Culture  /  Explainer

MLB Could've Stopped Black Talent Drain But Didn't

Baseball’s failure to get out in front of the problem in the 1970s had real and lasting consequences.

Back in the late 1980s, I was a baseball card addict, idolizing the players whose faces looked up at me from my white, overextended three-ring binder. The rings on that book still don’t fully close, and some of the pages are falling out, flush with the many Black stars who drew me into the game. If a person who knew nothing about Major League Baseball flipped through my cards, they’d be given the false impression that it was a majority Black league. And who could blame them? Or me? I was hardly the only young Black kid who gravitated toward Black superstars such as Ozzie Smith, Kirby Puckett, Bo Jackson, Rickey Henderson, and my favorite, Eric Davis. They made baseball cool. At the time, I didn’t realize that the sport was already in the middle of a steep decline in Black players – a talent drain MLB has yet to recover from.

Seemingly every year, we ask the same question: What happened to the African-American baseball player? The answers are always the same: The game is too boring for Black kids. Or too expensive. They’d rather play football or basketball. They’d rather play football and basketball video games.

All of these explanations are valid. But they don’t tell the whole story.

Baseball was warned. In a 1974 article about the lack of Black MLB managers, the Sporting News pointed to an equally pressing concern: the decline of the Black player. Editor C.C. Johnson Spink wrote that over the previous five years, there had been a significant drop in the numbers of African-American players drafted, from 40 percent to roughly 15 percent. Spink also wrote that, statistically, Black players had outperformed their White counterparts.

If Black players left baseball, he concluded, then the game would suffer.

Three years later, Atlanta Braves general manager Bill Lucas, the league’s first Black GM and also the highest ranking Black official in MLB at the time, sounded a similar alarm, telling a reporter, “I’ve noticed a decline of Black ball players drafted and being funneled into the minor leagues and a decline in the number pursuing the major leagues. It’s an indication we may be losing some good athletes to other spring sports.”

Lucas wasn’t alone. The popular Black sportswriter Doc Young wrote numerous editorials about the decline of the Black superstar. Investigative pieces in newspapers across the country highlighted the general decline of Black American players. MLB officials publicly stated there was a problem. Monte Irvin, who integrated the New York Giants in 1949 and was at that time working in the commissioner’s office, said, “Black kids are not just playing as much baseball as they used to.” His solution? Get the kids when they were young. As he put it, “in the inner cities, a kid may have baseball ability right after he gets out of grade school but doesn’t know what to do with it. We have to get scouts to dig him out, to tell him where to play.”