Despite the Elevation of Negro Leagues, Baseball is Still Short for the African-American Ballplayer
Updated: Apr 14
On December 16th Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that the seven leagues that comprised the Negro Leagues from 1920-1948 would be officially elevated to Major League status. By doing so, all stats that were collected by the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database would be filed into the MLB record books, formally recognizing the ability and the statistics of players who were barred by the color barrier. This elevation will move players like Roy Campanella past milestone numbers like the 1000 career RBI mark, something achieved by less than 300 major leaguers in history. Campanella, who recorded 856 RBI with the Dodgers, will have his 171 RBI accumulated in his Baltimore Negro League career added to his career total.
Having players who played in both the Negro Leagues and the MLB have the entirety of their careers recognized is a great way to honor the history of these players and their families for their efforts in progressing the racial divides in this country. However, revising history is a retroactive way to thank African-American ballplayers, especially as the league continues to record low percentages of African-American players. In 1951, the fifth season after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the league percentage of players on rosters was 8.8% black. Through 1964 to 1994, that number was always above 20%, with a peak in 1977 of 27.2%.
In 2020, the league had rostered 80 Black players, or 7.8% of the league. Three teams, the Diamondbacks, Royals, and Rays, did not have a single Black player on their opening-day roster, and 14 of the 30 teams had two or fewer. Skewing the numbers even greater is that the Seattle Mariners had ten of 80 eighty Black players on their roster, a tremendous outlier in comparison to the rest of the league. It is worth noting that approximately 30% of the league is Latino , but that doesn’t explain a 20% dip in the last twenty years for the African-American demographic in the sport. Why is it that this change has occurred?
At a time where baseball is more expensive to play than ever, a new kind of diversity challenge has risen within the sport. For American baseball players to even contemplate playing at the next level, scouts and coaches want to see an enormous sample size of what a player can do. This sample size includes travel ball statistics, showcase performances, and high-level tournament play from the time players are 10 years-old to when they are 18. Perfect Game USA, the premier showcase and tournament service for players to get seen and evaluated, starts ranking 10-year-old teams nationally based off their performances, and ranks players against the rest of their high school class when they’re still in 8th grade.
This severe analysis of young ball players is due in part to the commercialization of the sport. Youth baseball is a booming economy, with Perfect Game bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars to Atlanta, Georgia, and Jupiter, Florida, where they host their annual World Series events. The average annual cost for a family to have one child be a part of a travel team attending these type of events is approximately $8,000. This rough estimation only partially factors in the travel, lodging, and food expenses that may be incurred on four-day weekend summer tournaments that kids have to play in to vie for a baseball scholarship at a Division I program. If a family were to have their son play travel ball for nine years, they would incur about $72,000 in expenses, or one year of education at an Ivy League school. That’s an expense African-American families may not be able to swing every year, given the median household income for Black households being $45,438 a year ($30,000 less than the average White household).
But wouldn’t all these costs be worth it if a hard-working kid earns a baseball scholarship to play in college? Certainly, but very few college baseball players are there on full rides. Each of the 297 Division I baseball programs is allotted 11.7 full scholarships that they divide among the 30 players on their roster. At Division II programs, only nine scholarships are available, and of course must be divided among the team. In comparison, Division I football programs have up to 85 full-tuition scholarships each year and football players do not have to play six games every weekend of their adolescent summers to receive these scholarships. As a result, the costly nature of youth baseball and its inferior scholarship potential may steer young athletes who play both to focus on football instead of baseball, particularly if they are from a disadvantaged family.
The MLB is trying to combat these issues with some of their philanthropic efforts. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program has existed for 32 years, with the goal of promoting greater inclusion of youth with diverse backgrounds into the game and increasing the number of talented athletes who are prepared to play in college and professionally. The RBI program helps finance inner city baseball and softball programs in order to encourage the sport in urban areas. RBI also provides 12 annual scholarships to student-athletes in need. This and other programs like it are great ways to help revive this segment of the baseball world, but more than 12 scholarships are going to be needed to make a true paradigm shift in the coming years.
This also links back to the sports issues in marketing itself and creating a consistent image for today’s youth. Mookie Betts is one of baseball’s biggest superstars and until his 2020 commercial celebrating Jackie Robinson, did not have a single commercial with the MLB marketing him. This was a tremendous failure by the MLB because they knew they were not reaching the African-American community, yet did not use an MVP winner and role model to the Black community like Betts to market the sport. Further, the sport suffered a huge public loss when Kyler Murray elected to play in the NFL, despite signing a contract with the Oakland Athletics as the ninth overall selection in the 2018 MLB draft. Given the once in a lifetime opportunity to choose between two professional sports, Murray spurned baseball and chose football. In this instance, baseball did not even have the chance to fail to market Murray because he wanted no part of the sport anyway.
There have been promising signs in resolving this lack of diversity in recent years. A total of 44 African-American players had been selected in the first round of the MLB draft from 2012-2019 and three players from the RBI program had been selected in the top five picks of the draft. At the collegiate level there is hope too, with the 2019 College World Series being represented by Michigan and Vanderbilt, with 20% of their rosters being African-American. All of these things indicate that the sport may be about to turn the corner on this issue, but there is still more work to be done. If baseball can play a part in simplifying the college recruitment process, reducing the cost of playing the game, and encouraging participation from all American demographics, the elevation of the Negro Leagues will be more than a revisionist attempt to bridge the current gap between baseball and African-American baseball fans.
Personally, when I worked at Perfect Game, I had to use a radar gun on 11 year-old pitchers and evaluate if they had a projectable fastball, despite them only throwing 55 MPH at the time. There is so much evaluation that goes into it now, and if there isn’t a Baseball Reference-esque record of your statistics coaches are hesitant to offer scholarships to players without “another look.” The pressure and the expense that now goes into the college baseball recruiting process has eliminated the joy and the convenience of the sport for young athletes and families. When families may not have the time or the money to attend tournaments or showcases, the opportunity to play college ball may be left as a dream. We can only hope that the MLB continues to give back to less advantaged communities and provide avenues for success for those that may otherwise not have a chance in this current business model.
 The Associated Press, LEADING OFF: MLB Honors 100th Anniversary of Negro Leagues, KSLSports.com (August 15th, 2020), https://kslsports.com/439910/leading-off-mlb-honors-100th-anniversary-of-negro-leagues/
 MLB officially designates the Negro Leagues as ‘Major League’, MLB.com (December 16, 2020), https://www.mlb.com/press-release/press-release-mlb-officially-designates-the-negro-leagues-as-major-league
 Nathan Ruiz, What MLB’s recognition of the Negro Leagues means for Leon Day, Roy Campanella and other Baltimore standouts, Baltimore Sun (December 18th, 2020), https://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/orioles/bs-sp-baltimore-negro-leagues-recognition-20201218-dnkdbzhihjhjhczdja5y2tqg6i-story.html
 Mark Amour and Daniel R. Levitt, Baseball Demographics, 1947-2016, Society for American Baseball Research (n.d.), https://sabr.org/bioproj/topic/baseball-demographics-1947-2016/
 Bob Nightengale, ‘Starting to hit home:’ Percentage of Black players in MLB still low, but there are signs of growth, USA Today (August 14th, 2020), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/bob-nightengale/2020/08/14/mlb-black-players-signs-of-growth-100th-anniversary-negro-leagues/3366480001/
 Amour and Levitt, supra.
 Perfect Game USA, The World’s Largest and Most Comprehensive Scouting Organization, perfectgame.org (December 22nd, 2020), https://www.perfectgame.org/
 Perfect Game USA, Perfect Game Announces Regional and National Expansion Plans to kick off its 25thAnniversary including a search for new facilities to hosts its Premier Tournaments and Showcases, PR Newswire (November 15th, 2018), https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/perfect-game-announces-regional-and-national-expansion-plans-to-kick-off-its-25th-anniversary-including-a-search-for-new-facilities-to-host-its-premier-tournaments-and-showcases-300750918.html
 Jason Smith, Paying to Play: How much do club sports cost?, USA Today High School Sports (August 1st, 2017), https://usatodayhss.com/2017/paying-to-play-how-much-do-club-sports-cost
 John Creamer, Poverty Rates for Blacks and Hispanics Reached Historic Lows in 2019, Census.gov (September 15th, 2020), https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/09/poverty-rates-for-blacks-and-hispanics-reached-historic-lows-in-2019.html#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20median%20household%20income,and%20%2498%2C174%20for%20Asian%20households
 Baseball Scholarships, CollegeScholarships.org (n.d.), http://www.collegescholarships.org/scholarships/sports/baseball.htm#:~:text=There%20are%20297%20colleges%20and,for%20up%20to%2030%20players
 College Football Scholarships, CollegeScholarships.org (n.d.), http://www.collegescholarships.org/scholarships/sports/football.htm
 About RBI, MLB.com (n.d.), https://www.mlb.com/rbi/about
 Dante Camilli, Baseball’s Image Problem: Recapping a Year of Questionable Decision Making from the MLB, Villanova Sports Law Blog (November 23rd, 2020), https://www.vlssportslawblog.com/post/baseball-s-image-problem-recapping-a-year-of-questionable-decision-making-from-the-mlb
 Bob Nightengale, ‘It’s a baseball problem’: MLB redoubles its efforts as sport’s black population remains low, USA Today (April 14th, 2019), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/columnist/bob-nightengale/2019/04/14/african-american-mlb-players-baseball-jackie-robinson/3465999002/
 Kyler Murray: Baseball, Wikipedia (n.d.), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyler_Murray#Baseball_2
 Nightengale, ‘It’s a baseball problem’, supra.
 Nightengale, ‘Starting to hit home:’, supra.