With the World Series set to begin, a glance at the rosters for the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs could prompt the question, “Where have all the black baseball players gone?”
When Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was asked about NFL-style national-anthem protests, he said they aren’t happening in Major League Baseball because it’s a “white man’s sport.” While the number of black players in baseball and baseball-playing black youths is declining, research indicates this is not because the sport is associated with white culture but because black fathers are less likely to be at home.
The Austin Institute, a Texas-based think tank focused on family and societal issues, has commissioned a study titled “Called Out at Home” that shows a correlation between the decline of black fatherhood and the decline of black participation in America’s pastime.
The share of black MLB players peaked in 1981 at 18.7 percent, but the number of black players has dwindled in recent years and now rivals figures from the years immediately after the leagues were desegregated.
Black players in the MLB population fell to just 7.2 percent in 2012 and comprised 7.4 percent in 1958 — 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
That trend coincides with a sharp decline in the percentage of U.S. children who are born to married parents, which has been especially pronounced in the black community.
In 2012, 72.6 percent of black children were born out of wedlock.
Kevin Stuart, executive director of the Austin Institute, said fathers are natural teachers of baseball because “it takes two to play catch.”
There is a “long-standing connection between fatherhood and baseball,” Mr. Stuart said, pointing to famous father-son tandems who have played in the Major Leagues and the prominence of father-son relationships in popular baseball movies such as “Field of Dreams.”
The report shows that fatherhood is an even more important variable than parental wealth or education in determining whether boys and girls play baseball and softball.
The study found that children are 25 percent more likely to play baseball if a father is present in the home. Additionally, high school students are less likely to play basketball if they are living with their fathers.
Mr. Stuart said every sport falls on a spectrum of how easily it can be mastered on one’s own, with basketball and track on one end and more equipment- and coaching-intensive games such as lacrosse and football on the other.
Baseball, he said, was made to be played by fathers and sons.
“Baseball seems to fall somewhere in the middle, where what’s really necessary, or what appears to us to be necessary in order to really improve skills, is at least one other person deeply and personally committed on a regular basis to working with you,” Mr. Stuart said.
Anecdotal evidence seems to corroborate the study’s connection between fatherhood and baseball.
Famous father-son tandems — including Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr., Prince Fielder and Cecil Fielder, and Tony Gwynn Sr. and Tony Gwynn Jr. — have talked about how the game was handed down from one generation to the next.
“When he had a diaper on, he was a baseball player from Day One,” Cecil Fielder said of his son, according to the report. “He was around the ballpark, and he loved the game, and, you know, when you have a kid that has that much enthusiasm in something, he’s going to be special. I always knew that he was going to be a special player.”
David Lehrer, president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based firm that strives for racial reconciliation without resorting to identity politics, said he was not surprised by the report’s findings.
He said baseball requires involved parents who are willing to set up the field, provide equipment and spend time practicing with their children.
“To make Little League work, somebody’s got to mow the lawn, somebody’s got to put the chalk down, somebody’s got to bring the balls, somebody’s got to train, and it’s invariably a father,” Mr. Lehrer said. “Unlike basketball, where you can just put a hoop up and practice, with baseball somebody’s got to get the ball back to you.”
Pointing to the MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiative, Mr. Lehrer said he is hopeful about increasing black participation in the sport.
He said baseball speaks to America’s noblest principles and deserves to be cherished.
“It is kind of an embodiment of the American spirit,” he said. “It’s slow, methodical, participatory. You have to work together; one superstar isn’t going to do it for you. There’s something quite wonderful about the game.”