To anyone paying attention, the participation of African Americans in baseball has fallen off acutely over the past 30 years. More African-Americans were elected to Congress as Republicans last election than appeared in the World Series. Major League Baseball has experienced a meteoric decline of 60 percent in participation by Blacks Since 1985. The Willie Stargell-led Pittsburgh Pirates of the 1970’s –“We Are Family”– had starting line ups that were often 75% Black. Participation in MLB by African Americans exceeded 25% thirty years ago. This is a far cry from the current percentage of American-born Blacks in the League, which has dropped to 8.5% and is still tumbling.

Plainly, participation in professional baseball is directly related to participation in baseball during the developmental years, starting with youth baseball. There are a couple of preposterous but popular reasons which are conveniently trotted out to explain why there are so few Blacks in the game today. Major League Baseball and others claim that Black kids don’t play youth baseball because a) the game is too slow and unappealing, b) it takes too long to reach the big leagues because of the minor league system, and c) all Black kids want to be LeBron James or Cam Newton. These notions are way off base. In reality, kids will play any sport given the opportunity. Put simply, underserved kids no longer play baseball because of money. The free pickup sandlot games of the past are no longer. Youth baseball is totally organized and commercialized, leaving low-income kids watching from outside the fence.  According to ESPN the industry of youth baseball is “a business enterprise designed to exclude those without the means and mobility to participate. Over the past 15 to 20 years, the proliferation of pay-for-play teams in youth baseball — and the parallel proliferation of parents willing to pay for them and coaches willing to cash their checks — has had more of an impact on African-American participation than anything another sport has to offer.”

Then there are the ‘elite travel teams.’ These are the teams comprised of the supposed better players who receive the best coaches (often private), elite training, top competition, national travel, and –what is most important– maximum exposure. The price tag to play on one of these elite teams generally runs well into the thousands of dollars per season, per child. But these players are not necessarily always the best athletes. They are mainly the kids who are good athletes that are blessed with financially capable parents. According to Rob Ruck author of Raceball, “These days, aspiring ballplayers hone their game on travel teams that are expensive to join. Boys in fatherless households are unlikely to grow up with a love for the game or the bucks to participate.”

This year’s Little League World Series clearly demonstrated that the African American kids can and will play baseball, given the opportunity. The two finalists were teams from Chicago and Philadelphia that were comprised mostly of minorities who participated in city-supported baseball programs which were augmented by charitable funding.  You may have noticed that the teams in the tournament that were not from major urban areas were mostly white. That’s because, to the exception of a handful of programs located in big cities with large minority populations, baseball is pay-to-play and not subsidized, putting it out of reach for kids from low and some medium income families. Kids from low income families have little or no chance of playing on an elite travel team. Economics is why Black kids don’t play baseball. To claim that they simply no longer like the sport is just another way of avoiding the truth.

The good news is that the decline in participation in baseball by underserved kids is reversible. The first step is to identify and confront the real culprit—the commercialization of youth baseball. <