Updated: Apr 22, 2022
In April 1947, Jackie Robinson made his debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African-American player to appear in a Major League Baseball game. Three months later, Robinson was followed by Lawrence Doby and several others to break the color barrier between MLB and the negro baseball leagues.
In a racially divided country, Robinson and company saw a swarm of resistance from the white community, but continued to play the sport they loved and fight for other African-Americans in the upcoming generations to be able to play on baseball’s biggest platform.
During the 1981 season, 17 years removed from the Civil Rights Act of 1964, MLB saw its highest ever African-American representation at 18.7%, according to Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). By this point, the Jim Crow laws of the South had become “unconstitutional”, but racism was still alive and well in America. African-Americans still had a passion to play baseball and continued the integration of the sport from the Jackie Robinson days all the way into the mid 1990s.
But in 1994 is when researchers started to notice a decline of African-Americans in the sport. According to SABR, there has been a decline of African-Americans in MLB nearly every year since and by 2016, that number plummeted to 6.7%, the lowest percentage since 1957.
Many MLB fans would look at recent numbers and say that these numbers are completely inaccurate and that they see a decent number of “black” players. The league has star black players such as Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes and Francisco Lindor. However, all of these players are black Latinos, not African-Americans. African-Americans continue to lose interest in the sport and there are several theories on why this has happened.
Little league parent Chris Davis started playing baseball when he was 9 years old. He immediately fell in love with the sport watching African-American New York Mets right fielder Daryl Strawberry.
He noticed early on that the sport lacked African-Americans, as he was one of only three African-Americans that he played with. Davis believes kids grow up with a stronger interest in sports like football and basketball. His kids play baseball and when he asks them what their favorite sport is they always list baseball last.
“People talk about [guys like] Odell Beckham,” Davis said. “They don’t talk about [African-American] players in MLB. [There’s] Adam Jones, and I can’t even think of anyone [else] off the top of my head.”
Even as a baseball player, top athletes that come to his mind are football and basketball players like Steph Curry, LeBron James and Le’Veon Bell. Davis added that many kids get bored by the sport’s “standing around” and slow pace. Although the issue is not getting any better, he does believe that the sport could take steps toward improving African-American interest.
“[The sport] definitely [needs to change] its marketing,” Davis said. “If you want to bring in more [African-American] players you definitely have to cater more towards [African-American youth athletes] and if you have one [African-American] player that’s doing well then market that player. Kids are not going to get hyped up to go watch Jon Lester.”
In addition to the sport failing to market key African-American stars like Andrew McCutchen and Adam Jones, Davis believes that African-Americans shy away from the sport because of how expensive it is to play.
For his son to play little league it cost him $275 before buying a glove, bat and other gear. After buying all equipment, Davis said that it can cost close to $1000, depending on what brand is purchased. Many African-Americans don’t have the financial resources for their kids to play baseball as opposed to football or basketball, sports that are relatively cheap to play.
Phoenix East Valley Little League coach Demeitris Wauqua noticed a low number of African-American baseball players on his teams as well as when he played little league when he was young. Similar to Davis, Wauqua noted that many African-American baseball players play football or basketball as well. Wauqua added that when it comes to choosing one sport, athletes tend to shift away from baseball because of the NCAA baseball scholarship system.
“Colleges [only] provide a partial scholarship for baseball,” Wauqua said. “As far as with football players, they’re able to get a full ride. Possibly [football] is an easier route for [African-American] athletes.”
“There’s definitely a low number of African-Americans in baseball even from a young age,” high school baseball star Myles Chandler said. “Even from a young age I was one of only a handful of [African-American] kids in my league. You definitely notice it even [at] a young age.”
Chandler grew up playing baseball from a young age from tee ball, to little league, to club baseball to finally high school. He believes the reason for the lack of African-Americans in baseball is society norms say that African-Americans should play other sports like football and basketball and African-American baseball players “aren’t promoted” as much as football and basketball players.
“For young African-American boys,” Chandler said. “They see their ideals playing football and basketball and not baseball necessarily, and so they play those sports instead.”
As for improving the quantity of African-American baseball players, like Chris Davis, Chandler believes that the promotion of African-Americans in MLB would significantly help.
“There are plenty of African-Americans who play the sport,” Chandler said. “But baseball is seen more as a white or Latino sport.”
Players like Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes are two of the league’s top promoted dark-skinned athletes, but they are both Latinos that are not originally from the United States, which is not counted in the African-American population. Despite statistics pointing elsewhere, Chandler is highly optimistic about the demographic future of the sport.
“I think more African-Americans will play baseball in the future,” Chandler said. “Because there are more baseball players now who are African American and they are some of the best in the league. The league is promoting them, so hopefully this will help the demographic.”
Former Oakland Athletics second baseman Shooty Babitt has noticed a demographic change in baseball since his playing days.
“Probably in about the last 10 years that I was playing when you start to see the decline of African-Americans in baseball,” Babitt said. “We were at an all-time high at [about] 20% when I grew up playing.”
Baseball has been struggling with improving its tempo as well as making it more interesting recently. MLB has made changes to try to adjust the tempo, such as decreasing the time allowed between pitches, but there haven’t been great results. The lack of entertainment in the game has also contributed to African-American kids being reluctant to play the sport.
“Baseball lacks action now,” Babitt said. “It used to be a fun game, it wasn’t so analytically driven, it wasn’t smart people that were playing. It’s a bunch of robots in the game now.”
Babitt added that young African-American athletes always want to be the star in this day and age. If they have to start off playing right field and batting ninth in the lineup, they don’t want to play baseball anymore. He said that the sport lacks gratitude and patience.
Similar to Chris Davis and Myles Chandler, Babitt couldn’t say enough about how critical it is for baseball to hype up African-American MLB players to increase interest among young African-American athletes.
“People that look like me don’t see themselves on the baseball field anymore,” Babitt said. “So why would they want to play?”
That is the question that many African-American sports journalists and athletes are beginning to ask themselves revolving baseball. As far as for increasing African-American interest, the sport is going to have to do something incredible to make a complete 180 and get the sport back to where it was with African-American players in the 1970s and 80s.
However, despite the lack of African-American players, baseball continues to grow in diversity. It is becoming an international sport, as the percentage of white players has actually declined from 70.3% in 1989 to 63.7% in 2016, according to SABR. This is due to the incredible increase of Latino players in the sport. The number of Latinos has more than doubled since that time, increasing from 13.2% to 27.4%. The number of Asian players is expected to increase as well, as the percentage has gone from practically 0% to over 2% in 2016 (SABR).
The increase in Latinos has created a broader audience in America for the sports, as well as a large audience in the Caribbean and South America. For the sport to increase its relevance it is going to have to become a global sport and appeal to fans in several different nations instead of relying on those in the United States.
“Look at [African-American] players in hockey,” Chris Davis said. “I mean there’s just no interest and that’s [where] I see baseball going.”