Is baseball a white man’s sport?

Kevin Stuart

Baltimore Orioles center-fielder Adam Jones recently sparked debate when he said, comparing his sport to professional football, “baseball is a white man’s sport.”

While in recent decades baseball has become more racially diverse overall — with an influx of players from Japan, Venezuela, Cuba and the Dominican Republic — a curious demographic trend may lie at the heart of Jones’ comment: the disappearance of African-American players in Major League Baseball.

The percentage of African-American players in Major League Baseball is lower now than at any time since Jackie Robinson played second base for the Dodgers for the final time in 1957. It has dropped by over 60 percent since the high point in 1981. At that time, 18.7 percent of professional players were African-American; now, it’s about 7 percent.

What caused this massive decrease? As with any large social development, the causes are complex and multifaceted. But one crucial factor has been overlooked: fatherhood.

Generations of American children grew up playing catch with their fathers. Perhaps more so than any other sport, there is a deep connection, in history and even now, between fathers, their sons and the game of baseball. And it turns out backyard games of catch are more than the best way to pass a spring afternoon or a father’s pretext to get his son talking.

In a report from the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, research shows a connection between the presence of a father in childhood and those who go on to become professional baseball players. Having a father around does not guarantee a kid will be good at baseball, but our research shows that not having a father around makes it much more difficult and rare — almost impossible — for a player to get to the major leagues.

The first step in data analysis was comparing nationwide birth data at the county level and to a database of about 85,000 college and professional baseball players (including information about the year and county where they were born). The data showed that as out-of-wedlock births go up in a county, the future production of baseball players goes down.

Researchers took a sample of over 600 current MLB players, approximately 20 from each team, and researched their family structure. Over 80 percent of professional players come from a home where their father was present, which is almost double the percentage in the general population. Half of the rest had a stepfather present.

Some might be tempted to wave off the findings and say money and socio-economic status have more to do with the trends we see. That’s not likely. At the same time that African-American representation has been dropping, players hailing from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, many of them having grown up in impoverished conditions, have dramatically increased.

So Jones is not wrong to feel the trend line going against him. The connection between the enormous demographic change of the last 35 years and family structure indicates not only one major cause of the problem, but points us in the direction of a solution: fathers who are involved in the lives of their children.

Take Giancarlo Stanton, for example. He is in the second year of the largest contract in baseball history: $325 million for 13 years. Asked about his father, Stanton said, “Obviously, you feel your father in the stands, but I like to think that he still listens to the radio just like he did when he’d take me (to L.A. Dodgers games). It’s like I grew into the player he would take me to go see and watch.”

More than just to become a great baseball player, children need a father to help them thrive.

Kevin Stuart, PhD, is the executive director of the Austin Institute for the Study of Family & Culture.