In April, Major League Baseball celebrated the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking its color barrier. The milestone came the same week a report was issued showing the percentage of African-American players in the majors on Opening Day was at an all-time low.
The Racial and Gender Report Card for Major League Baseball is an annual study conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport headed by Dr. Richard Lapchick. The report heading into the 2017 season showed just 7.7 percent of the league’s Opening Day rosters consisted of those identifying themselves as African-Americans. That’s down from 8.3 percent in each of the previous two years and continues a decline from 18 percent in 1991.
“In the years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, his vision was to see diverse players on the field, reflecting diverse coaches and those in the front office,” Lapchick said when the report was released. “The 2017 Major League Baseball Racial and Gender Report Card shows there is still a long way to go to achieve those goals.”
The Post published a three-part series in 2003 spotlighting the decline of African-Americans in the majors, which was 10 percent during the 2002 season. That was the lowest since 1968.
There are of a number of contributing factors to the continued decline. Baseball isn’t viewed to be as exciting as basketball and football, nor does it have the star power of those two sports where players like LeBron James and Odell Beckham Jr. dominate the headlines.
Football and basketball players also can sign multi-million dollar contracts as soon as they are drafted out of college, while baseball players normally don’t strike it rich until they work their way through the minor leagues and become free agents after six years in the big leagues.
Baseball requires several players to form a game, and there’s also the need for baseball fields, leagues and proper equipment that often aren’t available in inner cities.
In addition, it became cheaper to sign Latin-American talent and groom those players at the various academies major league teams began building across Latin America. As a result, 31.9 percent of players on the 2017 Opening Day rosters were Latino, an all-time high. Another 57.5 percent identified themselves as “white,” an all-time low.
Baseball is aware of the declining numbers when it comes to African-Americans, and is supporting initiatives such as Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and Urban Youth Academies in Houston, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Compton (Calif.). The RBI program is in its third decade in more than 200 cities and counts Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia among its alumni. The first Urban Youth Academy, to mirror those in Latin America, was built in 2006 in Compton.
Baseball could be starting to see some fruits from those programs. From 2012-2016, there were 34 African-Americans selected in the first round of the draft, including 10 of the top 41 selections in 2016.
The percentages fluctuate throughout the season as players are added and removed from rosters. Nick Williams, whose mother is Mexican and father is African-American, made his major league debut with the Phillies Friday night at Citi Field.
The outfielder — from Galveston, Texas — played football, basketball, track and baseball as a kid before deciding to concentrate solely on baseball during his senior year of high school. He was drafted in the second round by the Rangers in 2012 and was traded to the Phillies as part of the deal that sent Cole Hamels to Texas.
Williams, 23, said many of his peers are attracted to the money and fame that comes with playing football and basketball.
“The quickest way to help mom and dad is to play football or basketball,” Williams said. “Baseball can be a grind. It’s hard mentally and physically.”
Yet, he is among those who believe concerns over concussions in football could prompt more youngsters to try baseball.
“People are concerned about concussions,” he said. “And I already have some of people in my age group saying they should have tried baseball.”