Over time, warm weather and income have become useful ingredients for the development of baseball players. As I showed yesterday and in March, regions with warmer weather have created more baseball players in recent decades than they had historically, as have counties with higher income.
Importantly, the combined effect of weather and income has been extremely potent for creating opportunities for young players to play year round. These development opportunities have escaped potential players from poorer regions. Yesterday, I used data from Mark Armour and Dan Levitt on baseball player races over the last few decades to demonstrate that this effect has been geographically widespread. Historically black areas that have produced many ballplayers haven’t created as many players in recent years; wealthier and less diverse counties have produced more.
African-Americans’ Interest in Major League Baseball
Many people commenting on the March article said they believed that there were fewer black major leaguers because the African-American young people had simply become more interested in other sports, such as football and basketball. Based on J.C. Bradbury’s study showing that the share of black players in the NFL and NBA had not increased over time, I was skeptical. If black children were becoming more interested in those sports, there would be more black players in them over time.
However, there is another way to study this by using the data I have gathered in these studies on race in baseball. If the argument is that black children are less interested in baseball because they do not see as many black stars as in other sports, then perhaps the locations where there have been more prominent black superstars would not have seen the same declines. We will see below that this is not the case.
The following table lists the top black players by WAR who played at some point during the 1985-99 seasons, with the teams where they produced at least 10 WAR during those seasons. I selected those years because I thought they would match pretty well with the 1980-89 born players, which was the cohort with the sharpest decline in black players.
|Top African-American Players for Children of the ’80s|
|Name||WAR||Teams where they had at least 10 WAR (Years)|
|Barry Bonds||164.1||San Francisco (93-07), Pittsburgh (86-92)|
|Rickey Henderson||106.2||Oakland (79-83, 89-93, 94-95, 98), Yankees (85-89)|
|Ken Griffey Jr.||77.4||Seattle (89-99, 09-10), Cincinnati (00-08)|
|Derek Jeter||73.7||Yankees (95-14)|
|Frank Thomas||72.4||White Sox (90-05)|
|Eddie Murray||72||Baltimore (77-88, 95)|
|Lou Whitaker||68.1||Detroit (78-95)|
|Barry Larkin||67.7||Cincinnati (86-04)|
|Ozzie Smith||67.6||St. Louis (84-96)|
|Tim Raines||66.4||Montreal (79-90), White Sox (91-95)|
|Tony Gwynn||65||San Diego (82-01)|
|Gary Sheffield||62.5||Florida (93-98), Dodgers (98-01), Atlanta (02-03), Yankees (04-06)|
|Kenny Lofton||62.2||Cleveland (92-01)|
|Willie Randolph||62.1||Yankees (76-88)|
|Dave Winfield||59.9||Yankees (81-88)|
|Andre Dawson||59.5||Montreal (76-86), Cubs (87-92)|
|Dwight Gooden||59.2||Mets (84-94)|
|Fred McGriff||57.2||Toronto (86-90), Atlanta (93-97), San Diego (91-93), Tampa Bay (98-01, 04)|
|Chet Lemon||52||Detroit (82-90)|
|Jim Rice||50.8||Boston (74-89)|
|Tony Phillips||46.6||Detroit (90-94), Oakland (82-89, 98)|
|Kirby Puckett||44.9||Minnesota (84-95)|
|Ellis Burks||44.7||Boston (87-92, 04), Colorado (94-98)|
|Torii Hunter||42.5||Minnesota (97-07), Angels (08-12)|
|Darryl Strawberry||41.5||Mets (83-90)|
|Albert Belle||41||Cleveland (89-96)|
|David Justice||40.4||Atlanta (89-96), Cleveland (97-00)|
The top two players on the list played large shares of their careers in the Bay Area—Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds. If the decline in black players in the 1980s were due to black youths not rooting for black players growing up, then you would expect that this would not have been as extreme in the Bay Area. However, the number of black players born in the Bay Area has followed a similar trend as the rest of the nation: eight born in the 1940s, 13 born in the 1950s, 14 born in the 1960s, 11 born in the 1970s, and just seven born in the 1980s.
The changes in California outside the Bay Area do not appear to be based much on the race of local stars to root for, either. The decline in Southern California has been similar to the Bay Area, with a rapid ascent from 15 black players born in the 1940s, 37 in the 1950s, 39 in the 1960s, 22 born in the 1970s, and then just 14 born in the 1980s. Without hometown stars like Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds—but with similar trends in income inequality—the effects look similar in both areas.
Even within Southern California counties, the trends do not seem to be based on black youths having a black superstar player to root for. For each team that I looked at, I checked the top five position players by WAR from 1985-99 and the top three pitchers. For the Dodgers, this included no black players. But the Padres’ best hitter was Black—Tony Gwynn. He was by far the most prominent Padres player. But the decline in San Diego County was even more prominent than the rest of Southern California, going from eight black players born in the 1960s, down to two in the 1970s and another two in the 1980s. Although San Diego County did continue to produce players, and actually produced more in the 1970s and 1980s than in the 1960s, this was increase was only among white and Latino players.
Across the country the patterns are similar. In colder areas, opportunities have declined on a relative basis but more so for poorer counties. In warmer areas, opportunities have expanded but mainly for richer counties. California was one state from which more black players were appearing in the majors than would be expected by population alone, but many other states in the southern part of the country went from developing black players at a rate proportional to their share of the population to half the rate you would expect.
If interest in the sport were based on having black superstars on local teams, states in the South that have historically rooted for the Rangers and Astros would probably have experienced a sharper decline than states that have historically leaned toward the Braves. Many of the Braves’ most prominent hitters during 1985-99 were black, including David Justice, Ron Gant, Lonnie Smith and Fred McGriff—not to mention a legacy that includes Hank Aaron. Fewer Rangers and Athletics have been black. Yet we see similar trends in declining black players.
Two tables below summarize some relevant states to study. The first shows those states where the expected number of black players was at least 10 in one of the five decades studied. I have added the teams that local fans would have been most likely to root for. The second lists the five position players with the highest WAR and the three pitchers with the highest WAR from each of the teams on the list. African-American players are underlined (e.g. Andruw Jones is not underlined).
|Total African-American Players Relative to Share of State Population|
|State||Team(s) with most fans||E(B) 40s||B 40s||E(B) 50s||B 50s||E(B) 60s||B 60s||E(B) 70s||B 70s||E(B) 80s||B 80s|
|FL||Now: Marlins, Rays; Historically: Braves||7||5||10||6||21||22||21||10||22||13|
|LA||Astros, Rangers, Braves||9||16||7||12||13||14||9||1||7||2|
|IL||Cubs, White Sox||4||3||7||7||12||12||15||8||6||3|
|CA||Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Athletics, Angels||8||28||22||63||28||60||29||43||20||23|
|Select States’ Top Players for Children of the ’80s to Watch|
*Next three highest WAR were Ron Gant, Lonnie Smith, and Fred McGriff, all of whom are American American.
As mentioned above, the patterns in California do not seem to suggest relatively slower declines in black players in the Bay Area as the prominence of star players for the Athletics and Giants might suggest. Similarly, the declines in Texas and Louisiana, where fans would have rooted for mainly white and Latino star players on the Rangers and Astros, look very similar to those in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Alabama, where fans would have rooted for many Black players on Braves teams.
Two colder regions of the country where there could have been many black players are Chicago and New York. Yankees fans have been able to root for Derek Jeter and Rickey Henderson, and Mets fans have had Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden leading the charge—and earning rings. Although fewer Cubs hitters have been black, three of the top five White Sox hitters have been, including the most prominent, Frank Thomas. However, both New York and Illinois have experienced rapid declines in black players, even more than total players have declined.
Overall, the geographical trends in players do not seem to be based on black children choosing baseball only when they see local stars. The trends are consistently based on income and weather, and the variation in the race of star players across teams does not seem to follow any trend that relates to where black players have been born.
At a national level, it is even harder to justify a claim that black players have not been very prominent in baseball. The NBA certainly had Michael Jordan, but the best baseball players have almost all been black at well until recent years. The top position player by WAR in the 1960s was Willie Mays, in the 1970s it was Joe Morgan, in the 1980s it was Rickey Henderson, and in the 1990s it was Barry Bonds. Even in the 2000s, it was Alex Rodriguez. The top three position players by WAR since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier have been Barry Bonds, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. There simply is no evidence that Black children born in the 1970s and 1980s would not have seen black superstars. It seems far more likely that income and weather explain the trend we have observed.
None of this means that changing the trend is easy. Certainly a preference or bias against baseball among black youths would make it difficult to grow the share of black players. But opportunity is a hard problem to solve as well. Given the same access to traveling teams and equipment, there would probably have been many more black players born in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s, but how to provide this to everyone is not clear. Identifying talented youth might be the best step toward efficient expenditures, but it would still require Major League Baseball or some other funding source to step in and help.
Another common argument to explain the decline in black players is that there are far fewer college scholarships for baseball than for football or basketball. This is true, but more of a complement to the opportunity-based pattern I have documented than a substitute for it. However, the NFL and NBA also prohibit high school students from playing professionally immediately after graduation. So, this factor could push young people toward baseball, rather than away from it. The net effects are not clear. Solving the scholarship issue is difficult as well: More football and basketball scholarships are available because these sports generate much more revenue for colleges.
Opportunity matters. Solving the problem is more complicated than identifying it, but what these articles show is that creating opportunities for talented youth is essential. Outside of issues of fairness and equality, it should matter to baseball fans that we get the best product possible on the field. There is a reason that major league baseball is more popular than college baseball — it has to do with talent level. Baseball is better and more exciting because of expanded opportunities for Latin Americans. Creating opportunities for disadvantaged youth in America to grow as ballplayers in the way that wealthier families have enabled their children would raise the major league talent level even further.
References & Resources
- Mark Armour and Dan Levitt data set on player race used in their article
- J.C. Bradbury’s study on the decline of black players, including evidence that the NBA and NFL have not seen coinciding increases in Black players
- NCI – SEER (National Cancer Institute – Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program) for 1969+ data on race
- National Center for Health Statistics (1940-1968)
- My article on income and weather
- Map from New York Times article
- Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates for county-level income data from 2011
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for average temperatures by state
- Team loyalty lists come from this map
- The article on ages of fans is here