Where have all the Jackies gone? Long time passing.
When Jackie Robinson took the field on April 15, 1947, he represented the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era. His roster spot represented 0.25% of the 400 roster spots then available.
Jackie was followed by an influx of Hall of Fame caliber players whose career was started in the Negro Leagues – Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays and many others. As the Negro Leagues began to wind down in the early to mid-1950s, Major League clubs seeing the improvement in teams aggressively pursuing black baseball players began signing players directly out of high school and college and training them in their own minor league system. Those franchises that failed to honestly attempt to sign the best players available without regard to race, suffered harm in the win percentage and at the turnstiles as a result.
From 1975 to 1986, the percentage of African-American players on Major League rosters varied only slightly around 18.0% versus U.S. population as a whole to 11.5%. Since 1986, the percentage of African-American players on Major League rosters as fallen steadily to only 6.7% in 2016 so that today African-Americans are significantly under represented on MLB rosters compared to the population as a whole of 12%.
The MLB percentages in the previous paragraph as well as the table below are derived from an article entitled Baseball Demographics 1947-2016 written by Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt and published by the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR).
The erosion of African-American players has not made MLB more monochrome. The decline has been offset by a corresponding rise in Latino and Asian players.
To make it as a professional athlete in the three major sports leagues in the U.S. is a long-shot for any athlete. A promising career in an ultra-competitive market promising high salaries and prestige for success can be derailed at any time by injury. The table below shows that while an average NBA player can expect to make more money than an MLB player or NFL player, the weighted odds of success are roughly equal to the pay that would accrue to a worker in a fast food franchise. Baseball players not only have the longest career potential, but because of their better odds of success, can expect an annual return equal to an average professional career in business. In all cases, however, a successful academic career is most important. Even the very best of pro athletes have completed their career by their mid- 30s leaving 40 – 50 years of living and contributing to society to fill.
Given the relative earning power and lack of devastating injuries, why aren’t more African-Americans playing baseball?
Next week’s blog will examine some of the reasons for this decline, what Major League Baseball is doing to reverse it and what more they could be doing.