.Major League Demographics — In Crisis or Not?

Some nice Jackie Robinson tributes yesterday, reflected well in the dailies this morning. The Tribune and the Chronicle ran columns from Art Spander and Scott Ostler, both admiring Robinson’s courage and extraordinary life. Quite appropriately, that’s the way most of the stories worked out this morning. But for the last few weeks, most of the coverage has talked about the declining percentage of African Americans in baseball, with some labeling the drop a crisis. Although those concerns are accurate, most of the stories haven’t properly assessed the effect foreign-born players have on the game’s demographics.

According to ESPN, there were 69 African Americans on opening-day rosters this year, about 9 percent of the league’s 750 players. Columnists, especially ESPN senior writer John Helyar, have compared this with the 12 percent of blacks in the United States population and reacted accordingly with rhetorical questions about “What would Jackie think?”

What Helyar doesn’t take into account is that on the opening-day rosters this season, nearly 250 players were foreign-born. If you look at American-born players only, blacks make up about 14 percent – 69 out of 504. In other words, among American players, the number of black players is pretty much right in line with American population demographics as a whole.

That’s still a decline, though, from percentages that were in the mid to high 20s in the 1970s. And a couple of East Bay products have taken a leading role in the discussion of that decline, particularly Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia, a Vallejo native, and Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, from Oakland and Alameda’s Encinal High.

It will be interesting to see, now that the sixtieth anniversary of Robinson’s feat has passed, how well they’re able to keep attention on the issue. — Eric Simons


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