Have Black Americans Left Baseball?

Hall of Famer Dave Winfield and others weigh in on what has happened since the days of Jackie Robinson.

Charles Clark with son Ethan (Courtesy of Charles Clark)
Charles Clark with son Ethan (Courtesy of Charles Clark)

(The Root) — While the Jackie Robinson biopic 42 has become a certified success, attracting a diverse audience on its way to becoming No. 1 at the box office during its opening weekend, black Americans are still facing barriers to the baseball field.

The opening of 42 occurred several days before the annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day — April 15, the day Robinson officially broke the color barrier — when every baseball player, manager, coach and umpire in Major League Baseball sports his number, 42. But in recent decades, the number of African-American players has decreased with each passing year.

According to reports, the representation of African-American players in professional baseball is at its lowest point since Robinson and others first began integrating the game, at just around 8 percent. That marks a significant decline from the 1970s, when some estimates placed the representation of black players at around 27 percent. Baseball historian Rob Ruck says the percentage of African-American players was probably closer to 19 percent in the 1970s, while the 27 percent number likely includes Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latino players.

The decline of African-American participation in baseball is a stark contrast to the days of the Negro Leagues, which nurtured Robinson, when baseball was seen as more than a mere sport but was also a community pastime. The reason for the sport’s decline in black American communities is complex and multilayered.

Cost Is a Factor

Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, who is African American, currently serves as executive vice president and senior adviser of the San Diego Padres. He chalked up the decline in African-American participation in the sport to “the three C’s,” which, he told The Root, stand for continuity, cost and competition. Continuity, he explained, means the importance of consistent exposure to the sport throughout a player’s school years, something that is less likely to happen today because of the second C, which is cost.

Baseball “didn’t cost me much as I grew up,” he said. “There were no travel teams/club teams, tournaments you have to pay for now.” He then explained the third C, competition. “When I grew up, baseball was No. 1 in America. Now it has the competition of the other sports — NBA, NFL, golf, you name it.”

Ruck, author of Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game, echoed Winfield’s sentiments regarding the financial barriers to the sport that now exist for many poor kids, a socioeconomic reality disproportionately represented in communities of color. Little League and club expenses as well as travel can run between $3,000 and $5,000 annually, expenses that by default make economic and racial diversity less likely among participants.