Friday, April 12, 2013

Baseball Demographics

"42" is the cinemas today. It chronicles the barrier-breaking history of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, when Jackie entered professional baseball entirely populated by white players. The Negro League had provided some opportunities but the white majority wasn't watching this sport and the pay might have been commensurate.

African-Americans now comprise less than 8% of the players, down from a peak of 27% nearly 40 years ago. Why? Some cite the social dynamics of father-son traditions being lost in a world of absent fathers. Some cite economics with the cost of family travel to support up-and-coming Little League stars. Some cite the sport and its ability to confer glory on individuals: basketball stars can make a difference in the team's success; baseball stars less so. The sport is less attractive that way. Some cite the demise of the Negro League and its sport's absence from the conversations of the black community.

None seem to have thought about the logistics. Basketball can be played nearly anywhere: at home with a backboard mounted over a garage or nearby building; at school; at a park. The amount of space needed for a basketball court, or less so for a half-court which comprise many of the pick-up games, is not very much. They can be found in urban, suburban and rural areas. Games can start with just two people (one-on-one) or four, six, eight or a full compliment of ten.

Have you tried playing baseball in a small space? Some of us may have played on empty lots in our younger days, and you had to be careful about breaking windows. Also, an empty lot only works when you're young. As you get into your teens, you need the wide open spaces.

Want to play one-on-one in baseball? Forget it, if it's anything more than a game of catch. I'm not pitching to you, just to go hoofing a long ways to retrieve your hit--foul or fair. At minimum, you want 10 people before you start a game. Not easy to do spontaneously when you're hanging out trying to figure out what to do.

What makes it different for the Latino players who make up 25% of the MLB (28% in 2010)? How many of them are from the US? In 2010, a third of them were from the Dominican Republic. Just counting the larger sources of Latino players in 2013, by birthplace, we have 23% of the total field from Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico and several other Latin American countries. That means very few are from the US.

Perhaps the same factors affecting African-Americans are affecting Hispanic-American players as well, if not more so. I leave it to others to see if the factors are the same social, economic, historical (was their an Hispanic League?) trends causing the results. Most likely, it's just logistics and the (lack of) attractiveness in the star-quality that can be gained from the sport. There are a lot of college scholarships in football that perhaps overcome the logistics problems of baseball.

Can MLB reverse this trend, attracting a more diverse fan-base? Only time will tell if the plans, according to Bud Selig, for Urban Youth Academies, and a new stadium in Chicago, will address the causes.

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