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Can Baseball’s shifting demographics tell us anything about opportunities for young players?

The infusion of Latin American talent has come at the same time as a sharp decline in participation by African-American players.

Dominican Republic v USA - WBSC U-15 World Cup Super Round Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

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Major League Baseball’s annual Jackie Robinson Day will be tomorrow, commemorating Robinson’s debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers back in 1947 that broke the sport’s color barrier. The end of Baseball’s segregation came at a great cost to those who chose the risks, but we’re all better off for it. Baseball got better on the way to showing some persuadable Americans that the irrational fears in their mind were exactly that.

But it took a lot of time. And pain. And people wanting to change attitudes. Still, in all the time since Robinson took that courageous first step, the number of African-American players in MLB never exceeded the 20% mark. Right around the turn of the century, Latin American participation exploded, and as of 2017 sat in the 27% participation range.

Here’s a chart of Baseball’s ethnic makeup since 1947:

If that’s not too shocking to you, here’s a graph that makes the decline much more obvious:

These come from data visualization company Visme and writer Federico Anzil, who posted a blog about their research into the topic.

The number of Latinos playing in the MLB also increased after 1947, but the upward trend continued even after the percentage of African American players started to decrease. In 1993, Latinos replaced African Americans as the second most dominant race/ethnicity in the major leagues. In 2017, 27.4 percent of MLB players were Latinos.

The blog doesn’t attempt to explore these reasons in much depth. The only consideration they offer specifically about the decline of African-American participation is this:

Many factors can influence the decline in the number of African American players in the MLB. Some argue that a shift in preferences in this population group played a role. But demographic changes could also be influencing MLB demographics.

The “shift in preferences” crowd usually boil their argument down to the greater popularity of basketball or even football, but it’s never quite as simple as that. On the one hand, basketball is much cheaper to play and requires less equipment. The skill set required to play it well is much more straightforward and there are more basketball courts than baseball fields. If you ever read a football scouting report or watch the combines, then it’s clear that these athletes are preyed upon by scouts. The “shift in preferences” argument doesn’t quite hold up under much scrutiny; though, if I had to argue on the side of it, I’d open with the fact that every time there’s a baseball game on TV, every ad break features youth-alienating commercials for erectile dysfunction medication. Every time.

Clearly, there’s a preference for Latin American talent by MLB front offices, though, and the reason why has a lot more to do with the cost and risk associated with “recruiting” talent from these countries. It’s impossible to not sound cynical, but it’s cheaper and easier to acquire young players from the Caribbean or Central America. Teams can stockpile them when they’re kids and not have to deal with all the ins and outs of American life in terms of scouting and development.

Baseball tried to negotiate a deal with Cuba recently for player exchanges in part to put an end to the dangers of human trafficking that has so much become a part of the international baseball system because on a very basic level, the entire system is sick. Teams have setup up academies in foreign countries and promise players and their families big paydays and all that kid has to do is give their life over to the academy.

These negotiated deals with foreign countries and entities allows for a more workable situation than any opportunities here in the U.S. because it’s more expensive to setup a system that exploits young athletes here than elsewhere. That means underprivileged kids of any ethnicity in the United States just don’t have the same opportunity... to say nothing of Baseball’s lowered popularity here than elsewhere. Anzil notes, “Looking at the popularity of online searches for the term ‘baseball,’ Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela have the greatest search popularity of all Latin American countries.”

American youth baseball is now dominated by travel ball teams and a very high cost barrier for entry. While Major League Baseball has established the MLB Youth Academy in Compton, CA, it still operates under American laws and regulations. There’s a limit to the amount of exploitation that they can do domestically, not just because of the laws but because of the scrutiny. So, the league figured out over time how to outsource the development of a cheap talent pool. Meanwhile, kids who want to play baseball or might be interested quickly discover that the best of the best play it behind a paywall: private coaching, Driveline assessments, college scholarships, travel teams, etc.

Jackie Robinson set the stage for an influx of talent. He was brought in to make the Dodgers better. Branch Rickey saw a well of untapped Baseball talent, the likes of which few baseball fans had ever seen, and he wanted a piece of it so that everybody could win — player opportunity, fan discovery, and ownership revenues.

The decline of African-American participation in Baseball is bittersweet. On the one hand, less diversity hurts the game. On the other hand, Jackie Robinson’s historic feat cleared a path for players from anywhere to work their way to the major leagues:

Yes, it’s easy to reach the conclusion that baseball has managed to survive for as long as it has because it has been able to find different talent pools to exploit whenever its demographic base started to become too homogenized or old. Branch Rickey knew what he was doing. Jackie Robinson said:

“But if Mr. Rickey hadn’t signed me, I wouldn’t have played another year in the black league. It was too difficult. The travel was brutal. Financially, there was no reward. It took everything you make to live off.”

The simple truth of history is that because of Jackie Robinson, there are now more non-white baseball players than ever before. It’s not quite a pure meritocracy, but if you want to consider other systems or leagues or paradigms in the modern world, you’d be hard-pressed to find one much better. All players want is an opportunity. All Jackie Robinson did was make it possibly for anybody to have one.

He said it himself:

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

A diverse game is a good game. We just need to hold onto that idea.