Dubious Grousing over the Percentage of African-American Players in Major League Baseball

USA Today recently published an article lamenting the supposedly low percentage of African-American players in major league baseball:

Major League Baseball is celebrating Jackie Robinson Day today. But 63 years after he broke the game’s color barrier, the number of African-American players continues to suffer, with 9.5% of them making opening-day rosters, according to USA TODAY research.

“He would turn over in his grave if he saw the lack of African Americans playing ball,” Minnesota Twins second baseman Orlando Hudson said.

MLB had its first increase in African-American players in 15 years in 2009 when the number climbed to 10.2%, according to the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. This year, though, there were 17 teams with two or fewer African-American players on their opening-day roster.

“It makes you wonder a little bit what’s going on,” said Hudson, who this week questioned whether racism was a factor in former All-Stars Jermaine Dye and Gary Sheffield being unsigned.

Dye has hit at least 27 home runs in each of the last five seasons but batted .179 after the All-Star break in 2009. He and Sheffield, 41, have turned down several contract offers.

This is not a new complaint and the numbers in the USA Today article give it some superficial plausibility. African-Americans (including mixed-race people) are about 13.5% of the overall US population, so the figure of 9.5% representation in baseball may seem low. However, it is important to remember that almost 28% of MLB players are foreigners. In recent years, Latin American and Asian players have flocked to major league rosters, displacing the weakest American players of all racial groups. If you consider the African-American percentage of US-born players, it is just over 13%, almost exactly on par with the black percentage of the overall population.

Despite this fact, it’s possible to argue that black players are victims of discrimination or that MLB is not doing enough to recruit black talent. Absent such factors, maybe the percentage of black players would be much higher than their percentage of the general population (as is the case in many other sports). At this point, however, there is little if any data to back up any such claims. Certainly, it seems highly unlikely that there is more discrimination against black players today than there was 30 or 40 years ago, when the percentage of African-Americans on MLB rosters was much higher. Rather, the percentage of black players has fallen partly because of the influx of foreign players and partly because many of the best black American athletes have focused on football and basketball, where salaries are higher. NBA players, for example, are the highest-paid athletes in the world. NFL players don’t make as much as MLB players, but there are many more players per team, and “skill position” players (the positions multisport athletes are likely to gravitate to) make more than linemen.

Finally, it’s worth noting that many of the foreign baseball players are themselves racially black (primarily black Latin Americans). If African-American players are being forced out by racism, it’s hard to understand why the supposedly racist management is hiring black Latin Americans instead. In sum, it’s doubtful that racism has been completely eliminated from MLB, anymore than it has anywhere else. But it’s unlikely that it (or inadequate recruitment) accounts for more than a tiny fraction of the decline in the percentage of African-American baseball players.

If the sports media wants to focus on genuine mistreatment of African-American athletes (along with some of other races), they should cast a more critical eye on the NCAA cartel.

UPDATE: I wrote a somewhat similar post two years ago, responding to the same argument. The present post, however, has updated data.