Study: Fatherless Homes Contributed to 60% Drop in African Americans in MLB

By Barbara Hollingsworth | November 1, 2016 | 4:47pm EDT
Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – “The decline in the presence of fathers in the homes of African American children partially explains the massive 60% decline in African American representation in Major League Baseball over the last 35 years,” according to a new study by the Texas-based Austin Institute for the Study of Family & Culture.

“The large drop in African-American baseball players in the 1990s occurred about 20 years after the time period of greatest decrease in black children born to married parents,” noted the study, entitled Called Out At Home.

“It takes a father to make a professional baseball player,” the study concluded.

“Starting in the late 1970s and accelerating through the ‘80s and ‘90s, African American representation took a curious downward turn. Now less than half of what it once was, black representation has plummeted from over 18% of all pro players to just 7%. In fact, this year marks the lowest African American representation in the pros since Jackie Robinson retired in 1959,” the study pointed out.

Of the 862 players on opening day rosters in 2016, just 69 (8%) were African Americans, according to a report in April by USA Today. The study excluded foreign-born black players, focusing specifically on black players born and raised in the United States.

The Boston Red Sox, which was the last MLB team to integrate, had four African American players on its active roster this season – the highest of any team, according to Jackie Powell at overthemonster.com

"When we think of color within MLB, or even on the Red Sox roster, the first name that comes to many minds is David Ortiz, but Papi and his peers do not identify as black, and prefer to be identified by their Latin heritage," Powell pointed out. "Jackie Bradley Jr. stands out on this roster for more reasons than just producing exceptional numbers. JBJ, along with teammates Chris Young, David Price and Mookie Betts, represent an uncharacteristic MLB roster that includes four black Americans, the most on a team's active roster in 2016."

The Austin Institute study found that the decrease in African American MLB players coincided with a rise in out-of-wedlock births two decades earlier.

“As with many complex social phenomena, there are surely multiple factors causally contributing to such a steep decline,” which “began about 20 years after a sharp rise in out-of-wedlock childbirths,” the study continued.

“Anyone who has seen baseball movies from The Sandlot to Field of Dreams will instantly recognize the deep connection baseball has to father-son relationships in America. What is new is having the data and analysis to show that the effects are more than anecdotes or nostalgia,” the study noted.

“Controlling for multiple other factors that might influence the outcome, counties where a higher percentage of children are born to married parents also produce a higher percentage of baseball players,” it stated.

“We did an original sample of 600 current MLB players (20 from each team), of which 416 were U.S. born” to control for cultural differences, Kevin Stuart, the institute’s executive director, told CNSNews.com.

“We coded race by observation, consulting each of the players' official profile on team rosters. If a player was of a mixed-race heritage and one of the parents was black, then we coded the player as black,” he explained.

Researchers used a number of public datasets, including the U.S. Census and the American Community Survey, and five different data-gathering methods to compare county-level data on births with the number of African Americans playing Major League Baseball 20 years later.

Comparing the ball players to children of the same age and race born in the same state, they found “that African American baseball players were two times more likely to have grown up in a home with a father than the general population.”

 “It was shocking that the drop-off was that precipitous,” Stuart told CNSNews. “Latino and white baseball players were also more likely to be raised in homes with fathers, but it was substantially more so for African Americans.

“Having a father in the home was predictive of an adolescent playing high school baseball or softball. The presence of a father in the home made it 25 percent more likely that a child – boy or girl – would play baseball or softball and less likely they would play basketball,” he noted.

“Our hypothesis is that playing sports like football and lacrosse require a team and a lot of equipment, whereas you don’t need another person to practice track and basketball. Baseball lands in the middle. It doesn’t require an enormous amount of equipment, but it does require at least one other very dedicated person to catch with and do batting practice. The best candidate in the house is dad.”

Although children from more educated, wealthier families tend to play baseball more than those from less-educated, poorer households, “the effect of growing up with a father around remains even when we control for education,” the study found.

According to another study of 10,240 MLB players between 1947 and 2012, the Society for American Baseball Research found that 98.3 percent were white in 1947, the year Jackie Robinson integrated the Big Leagues.

“From locked out to the top of the game in one generation, African Americans such as Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays shaped modern baseball,” the SABR study pointed out.

But after reaching a high of 18.7 percent in 1981, the number of African American Big Leaguers declined to just 7.2 percent in 2012. 

The SABR attributed the decline to a variety of causes: an increased share of roster slots being dominated by pitchers and catchers, which historically were underrepresented by black players; the fact that more African Americans have chosen to play other sports, such as football and basketball; and the lack of baseball fields in urban settings.

However, sportsgrid.com analyst Jake O’Donnell believes that a bottleneck in the college pipeline is responsible for keeping black players out of the major leagues.

O’Donnell pointed out last year that African Americans made up only 2.6 percent of college baseball teams.

“African American kids simply don’t consider baseball to be a legitimate option because college baseball doesn’t care about fostering diversity. It’s 88 percent white. That right there is our smoking gun, folks,” he said.

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