Over this past weekend, Major League Baseball celebrated the 71st anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the sport’s color barrier. As one would expect, the celebration highlighted the opportunity to praise the sport for the diversity it has come to show. However, one of the issues that was discussed in an ESPN video (as well as in other places over the years) is the declining numbers of African Americans at the Major League level. Despite the fact that black players from Latin American nations are on the rise, the percentage of American blacks in the game have been on the decline since their height of 18.7% in 1981. It has now been under 10% for over a decade.
There are several theories as to why this trend has been the case. Some cite the cost of admission to little league and the price of equipment. Others talk about the rise in popularity of football and basketball coupled with the best black athletes choosing to play those sports instead. Others have cited how the lack of individualism and the fact that baseball doesn’t seem “cool” enough for black America. But a factor that often goes overlooked, and likely won’t be voiced on ESPN, is the epidemic of fatherless households in the black community and how that can impact a son’s interest in baseball.
In general, baseball is more of a game that a son learns to play and to love from his father than any other sport. Playing catch in the backyard is something fathers and sons have done for generations. Taking your child to a baseball game is a longstanding American tradition as well. According to a study done by the Austin Institute,
“While some say baseball is culturally a sport the more educated and wealthy are drawn to, this data shows it’s nowhere near the magnitude of having a father in the home. Boys and girls are 25% more likely to play baseball and softball when they live with their father. High school baseball teams are more successful in counties where, 16 years earlier, more mothers were married when they had children.”
Considering the age of baseball players during these decades of the height of blacks at the Major League level and the subsequent decline, the timeline seems to bear this out. In the previously mentioned peak year of 1981 for African Americans in MLB, the overwhelming majority of players were from the Baby Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964). Since President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in 1965, the rate of blacks raised without fathers has skyrocketed. So it makes sense that the Baby Boomers would produce the highest percentage of black professional baseball players since they were the last generation to be untouched by the government’s misguided policy that destroyed black families.
This isn’t to say that other issues aren’t factors as well. The inner-city surroundings in which many young blacks are more likely to grow up in America may lead to a greater likelihood of interests in other sports than baseball. In response, the league has created the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiative (RBI). Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper created the Make Baseball Fun Again movement that encourages more expression in the sport. These attempts may pay dividends down the road in trying to lure more American blacks back to the country’s pastime.
But as much as socioeconomic conditions and cultural preferences can play a factor in baseball’s popularity among specific groups, one cannot underestimate the impact that fathers have when it comes to a child’s athletic experience. The fact that the national rate for black children born to unwed parents has hovered around 70% since the 1990’s will play a huge role in what activities those individuals will be drawn to in their youth. Not having a father in the home has robbed children of all races of so much. Now it appears that a child’s experience in the world of sports is not exempt from those consequences.