvanized for the African American community. The stable relationship between basketball and hip-hop has allowed for the sport to be received as "cool." So, should we actually listen to Bryce Harper and attempt to make baseball "fun again?"
According to Chuck D, a method to ameliorate the situation could be erasing "that line between baseball and hip-hop." The lyricist questions "how baseball can be marketed to a new audience of artists and kids?"
There has been substantial marketing for baseball received from hip-hop cornerstones in the past, but these seem like isolated cases. Jay Z’s iconic wearing of a standard 59Fifty Yankee Cap comes to mind, as does Dr. Dre's White Sox hat that was still a bestseller in recent years even with the team's poor performance. Chance the Rapper recently designed a trio of hats for the White Sox as well, and they were well-received and scooped up immediately by fans.
Chuck D recalled that when the Negro leagues were established in the early 40s, baseball was a very social game. Unfortunately (for baseball), it is now basketball that holds that title. The 55-year-old rapper does insist that it is the league that must get off its "high horse," which is encouraged by its current supremacist and frat-like morals: "They’re not in the business of trying to recruit a certain category of people for their game unless they can get the best for less."
These elitist values perpetuated by the league are what provided the impetus to the rising myriad of Latin American players.
The Transcontinental Treatment
A correlation does yield to a causation in this case. Alluding to the study collected by SABR, attention shifted to black America’s "cheaper" counterparts. Currently, there isn’t a formal draft for Latin American baseball players to enter, allowing major league franchises to sign players at ages even younger than they would be able to draft them.
Take Red Sox international signing Anderson Espinoza as an example. The Sox signed him as an international free agent in 2014 when he was just 16 years old, and now 18, he's considered a top-50 or even top-25 prospect, depending on who you ask. Imagine what his signing bonus would have been were he draft-eligible this June instead of available to sign on the less structured international market?
The manipulators in this unrestricted and ambiguous system are the buscones, the scouts who recruit and enroll prospects for their own training facilities. It may appear that the buscones are the opportunity providers that black American baseball players desire, but the truth is, these scouts have been notorious in coercing prospective ball players into "taking performance-enhancing drugs" and have in turn invigorated the steroid era. The living arrangements within these quasi–farm systems are far from lavish, and arguably are violating numerous child labor laws that have been enacted in the United States.
Baseball has become a living and breathing component of culture in the Caribbean and Latin America, which is severely lacking here in the US. After examining the upbringing of JBJ, Betts, Young, and Price, all four players were raised in the seventeen warmest states –– all of which are located in the southern regions within the country. Black American baseball players seem to be trickling out of the warmer areas where the game can be played more frequently. This closely mirrors the conditions that are present in our transcontinental neighbors. With this being so, what must be done moving forward?
A method to mitigate these embarrassing percentages is for MLB to, as Chuck D said, do a better job of appealing to black youth. This won’t happen until the league starts taking away the image of white superiority that has been so prevalent within the sport’s history.
It is clear that black Americans need more support from the league, and the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) initiative, established in 1989, was a substantial first step. But, after properly investigating the issue at hand, emerging players deserve a secure mentor rather than the miracle mentioned by McCutchen. These mentorships shouldn’t resemble the questionable conditions that are practiced by the buscones, but should provide black Americans with resources that currently are evasive.
According to a separate piece from USA Today, the most African Americans since 1992 were picked in this past draft, and 16 percent of the top projected picks for the 2016 draft could be black Americans. For Manfred’s sake, numbers look to be on the upswing, but obviously there is a long way to go.
We must remember that young athletes desire heroes to extol, and for black youths, there are only 69 to look up to in a league with 862 Opening Day players. Not only is this about providing resources where they are a necessity, but this calls for a league-wide cultural revival. If that means hiring Drake to be in a television ad with Curtis Granderson, then MLB has some phone calls to make.
What allows for hope in the meantime is that the protagonist in Pitch will represent someone who lives and breathes the African American experience. Maybe that exposure will eventually allow fans like Chuck D, Chris Rock, and Kendra James to not feel like they are members of an "endangered species" any longer.