Culture

Why Are There So Few Black Players in Major League Baseball?

(Image: Dreamstime)
Scholars find a correlation between playing the sport and growing up with a father at home.

Here’s a shocking statistic I learned from “Called Out at Home,” a new study by Joseph Price and Kevin Stuart, published by the Austin Institute: The percentage of major-league baseball players who are black today is as low as it was around the time Jackie Robinson retired after the 1956 season.

The proportion of black major league baseball players rose steadily for decades after Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 and became a national icon. “But then, starting in the late 1970s and accelerating through the 80s and 90s, African American representation took a curious downward turn,” Price and Stuart point out. “Now less than half what it once was, black representation has plummeted from over 18% of all pro players to just 7%.”

How can this be? Barriers to participation by black people generally have fallen so much further, the social desire for racial diversity has grown more intense, and African Americans are generally very successful across a diverse range of sports at the highest level: Seventy-four percent of NBA players are black, for example, as are 60 percent of NFL players, and even 10 percent of soccer players. Yet today professional soccer has a higher proportion of black players than does Major League Baseball.

In casting about for an explanation for why so few professional baseball players are black, Price and Stuart began with this observation: “What was curious to the research team at the Austin Institute about the timing of the decline, too neat to be coincidence we thought, was that it began about 20 years after a sharp rise in out-of-wedlock childbirths.”

The steepest decline in African-American baseball players occurred in the 1990s, about 20 years after the greatest decline in the rate of black children born to married parents, a good proxy for whether a child is living with his dad. So our intrepid researchers set about investigating multiple data sources and concluded that there is indeed a “connection between having a father in the home during childhood and going on to become a professional baseball player.”

When I saw the headlines about their study I was deeply skeptical. “Correlation is not causation,” as they say, usually repeatedly and loudly if “they” don’t like a social-science finding. No social-science study ever proves causation, but by ruling out alternative explanations, social scientists can provide evidence for likely causation.

And when I read through the work Price and Stuart did, I was increasingly impressed. They investigated using five different approaches:

First, they compared county-level birth data with a database of baseball players to see whether any relationship could be found between out-of-wedlock childbirths and professional ballplayers 20 years later. Price and Stuart used an existing database of 17,307 college players, 15,106 minor-league players, and 2,731 major-league players who were born between 1978 and 1988. The database included also their counties of birth. The authors compared that data to county-level data on the fraction of marital births. The results? In a given county, on average, a ten-percentage-point increase in the fraction of mothers who were married at their children’s birth resulted in an additional three-quarters of a professional baseball player a generation later.

Some caveats: “When we control for the county’s population this relationship increases a bit and when we control for the fraction of the population with a college degree it drops a bit.” But they point out that, even when controlling for multiple other factors that might influence the outcome, “counties where a higher percentage of children are born to married parents also produce a higher percentage of baseball players.”

Second, Price and Stuart examined the Current Population Survey, which allowed them to look at county-level data specifically for the proportion of children with a father’s presence in the home. Overall, a 10 percent increase in the percentage of children living with their dads yielded an additional 2.67 baseball players per 10,000 individuals, a 25 percent increase.

The relationship stayed the same when the authors controlled for population but dropped some when they controlled for the proportion of adults in the county who were college-educated. “Some might object that it’s not fatherhood that makes a difference, but that baseball is culturally a sport that more educated, wealthier people are drawn to,” Price and Stuart write. “What the data show is that there is some truth to the idea, but the effect of growing up with a father around remains even when we control for education.”

Our intrepid researchers concluded that there is indeed a ‘connection between having a father in the home during childhood and going on to become a professional baseball player.’

Third, they explored the AddHealth database, which is nationally representative of high-school students, to see if a father’s presence in the home was correlated with whether a high-school student plays baseball or (in the case of girls) softball.

After controlling for grade, gender, ethnictity, and the mother’s education, they found that high-school boys and girls alike were 12 percent more likely to play baseball (or softball) if they lived with their dad. That reflects not just a greater propensity to play on sports teams: The same data show that high-school students are about 6 percent less likely to play on a basketball team if their father lives in their home.

Fourth, Price and Stuart took a look at Maxpreps.com ratings for 14,000 high-school baseball teams across the country to see whether any connection could be found between a county’s fraction of mothers married at their children’s birth and, 16 years later, which high schools had successful baseball teams.

They used data from Maxpreps.com to calculate the average success rating of baseball teams for high schools in counties across America. They compared that to a county’s marital birth rate in the year 2000, about 16 years earlier. The results? An increase of twelve percentage points in the marital birth rate was associated with an increase, slight but significant, in the average rating of high-school baseball teams in that county. “In short, high school baseball teams are more successful in counties where (16 years ago) more moms were married when they had children.”

Finally, Price and Stuart created an original research sample of approximately 600 current baseball players, 20 from each team, and used publicly available journalistic sources to report whether or not the players had a father in their home when growing up.

The sample was not constructed for this project but was instead a sample of top-ten hitters and pitchers in each team, about 600 current Major League Baseball players. They separated out 416 players born in the U.S. who are either black, white, or Latino. To construct a control group, they gathered data from the 1980–2000 census and the 2001–2007 American Community Survey, to identifying approximately 30 children who matched each player with respect to race, year of birth, and U.S. state of birth. Once again the authors found a connection between fatherhood and baseball. More than 70 percent of black Major League Baseball players grew up with their father, compared twith about 40 percent of a matched sample.

I had one last doubt. Baseball is a suburban game — you need a field to play it, while basketball is the quintessential urban sport. Could that explain the decline in black baseball players? A cursory look at the data suggests not. An analysis by Gary D. Sandefur and colleagues found a 70 percent increase in blacks in the suburbs in the 1970s. More recent data shows that between 1990 and 2000, the black population of central cities declined slightly (from 24 to 23 percent of the cities’ total population) while the black population of suburbs increased, from 7 percent to 9 percent.

“We can now say with confidence that it takes a father to make a professional baseball player, and the decline in the presence of fathers in the homes of African American children partially explains the massive 60% decline in African American representation in Major League Baseball over the last 35 years,” Price and Stuart conclude, and I agree.

Why should anyone (or anyone besides the nearly half of Americans who are baseball fans in the United States) care? “Perhaps it’s not a huge leap to hypothesize that active fathers make a tremendous difference in the lives of their children,” as Price and Stuart put it. Baseball, that sport obsessed with statistics, provides “a great ‘laboratory’ in which to see whether it was true.”

In baseball, as in life, it is important to remember that millions of children growing up without their fathers will do fine in life and in their chosen vocations. But it is also true that the suffering that comes from discovering that your father is not there for you can linger, long after childhood is done.

#related#Of course, there are plenty of baseball players who grew up without their dad in their home. One of the greatest, Alex Rodriguez, talked about it, and his words made it into “Called out at Home”: “Dad left us when I was 9. What did I know back then? I thought he was coming back. I thought he had gone to the store or something. But he never came back,” said Rodriguez. Even though he’s now one of the greatest sports heroes of our times, he says: “It still hurts. After a while, I lied to myself. I tried to tell myself that it didn’t matter, that I didn’t care. But times I was alone, I often cried. Where was my father? To this day, I still can’t get close to people.”

Where are the fathers? Men and women, don’t believe the people who tell you they don’t matter.

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