Why are few African Americans playing professional baseball? Dombrowski leads charge to find out

Earl Wilson, Edwin Jackson, and Dontrelle Willis, three of the four African American pitchers who have played regularly for the Detroit Tigers since 1947.

Earl Wilson, Edwin Jackson, and Dontrelle Willis, three of the five African American pitchers who have played regularly for the Detroit Tigers since 1947.

Dave Dombrowski is busy enough reshaping the roster of Detroit Tigers, making several moves this off-season. As one of baseball’s most highly regarded executives, Double-D takes his job as caretaker of the Tigers’ roster very seriously, of course.

But as if he wasn’t busy enough, Dombrowski also has a part-time job. At the behest of the Commissioner’s Office, Dombrowski is chair of a special committee examining the role of African Americans in professional baseball. The committee was organized last April, just in time for baseball’s annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day (April 15th). But as Tim Keown of ESPN.com reported, on that date, “everybody on the field dresses up in No. 42 jerseys while baseball’s cognoscenti stroke their collective chin and ponder why so few people on the field look like Jackie Robinson.”

According to research by Mark Armour and Dan Levitt, the percentage of African Americans on MLB rosters has rapidly diminished from 18.4% in 1984, to less than 8% thirty years later as we enter the 2014 season.

Baseball was integrated in 1947 when Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and soon many other African Americans followed. At first, only the most talented African American players were signed, but by 1972, 16.1% of all the players in the big leagues were African American (identifying as black and born in the United States). That figure stayed steady between 16 and 19% for more than 25 years, as Armour and Levitt’s research shows. Then, starting in the mid-1990s, the number began to drop until baseball finds itself in the odd situation of today, when less than 60 African American players are on active rosters across Major League Baseball. The Tigers have four on their 40-man roster: Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Rajai Davis, and Daniel Fields.

What gives? That’s what Dombrowski and the special committee are looking to find out. But there are several theories.

Starting in the late 1980s, two trends have helped change the way rosters have been structured in the big leagues. First, relief pitchers are being used far more frequently, as the age of specialization has replaced the complete game. The Detroit Tigers will carry seven relief pitchers once again in 2014, giving them 12 pitchers on their staff. Why does that impact the number of African Americans in the majors? No one’s sure why this is, but fewer African Americans are pitchers. In fact, it’s always been that way. Historically, about 6% of all pitchers have been African American, and that number has dropped in the last 20 seasons. In fact, it might seem shocking, but in the entire history of the Tigers, only five African American pitchers have had a regular role with the team: Earl Wilson (1966-70), Les Cain (1968, 1970-72), Brian Williams (1996), Edwin Jackson (2009), and Dontrelle Willis (2008-10).* There are other factors as to why Detroit has had a poor showing of African American pitchers (institutional racism caused the team to be the second-to-last MLB club to integrate, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson played for the Dodgers).

The second significant factor in the decrease of African Americans in pro baseball is the explosion of talent being signed from outside the U.S. In 2013, 29% of the players on 25-man rosters were born in foreign countries. The bulk of these players are Latin American, and as Armour/Levitt’s research shows, Latin Americans are 10x as likely to be pitchers as are African Americans. Most African American players are outfielders, for whatever reason, and many big league teams are now carrying only four outfielders on their team. With shorter benches, MLB clubs are giving jobs to utility players like Don Kelly, players who can fill-in at several positions.

There are certainly other issues at play that have contributed to the decline in African American players in Major League Baseball. Cultural (African Americans are far more likely to come from single-parent homes or homes with fewer or no adult role models to foster participation in league sports) and economic issues (there are fewer free youth baseball leagues and many of the best leagues are pay-for-play), and some even suggest that baseball’s slow pace of play is unattractive to American youth, not to mention African American youth. Since 1984, the percentage of white Americans playing professional baseball has fallen from 70% to about 60%. Maybe the game has just become more appealing to the international crowd?

These questions are all on the plate for Dombrowski and the rest of MLB’s committee, which has yet to issue a report or make formal suggestions. One thing is for sure: if Jackie Robinson were alive today, he’d be proud of the progress that African American athletes have made, but he’d also be concerned about the decreasing number of black Americans on big league rosters.


*Readers have pointed also to John Wyatt (1968) and Charles Hudson (1989), but those two played a very small role on the team. Wilson, Cain, Jackson, and Willis were all in the Detroit rotation for full seasons or parts of seasons.

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