Jackie Robinson Day is a celebration, but it’s also an appropriate occasion to consider why there don’t seem to be as many baseball-loving African-American kids, and why there are fewer African-American players in the big leagues than in the past. It’s a complex issue, but I have a few ideas. One is that baseball is now a very expensive sport. It didn’t used to be that way. You could try out for a team, and all you needed was a glove and cleats. Now, with all these year-round travel teams, parents have to pay for transportation, hotels, lots of gear—and if you can’t afford it, they’ll move on to someone else who can. That is a big factor. I’d love to see Major League Baseball develop and support more youth baseball leagues that are accessible to everyone.
In a following issue of Sports Illustrated, a reader chimed in on Rollin's thoughts with this letter to the editor:
"I really enjoyed Jimmy Rollin's thoughts on wearing number 42 in Dodger blue. But if cost is the reason young African-Americans aren't playing the game, then there wouldn't be so many Dominican, Puerto Rican or Venezuelan players in the game either."--Noah Sferra, Ridgefield, Conn.
This reader is well-meaning but uninformed. Kids growing up in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, or Venezuela don't have to pay the high cost of league fees and even higher amounts to play on travel teams that baseball players in the U.S. pay. In those countries, they still have the old pick-up games that were much more common in the U.S. in the distant past. Many can't afford nice gloves or bats or even a ball, but they can still get out there and play. It's a different world.
Jimmy Rollins is correct. I played baseball in the 1980s and it didn't cost much more than having a glove and a pair of cleats. I was raised by a divorced mother who had three kids to take care of. Even the cost of cleats wasn't easy for her to afford. I was good enough to play on teams that traveled to tournaments in the summer, but if we went to a tournament in another city we held car washes to raise the money. Also, it didn't cost thousands of dollars to play on a summer ball team. These days, playing baseball is so much more expensive, especially if you play on a team that travels. It does make it more difficult for less privileged young people to play baseball and African-Americans are affected by this. The graph below shows the demographics of Major League Baseball since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier for modern baseball in 1947:
Economics is a big part of the decrease in African-American players. Along with the increased expense to play baseball that disproportionately affects African-American youths who are more likely to be lower income, college athletic scholarships are a factor. Basically, colleges have many more scholarships available to football players than to baseball players. Based on the 2013-14 academic year, the scholarship limit for men's varsity sports breaks down to 11.7 scholarships to baseball players and 85 to football players. This drives more young, athletic African-Americans to choose football over baseball at the college level. It's just one of the realities we live with.
These problems don't exist in Latin American countries. Players growing up in these places just get out and play. They don't have to spend a ton of money to play on travel teams and they aren't vying for college scholarships.
That all being said, this isn't necessarily a problem for the young African-American athlete, it's more a problem for Major League Baseball. The young athletes have taken advantage of increasing opportunities in the NFL and NBA, where the number of African-Americans has increased over time. They are still getting opportunities to be professional athletes, its just that they've moved away from baseball to football and basketball. For Major League Baseball, though, losing good athletes to other sports could be a problem in the future. Major League Baseball should want the best players they can get and they are currently losing out on some very good players. As much as MLB makes in revenue, it would be beneficial in the long term to invest some of their profits in making youth leagues more affordable to lower income players.