What Happened to all the Black Superstars in Major League Baseball?

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Every year around this time, baseball does a great job of highlighting the impact Jackie Robinson had on baseball and sports in America (if you have a teen, do them a favor and show them the movie 42). Recently, another talking point has evolved: the steady decline of African-Americans on MLB rosters.

According to USA Today, African-Americans make up only 8% of current rosters. When the Red Sox became the last team to integrate in 1959, the number was 17%. 1975 was the highest ratio at 27%, and as recently as 1995 the number was 19%.

There are a number of factors that have contributed to the rapid decline: the influx of Hispanics; the lack of inner-city youth programs; the increasing popularity of the NBA and NFL among African-American teens; and the lack of young, high-profile African-American MLB stars.

Opening day a year ago saw nearly 30 more Dominicans than Blacks on MLB rosters; 28% of rosters were foreign-born players. Kids growing up in the DR, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Venezuela are playing baseball year round with the dream of someday becoming MLB stars. Conversely, the Yankees, Angels, and Dodgers (not coincidentally cities with a considerable Af-Am population) accounted for about 1/4 of all Blacks playing in the majors. Baseball is a way out of poverty for thousands of starry-eyed kids in Latin-American countries.

While America’s major cities are littered with youth basketball and football programs aimed at keeping at-risk kids out of trouble and off the streets, there are relatively few such agendas in place for youths to learn “America’s Game”; perhaps the term should be renamed “Latin-America’s Game”?

Basketball and Football has never been more popular among African-American youth; NBA and NFL superstars are primarily black. Lebron James and Kevin Durant are the face of the NBA, and are wildly popular among both rural and urban high school kids. They dominate headlines, advertising, and apparel. Certain positions in the NFL are nearly exclusive to African-Americans (RB and CB), and more blacks than ever are playing QB at major Division I programs.

If you are an exceptional basketball or football player, you are making millions of dollars as a professional by age 20 (NBA) or 21-22 (NFL). With the rare exception of the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, baseball players do not sign big-money contracts until their mid-twenties. This cannot be overlooked when it comes to the appeal of the NBA and NFL over MLB.

Finally, there is an absence of young black MLB superstars that America’s minority teens worship and envy. Take a look at this list of African-Americans that have won Rookie of the Year:

1956 Frank Robinson (age 20)
1959 Willie McCovey (21)
1964 Dick Allen (22)
1977 Eddie Murray (21)
1978 Lou Whitaker (21)
1983 Darryl Strawberry (21)
1984 Dwight Gooden (19)
1996 Derek Jeter (22)
2003 Dontrelle Willis (21)

Absent from this list is likely the most popular African-American baseball player of the last 35 years – Ken Griffey Jr, an All-Star in 1989 at age 19.

Stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com

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