The day is Sunday, September 28, 2008. The Milwaukee Brewers are playing the Chicago Cubs in front of a packed house of 45,299 raving fans. The Brewers take the field in the top of the first inning. Looking at this image, one would not see anything particularly out of the ordinary. Look closer though, and one would notice the Brewers, on this day in September, are playing four African-Americans out of a total of nine men. Prince Fielder, C.C. Sabathia, Mike Cameron, and Ray Durham represent a sight that for some reason, is rarely seen in today's game.
Flash back a little further to April 15, 1947. Jackie Robinson takes the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in front of 26,623 fans, 14,000 of which were black. That day, Robinson became the first African-American player in the history of Major League Baseball. Such a feat seemingly opened the doors wide for players of all races, colors, and creeds to enter into professional sports. The percentage of African-Americans in baseball increased all the way to 27% in 1975, a staggering statistic considering that this was just 28 years since that fateful day back in 1947.
That 1975 figure though, has since been on the decline up until 2006. Coming up on the 60th anniversary of Robinson's debut, the idea of racial equality received a punch in the stomach. According to studies done by the University of Central Florida organization, just 8.4% of Major League players were black in 2006, a stark contrast from the totals in 1975. At the same time, the baseball institution is not completely without its diversity.
Well-represented on the racial spectrum in baseball are Hispanics, at 29.4 percent of all players. Combine that percentage with African-Americans at 8.4, and Asians at 2.4 percent, and roughly 40 percent of all Major League players are minorities.
"A lot of Hispanics are now getting the chances blacks got in the 1940's," says Doc Graham, a former Negro League baseball player, in an interview with John Helyar of ESPN.
The sharp decline of African-American's combined with the rapid rise of Latinos in baseball have led to frustration among many black players. Gary Sheffield, a left fielder for the Detroit Tigers let loose allegations in 2007 that led to an uproar of malcontent.
Said Sheffield, "What I called is that you're going to see more black faces, but there ain't no English going to be coming out. ... [It's about] being able to tell [Hispanic players] what to do, being able to control them" (June 2007 issue of GQ).
Such a racially tinged outburst illustrates the frustration that is currently present in the sports world today, and raises the question of why such a massive discrepancy exists.
The decline of African-American's in baseball can be partly attributed to redistribution. In one study done in 2004, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Lelinwalla said "the NBA's black-player population was 77 percent, while the white-player population was 21 percent. Of the white players, 55 percent were American-born and 45 percent were international players."
Such a stark contrast can be seen in the NFL as well, with the most recent tallies in 2007 putting African-Americans at 67 percent of all players.
These figures leave many Americans scratching their heads to the amount of discrepancy not just intra-sport, but inter-sport as well. There are a myriad of explanations that people can only speculate on.
Of the three most popular American sports, why would the minority population drift towards basketball and football, and in turn begin a mass exodus from baseball?
John Entine, author of Why Blacks Dominate Sports and Why We Are Afraid to Talk About It puts forth an interesting view.
"White parents are partly responsible because some see basketball as a ghetto sport now," said Entine in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Such an attitude, Entine argues, has driven whites away from basketball and towards sports deemed "more acceptable" by parents.
"Some parents discourage their kids from playing (basketball), and in the process, their children aren't able to access their full potential," Entine said.
This proposes the argument that whites, blacks, Latinos, etc., aren't necessarily being excluded from any particular sport per say, rather ethnicities are merely being shuffled around among multiple sports.
A similar opinion is offered by the Gerald Early of the blog "Extra Bases" Calling it an "unpopular answer to a popular question," Early, director of the humanities center at Washington University, St. Louis, states frankly that "I assume black Americans don't play Major League baseball so much these days because they don't want to. This answer never satisfies anyone."
This, some sociologists argue, is partly attributed to the financial difficulty that being a professional baseball player offers to a family with limited funds.
Early cites a story in the St. Louis Dispatch that attempts to explain this trend. "To become an elite player today means participating in programs that can be prohibitively expensive for families with little financial wiggle room" (St. Louis Dispatch, June 18, 2008).
According to Early, such a thought process "is called deficit theory, that is, that one group does not does not do what another group does because it lacks the resources to do it." In short, deficit theory states that African-Americans growing up in poor neighborhoods are less likely to go out and buy a mitt, baseball bat, ball(s), cap, and cleats as they are to buy a cheap basketball or football.
Playing the devil's advocate, Early also claims that "deficit theory is almost always wrong." Such a generalization does not account for the black players in the early 1900's who, despite torrent racism and lack of equipment, still managed to find ways to play baseball. Black athletes today manage to play sports like basketball and football that require more than just a ball (i.e. uniforms, cleats/shoes, organizations/teams, large fields/courts).
A lack of interest in the so-called nostalgia of baseball is a driving force towards the African-American community's disinterest in the timely sport. "Baseball sells itself through nostalgia. Going back into baseball's past only leads to segregation, and something called white baseball and something else called black baseball," says Early.
Claude Johnson of the "Black Fives Blog" goes so far as to say that baseball was not even the leader in the integration of professional sports teams.
"To say that basketball 'must still acknowledge baseball's contribution to their diversity' is not even in the ballpark. [Jackie] Robinson himself played for a racially integrated professional basketball team prior to his first at-bat with the Brooklyn Dodgers," said Johnson.
In some ways though, the deficit theory seemingly does apply. "It's not completely racism, but there's definitely some cultural resonance. I wouldn't completely rule out the deficit model," says Dr. Julie Harms-Cannon, professor of sociology at Seattle University. "In poor neighborhoods, what's available in terms of activities?" The argument here is that baseball is an expensive pastime that is underemphasized by the school system and the media.
Says Harms-Cannon, "High schools put a greater emphasis on sports like football, especially in southern states. Who do we see on TV, and who the stars we all know best?" Sports like football and basketball become more prominent in the minds of black youths, and as such carry a certain "cultural resonance."
Baseball is a sport that requires a player to be drafted, move through an endless series of minor league teams, and then maybe that player will receive a call to play in the Major Leagues. Compare that to football and basketball, where a player is drafted out of college, and then goes straight to the "big team." Baseball does not provide the immediate gratification that other sports can grant in terms of money or prestige.
Because of this, "baseball is simply not culturally important (to African-Americans)," says Harms-Cannon.
This being so, the argument can be made that blacks are not terribly under-represented in baseball, with 12 percent of the American population being black. "If anything," says Harms-Cannon, "African-Americans are numerically over-represented in basketball in football."