Why are African-American athletes an “endangered species” in Baseball?

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12604702_10208179510947729_1933853262055089197_o   By Peter Mallett

Introduction

During an interview with Bryant Gumbel’s HBO segment, “Real Sports with Bryant” comedian Chris Rock talked about why his own race doesn’t play baseball and he opened by saying, “I am an endangered species as a black baseball fan and my brothers on the field are slowly falling under the same predicament.” Chris had three main points during his interview about baseball not having many African-American players: it’s expensive, stuck in the past and boring to youth players.

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Chris started by saying, “some say baseball costs too much money, but that doesn’t stop it from being the sport of choice for poor Dominicans. The only equipment they have are twigs for bats, diapers for gloves and Haitians for bases.” For his second point he stated, “Baseball is stuck in the past, you know Ruth and DiMaggio were all great back in the day, but the game moves to slowly for today’s black culture.” His final remarks were, “Baseball is notorious for its anti-celebration “code” which is anathema to many black athletes, and its help create a decline in interest among blacks, especially youth players. You lose Black America, you lose Young America.” Even though Chris Rock is only a respected comedian in American society, all of his points are spot on for why there is a steady decline in African-American baseball players of all ages.

While I diagnose the current cultural shift in the game of baseball I will analyze my data using the framing theory. Andrea Eagleman defined the framing theory as, “some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular definition.

The topic of framing is important because it can have a major influence on how people view what is being presented to them. Framing essentially involves two major topics: selection and salience. The frame is basically selecting some of aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in how they are communicated to others. This column will analyze multiple social and economical reasons why baseball’s demographics are shifting away from African Americans using the framing theory.

Nostalgic Appeals don’t Work

Dr. Gerald Early, a noted essayist and black culture expert at Washington University argued that baseball does not resonate much with African-Americans. His first point is that baseball faces challenges in marketing to blacks because the game sells itself based on nostalgia and tradition. Early argues that based on his own upbringing and those of his close friends, nostalgic appeals have little hope of reaching black audiences. One quote from Early’s piece says, “African-Americans do not look at the American past as ‘the good old days’ or ‘glory days. Going back into baseball’s past leads to segregation and something called white baseball and something else called black baseball, which was meant to be played under conditions inferior to white baseball.” Early also argues that this is one of the major reasons why the percentage of African-Americans players in MLB has dropped 30% in the late 1970s to 9% in 2015. Back in the 1970s White Americans complained that steering so many blacks into baseball was perpetuating a damaging stereotype. Early’s response to this was, “Many people, especially some liberals and some blacks, complained that they used to be over-represented in the sport, as they were in American team sports generally, that blacks were largely reduced to being entertainers and athletes in America and their over-representation in sports stereotyped them and distorted the young black male’s sense of ambition.

Socioeconomics at Play

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Josh Bell, a 21-year-old African-American right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates was a top draft pick who worked his way through the minor league ranks before making a big league roster. He personally points to socioeconomics as an explanation for the relative lack of black players in baseball today. Bell says, “Think about the demographics of the black population as a whole and how poorly we are doing as whole as a race. 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 showcase after showcase. Baseball is one of those sports that is really expensive and the showcases are starting earlier and earlier in the little leagues. The competition is getting stiffer and tougher, so the need for some sort of training outside of the hitting tee in the backyard come more and more at an earlier age.” To argue devils advocate, not all black youth come from poor families. Bell was able to take $85 hitting lessons and play on elite travel teams.

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Bell’s teammate in Pittsburgh, Josh Hairston had this to say about how black communities feel about the game of baseball, “Baseball isn’t taught there (in black communities) because there is nobody to really teach it. You have to have those people to reach out. When it’s not a good baseball program to be around in that community, parents aren’t going to waste their time sending their kid to do baseball. It’s just not made as big of a deal as basketball and football. It’s a matter of having somebody there who will do baseball.” This quote goes to show that even African-American MLB players see the culture shift in baseball as a problem that needs to be fixed.

College Baseball Programs have very little Scholarship Money

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Yankees pitcher C.C. Sabathia says that the one of the main reasons for the steady dramatic decline in African-Americans playing baseball since the 1970s is because of the lack of college baseball scholarships relative to basketball and football programs.

C.C. said that, “If I had a choice, I would had had to go to college to play football because my mom couldn’t afford to whatever the leftover percent of my baseball scholarship was. So if I hadn’t been a first round pick coming out of high school I would have gone to play football because I had a full ride to a few division one programs.” In 2014-2015 athletic seasons, the NCAA allotted each Division 1 schools a total of 12 baseball scholarships compared to 85 scholarships for football. Even though the most prominent explanation for the decline in percentage of African-Americans playing baseball is cultural and economic factors, C.C.’s example is very relative today. There is a point in American sports where people like Russell Wilson and Jameis Winston will stop putting eggs in the baseball basket while being a dual sport athlete in college and instead they will solely focus on football. African-American kids simply don’t consider baseball to be a legitimate option to play in college because college baseball itself doesn’t really care about fostering diversity. Statistics show that college baseball teams are around 88% white.

Baseball just isn’t a “Cool Sport”

Baseball has always fought the stigma of being a sort of dull sport. Even a former league MVP Ken Griffey Jr. son Trey dropped out of baseball to accept a football scholarship at University of Arizona and Hall of Famer Barry Larkin’s son Shane is playing basketball at the University of Miami. The lack of African-American players in MLB affects the diversity in the stands also. According to a study done in 2012 by Scarborough Marketing Research center, around 9% of fans that attended an MLB game last season were African-American . Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen put it this way, “For the African-American community, it’s more basketball, it’s more football. Just the hype of it, it’s what people like. Baseball is more of a laid back sport, there is just not much going on. Growing up I really loved baseball and it’s something I flourished at as a child. But look at the world now. Technology is running the world. There are so many different things people can do, so it kind of turns them away from baseball.”

It is a lot harder to become proficient at a sport that is hard to organize enjoyable pickup games for and play locally. With basketball and football, it’s a lot easier to find friends and teammates to start a pickup game with at the park or the gym. Baseball is also very technical in comparison to football and basketball, so it’s easier for young athletes to teach themselves. Baseball has always been known as “the sport your dad teaches you in the backyard” and today less and less African-American athletes find that appealing due various circumstances.

Personal Point of View

Personally, I think the two most prominent reasons African-American’s do not play baseball is because of economical and cultural circumstances. When it comes to economical reasons, most inner city communities are heavily populated with African-American’s and they have very little funding in the households and the schools to be able to provide ideal conditions to support quality baseball programs. Compared to basketball and football, baseball is a very expensive sport in terms training, equipment and parks. Looking economically for the future of these young athletes, baseball also does not provide enough college scholarships or professional pay in order to lure kids to play away from trying to go pro in either basketball or football. If I was an African-American parent, I would raise my kid playing baseball simply because statistics show that college athletes have the best chance of going pro in baseball than any other sport. Culturally, I think African-Americans have trouble fitting in the tradition of “America’s great pastime.” Baseball as a sport has stayed relatively the same since the last major rule change in the 1970s, so the game has never evolved like football and basketball over time. I believe that baseball should make necessary steps and changes to find ways for the African-American communities to get more involved in baseball, but that will take time, money and effort. I think MLB should start charity organizations and programs in under privileged communities around the nation to help promote baseball to America’s youth, specifically the young African American communities. Regardless, I think that football and basketball will always have a greater percentage of African-American athletes than baseball simple because of the game being faster paced, cheaper and easier to learn.

Looking at this topic from a broad point of view, it’s obvious that baseball is having problems recently connecting with the African-American population and culture as a whole in terms encouraging athletes to play the game and spectators to watch the game. Currently the sport is hemorrhaging younger viewers in the African-American community, which is not at all helping the game’s demographic shift. If history is any indication, I’m sure this change will be slower than a Yankees vs. Red Sox playoff game. In the words of New York Met’s outfielder Curtis Granderson, “Lets turn this thing around for the game of baseball and make some serious changes so that our culture can once again make a positive impact on the game just like the great Jackie Robinson did.”

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