Unpopular Answer to a Popular Question

By Gerald Early

from Spring 2007 issue of 108

Recently I gave a 30-minute presentation on baseball at the Oakland Museum of California before a group of Washington University alumni. The occasion was the opening of the Hall of Fame exhibition “Baseball as America.” During the question-and-answer period I was asked why African Americans were so under-represented on Major League Baseball teams. To me, that is always something like a trick or loaded question. I am invariably asked about this because I am African American and it is supposed by my audience that I would have an adequate or informed or sensible explanation for the absence of blacks in the Major Leagues. Moreover, I usually will mention Jackie Robinson briefly whenever I give a talk on baseball, so that, combined with my skin color, would seem to invite the question. I don’t mind it, although I am a bit bemused by it.

I answered by saying that African Americans make up about nine percent of Major League baseball players today, which is somewhat less than their percent in the population, but roughly about what they represent in the American mosaic as a whole. So, in fact, they really aren’t under-represented in the sport. It is about in keeping with their percentage in the general population. Should there be more? If so, why? How many Jews play Major League Baseball in comparison to their overall percentage in the population? How many Japanese Americans or Americans of Italian extraction? When black Americans made up seventeen to eighteen percent of ballplayers in 1959, many thought this was an achievement; although blacks were clearly over-represented, no one of liberal bent at the time was disturbed. When blacks made up nearly 30 percent of Major League rosters in 1975, many people, especially some liberals and some blacks, complained that they were over-represented in the sport, as they were in American team sports generally, that blacks were largely reduced to being entertainers and athletes in America and their over-representation in sports stereotyped them and distorted the young black male’s sense of ambition. Blacks were being steered into sports. (This was, in good measure, the argument of John Hoberman’s controversial Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race, published in 1997.)

I continued, many people said that blacks being over-represented in sports like baseball is bad; now, they say that blacks being under-represented is bad. Well, which is it? Black Americans are even more under-represented among professional sports franchise owners. People don’t seem nearly as worked up about that. They are even more under-represented among people who win the science Nobel Prizes but people seem to feel that the fact they don’t play professional baseball as they used to is something like a national crisis. Winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine would do more for the group’s image than winning the MVP of the National League or a Cy Young Award, which black Americans have already proven they can do. Isn’t all of this strange?

Finally, I say that the simplest answer is probably the best: I assume black Americans don’t play Major League Baseball so much these days because they don’t want to. This answer never satisfies my audience.

An African American gentleman stood up and offered his theory on the subject, as he found my answer woefully inadequate. Black Americans lack the space and facilities in their communities to organize baseball teams and that is why they don’t go into baseball anymore. This was one of the reasons offered in a lengthy article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that appeared on June 18, 2006 (and for which I was interviewed) that dealt with this subject. “Baseball requires green space and maintenance,” the article paraphrases one of its interviewees, “Not to mention uniforms, gloves, bats and even registration fees. To become an elite player today means participating in programs that can be prohibitively expensive for families with little financial wiggle room.” In sociology, this is call deficit theory, that is, that one group does not do what another group does because it lacks the resources to do it. Deficit theory is almost always wrong. Groups rarely feel forced not to do something because they lack something that would make it easier to do the thing in question. Deficit theory is always used to explain the behavior of black Americans.

If lack of green spaces and the cost of equipment explains why black Americans don’t play baseball today, then how does one account for the fact that they played it in the early 20th century and even organized leagues back in 1920 when they had less money, less space, fewer resources, and faced more rigorous racism than they do now. And doesn’t football require green space, organization, uniforms and the like and blacks seem to have a great pipeline in their communities for developing youth football. In the Post-Dispatch article, black sociologist Harry Edwards says that baseball doesn’t want “to send scouts into African-American communities, which still today are substantially segregated and increasingly violent.” Doubtless, this is true of many black neighborhoods, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping the development of black football or basketball players or preventing the scouts from these sports from finding their way there despite the gangs and violence.

I stick with my answer. Black people have agency as much as any other group. They are not simply sociologically determined, as believers in the deficit theory seem to think. Black Americans don’t play baseball because they don’t want to. They are not attracted to the game. Baseball has little hold on the black American imagination. Relatively few blacks watch the game. The game is not passed on from father to son or father to daughter; lacking that, the game simply will not have much resonance with African Americans. Moreover, as my friend, sports historian Michael McCambridge, pointed out to me, baseball sells itself through nostalgia, tradition, that your father took you to the game when you were child, and all that sort of claptrap sentimentality. Going back into baseball’s past only leads to segregation and something called white baseball and something else called black baseball, which was meant to be and played under conditions inferior to white baseball. “You can’t sell baseball that way to blacks.” He is right. African Americans do not look at the American past as “the good old days” or “glory days.”

It is this implicit sense that arises from the sentimentality that surrounds baseball of the past, white baseball, which shapes, in some ways, how blacks see baseball today. That explains why African American sportswriters William C. Rhoden of the New York Times (October 2, 2006) and Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (October 3, 2006) wrote very similar pieces about the leak that Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite were named by pitcher Jason Grimsley as using steroids. Burwell writes, “Don’t tell me to take it slow. Don’t tell me to let this thing play out. Don’t tell me how shaky the evidence is. There is a definite standard in the public’s attitude (and the media’s passion) in the selective prosecution of good guys and bad guys in the sports drug war. If circumstantial evidence can turn Bonds into the ultimate anti-hero … then what are we do with The Rocket?” Rhoden writes, “The news media, selectively picking and choosing who to vilify, has been on a Bonds hunt for two seasons. Now it may be confronted with Clemens. If I know my industry, there will now be calls for restraint, for withholding judgments. There will be calls for evenhandedness, for letting it play itself out, following the truth where it leads. Right.”

No African American in his or her right mind ever trusts any whites who love too much the romance of the white past. Who can blame them? After all, there is more to be said about the social and political arrangements of those days than merely, “That’s just the way it was.” And more to say about today than “that’s the way it is.”

* Gerald Early is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and Director of the Humanities Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He is an award-winning author, has written several essays about baseball and was a consultant for Ken Burns’s documentary Baseball.  He also serves on the Board of Governors of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.


from Spring 2007 issue of 108