The Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture recently released a new study which posits that the decline in Black U.S. male baseball participation is coincident with the decreased presence of Black fatherhood in the home.
The study illustrates that fathers that play catch with their boys, take them to ballgames, and who contribute parentally and financially, influence their young males’ choice of participatory sport. The research allows that the growth in popularity of pro football and pro basketball play roles, but concludes that doesn’t account for what amounts to a Black U.S. male abandonment of the game.
(Photo Credit: Bleed Cubbie Blue)
The Austin Institute lists these findings:
The large drop in African-American baseball players in the 1990s occurred about twenty years after the greatest decrease in marital births among black children.
While some say baseball is culturally a sport the more educated and wealthy are drawn to, this data shows it’s nowhere near the magnitude of having a father in the home.
Boys and girls are 25% more likely to play baseball and softball when they live with their father. By contrast, high school students living with their father are actually less likely to play basketball.
High school baseball teams are more successful in counties where, 16 years earlier, more mothers were married when they had children.
The Shadow League interviewed Dr. Kevin Stuart, the Executive Director of the Austin Institute about their findings.
The Shadow League: Do urban and suburban residency factor into your studies of this trend?
Kevin Stuart: We controlled for geography in a couple of ways. First, when looking at the time-sequence data, we compared counties to themselves over time. So urban areas were compared to urban areas, and suburban areas were compared to suburban areas. The second way was that when we did the matched sets of comparisons, the matches came from the same places as the original samples.
TSL: What measures could address this decreased participation to circumvent a purported dearth of father/son relationships?
KS: It’s a good question, and we’re not 100% sure of the answer. Our hypothesis, which is strictly a hypothesis, about what’s going on is that kids’ baseball skills benefit greatly from the regular involvement of a committed adult. The level of commitment involved—daily practice, games, weekdays and weekends—suggests that the best candidate for the job is dad.
TSL: How does surrogate fatherhood or extended male family members figure in this research?
KS: We researched the question using multiple data sets to ensure we were right. One of them, the Current Population Survey, includes data on the relationships of those in the household. Our analysis showed no increase in the production of professional baseball players with males in the home unless the male was the father. That’s not to say there aren’t valiant uncles, grandfathers, and stepfathers out there.
I grew up watching my own father be an excellent stepfather to two of my sisters. He was much more involved than their biological father, so I’ve seen it happen. But the data do confirm the common-sense notion that mom and dad are the most likely people to make profound sacrifices for children.
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TSL: To what do you attribute the decrease in marital births?
KS: We did not speculate in the study on the cause of the decrease in marital births.
TSL: What prompted the study?
KS: We are baseball fans. The study was prompted while recalling over dinner that many of the game’s greats when we were kids were African American players. My favorite player was Tony Gwynn. We, like others (we don’t claim this as a novel insight), noted that there seemed to be fewer African Americans in Major League Baseball than there used to be.
Well, we’re also social scientists, and this is an empirical question, so we thought we better look into it. The turning point was noticing that the decline started about 20 years after non-marital childbirths spiked. We wondered if the two might be related, since most players go pro around that age.
TSL: How many scholars participated, what are their respective backgrounds, and did teachers' assistants or grad students contribute?
KS: The lead researcher on the study is Dr. Joseph Price, an economist at Brigham Young University. He has a research team that helped do the coding work and some analysis.
TSL: What can moms do regarding this issue?
KS: Moms are already heroic; it’s hard to ask them to do more. Especially single moms. What our research indicates is that dads are more than an extra set of hands around the house, that they can have a special place in the lives of their children.
TSL: Has it been met with much resistance yet?
KS: We’re just now rolling it out, so we haven’t faced fire, but we won’t be surprised if there is some. Accordingly, we played our own interrogators throughout the research process. It’s why we used multiple data sets, different techniques, and rigorous checks for robustness.
(Photo Credit: USA Today)
TSL: What makes baseball more father/son in tutelage, than basketball and football which still have high Black male participation metrics?
KS: This is a really fascinating question, one we raised multiple times throughout the research process ourselves. We don’t have a definitive answer, but we do have a hypothesis. Imagine a spectrum with football on one end, requiring lots of other people and lots of equipment to really improve skills, and basketball or track on the other end, requiring no one else. A kid needs a team, weight room, pads, etc. to really get good at football, but he can go down to the neighborhood basketball court by himself and get better.
Baseball falls between them. It’s hard to get better by oneself, but a kid doesn’t need a huge team or lots of equipment to work on his (or her) skills. He just needs one other person to play catch and hit balls. But he needs that person a lot—hitting a ball thrown at high speeds with movement on it using a cylindrical bat is not easy. The sweet spot is small and the best players in the world only manage to do it about 35% of the time.
TSL: Before the 1990's, were Black present fathers likely to be baseball fans or former participants themselves?
KS: There have definitely been cultural shifts in sports popularity, and it’s important for us to note that we don’t say that fatherhood is all of the story. Certainly the rising popularity of the NBA and the NFL played a part here. But the data show that fatherhood also plays a very important part, a larger role than many other factors.
Despite its metrics, what the Austin Institute, in their new study Called Out At Home deems as a causal relationship between Black fatherhood and male baseball participation, I view as being more corollary, and far more culturally nuanced. There is high Black male participation in other father-son sports like basketball & football.
Since the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, the proliferation of Latin American scouting, often involving paltry signing bonuses, has led to an increase in Afro-Latin participation. During that period, the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers led the way in recruitment, establishing baseball academies and institutions in Caribbean countries such as the Dominican Republic.
These institutions provided training, exercise and fitness, nutrition, English courses, and other academic support. Not only was the on-field return on investment great, in most cases, the young men were signed for much smaller bonuses than the ballclubs would have paid a white or Black American prospect of the same age.
This practice began in the 1950’s (Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou and Juan Marichal signed with the Giants for less than $1,000 each, during a period when U.S. “bonus babies often commanded upwards of $50,000) because the standard of living was so meager in Caribbean countries where baseball was popular. In the 1990’s, what major league organizations spent on their academies, they saved on compensation of players.
Baseball participation is also influenced by successful branding of superstar athletes in other sports. In the early 1990’s, when MLB and Commissioner Bud Selig had the ideal opportunity to showcase Kirby Puckett, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson via advertisements, children’s television, print campaigns, community outreach, or strategic scheduling of televised games and postseason broadcast times, they whiffed.
While the NBA (and sneaker companies, television, and Disney) was marketing Michael Jordan, then Dominique Wilkins, Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway, Shaquille O’Neal and others, Gwynn, Griffey, Jr. and Puckett were having their best seasons. One of baseball’s most exciting seasons of the period, 1994, was cancelled because of a strike. Pro basketball used events such as All-Star Weekend to attract young viewers and fans.
Early ‘90’s U.S. kids (of all ethnicities) wanted to “be like Mike”. Late ‘90s children, no matter their complexion, wanted to be like A.I.
More recently, the role models were Kobe and LeBron. What does baseball have to rival March Madness, college bowls, Madden, or the NFL’s Play 60 campaign? How about NBA Draft Night or NFL Draft Night?
Imagine the effect such spectacles have on impressionable youngsters, even those who do not excel at any sport. In the ‘90’s, when the NBA had the popular television series Inside Stuff, and the film Space Jams, what was the focus of MLB’s outreach to Black youth? Even Mo’ne Davis considers basketball her first sport, and her dream is to play collegiately for the University of Connecticut. Why wouldn’t she?
Another factor in decreased Black male participation in baseball, which results in smaller presence on big league rosters, is the scarcity of urban diamonds and youth programs. Baseball development generally takes place outside a scholastic setting, because the academic calendar is not conducive to a spring and summer sport.
Organized opportunities such as tee ball, Little League, Babe Ruth League, Pony League, American Legion ball, and industrial leagues are virtually non-existent in city centers where millions of Black families migrated for better economic opportunities between 1890 and 1920, and to a lesser degree (but moreso in places such as Los Angeles and Oakland) from 1920 to 1946.
To grow as a baseball player, one needs not only an attentive adult, but a nearby diamond, other players, regular instruction (often by someone more experienced and qualified than the child’s parents) and frequent play. Even for suburban Black Americans, these multiple factors of tutelage may prove evasive.
Add the facts that in the Northern cities and suburbs, the climate is not such that baseball is a year-round sport. 1990’s stars Tony Gwynn, Fred McGriff, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Ozzie Smith, Barry Bonds, Tim Raines, Andre Dawson and Eddie Murray all hail from Florida or Southern California, where there are more warm and sunny days than in Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia or New York City.
High school baseball, with its truncated season, lacks the appeal, student following, and cultural resonance of high school football and basketball. There are no cheerleaders, pep rallies, homecoming games, nationally televised high school games, celebrated all-star games, or much interstate play in baseball.
National signing day is not a television event. All-American teams are not major national news. There is no office pool to select tournament winners toward a national championship. No bowl games during the holidays, and few video game sales.
The same may be said of scholastic track and field, yet no one attributes the fall of Black U.S. interest in watching, attending, or participating in track, to absent fatherhood. Neither sport takes place in a season that is friendly to a school calendar, and neither is marketed, or televised, with the stature they occupied in the glory days of Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Wilma Rudolph or Bob Hayes.
That said, it is interesting that Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan himself, Deion Sanders, Tracy McGrady, Russell Wilson, and Jameis Winston, over the past 20-odd years, have carved out space in their careers to play professional baseball. None were raised in cities or towns that are home to big league teams. If a kid loves baseball after being exposed to it, they will play, even if said kid grows up to be the very embodiment of basketball or football.
In addition, Black boys with present dads, still prefer participating in organized football and basketball. The sports are marketed better, youth see more Black representation at the highest levels, though I disagree with The Austin Institute concerning some of the reasons, and many 21st century U.S. youth consider baseball “slow”.
This is not simply a U.S. phenomena. I conducted extensive research on baseball in Latin America during the 1990’s. I visited Puerto Rico three consecutive years (and Cuba in 1994). When I was in Puerto Rico, Sandy and Roberto Alomar, Pudge Rodriguez, Ruben Sierra, Juan Gonzalez, Danny Tartabull, Ivan Calderon and Bernie Williams were starring in the majors.
I saw empty baseball diamonds all over Puerto Rico, and I saw crowded basketball courts. When I asked young men about the island’s rich baseball legacy, they were more interested in Michael Jordan. Baseball no longer had a hold on a culture that had produced Roberto Clemente, whose name graces streets, stadiums and schools, and whose image is painted on murals and residence walls everywhere.
While I appreciate the work invested in the study, I compare the Austin findings, to 1965's controversial Moynihan Report (The Negro Family: A Case For National Action) conclusion concerning the detriments of a purported matriarchal Black family structure - which was also oversimplified.
I take issue with the report comparing major leaguers from specific counties, to the general populations of the same counties, vis-à-vis number of parents present. While the Austin data shows youth are less likely to play baseball if they do not live with their fathers, so many more things can foster baseball prowess.
Major league rosters ratios are about more than youth play. Look how many U.S. youth play soccer. For boys, that doesn’t translate into “sport of choice” at the college or high school level either. The reasons are cultural. During the 1990’s, sports media felt the rise of Tiger Woods would trigger significant PGA participation by Black American players.
Yet so many other cards must fall into place, for a child to excel in golf, than representation or fandom. The same may be said of Major League Baseball. And what of the general Black U.S. population as a talent base, since we are comparing Black and white families. The average Black household in the U.S. is worth $5,400. The average white household is worth $110,000.
Studies also show a Black male college graduate’s resume elicits one fourth the callbacks of a white male with only a high school education. That’s regardless of marriage, divorce, separation or single parenthood. Black families with a college education, have two-thirds the household net worth as white families who did not complete high school.
Thus, comparing the ethnic groups’ presence in college, minor league, or big league baseball is problematic. So is blaming absent males, as if societal issues and systemic ills are free from critique. Which community, writ large, is more likely to attend professional ballgames, invest in equipment, drive to the batting cage, play a few years in the low paying minors, and be represented at the college and MLB level?
Despite disproportionate representation in pro football and pro basketball, the U.S. is only 13% Black, and more than half of that are girls and women. Big leaguers such as George Altman, Lou Brock, Cleon Jones, Ralph Garr and Vince Coleman played at historically Black colleges. The baseball rosters of historically Black colleges today include a healthy ratio of white and Latino Americans, spelling fewer scholarships for U.S. born Blacks.
That has nothing to do with fatherhood.
Because of U.S. economics, housing, local transportation, and inequality of education, Black families are more likely to move multiple times during a child’s academic life than their white counterparts. Being uprooted often, denies one the chance to play a sport defined by community sponsorship and social continuity.
Remember the Jackie Robinson West Little League team that had their championship rescinded a couple years ago? They are emblematic of the consolidation that has recently plagued the Chicago Public School System.
More Black fathers present, would not necessarily result in more Black U.S. big league players. Pro baseball, pro football, and pro basketball are not analogues. Big league baseball today draws its talent pool from not only high schools, but colleges, the minor leagues, and Caribbean and Asian leagues. Some U.S. players honed their skills in youth baseball, scholastic ball, college/and or the minors, and Caribbean winter leagues. Minor league baseball involves a sacrifice, and part-time or off season conventional employment, for which there is no equal in football. Small ballparks and meager pay.
Young Black males see pro basketball players drafted after one season of college play, and during the 1990’s, after high school play. For families, many of whom are struggling, there was cultural consideration of devoting time to developing in the minor leagues.
Another cultural variant I find underestimated in terms of significance in Black America, is extended or surrogate family. Where marital births are fewer, the influence of grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, coaches and older siblings is greater, and all of the aforementioned, from the 1990’s to the present, are subject to poorly marketed baseball, scarcity of facilities, and the challenges of a family prodigy faced with a sport unpopular in our schools, and often requiring minor league apprenticeship to bear physical and financial fruit.
How many of these older influencers, from 1990 to the present, only follow baseball themselves during the postseason (if at all)? Non-biological family traditions are bastions of Black U.S. communities, even racially integrated residents. These include spaces of faith, community centers, Greek letter organizations, official and unofficial mentoring programs, and in basketball, schoolyard and pickup play.
Contemporary youth baseball, like soccer, volleyball and softball, has become a “travel” sport, with the most talented kids recruited by select or AAU teams. In baseball, those teams often play elimination tournaments in which the players play more than once a day. Where extended family figures here, is the necessity of a car to travel to these tournaments. If a parent works weekends, who escorts the child to these tournaments, where the team might be eliminated in the morning, or might be playing the next day? Younger major leaguers came through this system.
Consider the level of youth programs, recreational funding, family ability to travel, commute, or use of public transportation. The necessity to work after school (even in dual parent households) is important. Coaches steer gifted kids into the sport preferred by the coach. The movement of U.S. youth, in the era of travel and select teams, is to specialize in one sport (see above re- Russell Wilson and Jameis Winston).
Jackie Robinson played four college sports, Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson, Vince Coleman and Frank Thomas played two college sports.
What about genetics? Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr. were the children of stars, and in Bonds’ extended family, his aunt Rosie was a hurdler for the U.S. at the 1964 Olympics. Griffey’s grandfather played high school baseball with Stan Musial.
But former big league outfielder Torri Hunter’s son is a wide receiver at Notre Dame. Ken Griffey, Jr.’s son plays football at the University of Arizona. And when one looks at single parenthood in the U.S., at what stages in the child’s life are we measuring it, in a nation where the divorce rate is 50%?
In 1990, when the precipitous drop off in participation began, was baseball the favorite sport of the Black fathers who were present in the home? Was it in 1980, before the children of the ‘90’s were born?
Youth gravitate toward pastimes which offer the path of least resistance. Baseball does not occupy that space, even for white kids. As Austin points out, it requires bats, gloves, teammates, opponents, adult supervision, and ideally, specific diamond configuration. When one factors for the downturn in Black economic opportunity after the 1980’s, when programs such as Job Corps, Head Start and CETA were severely cut, factories closed or manufacturing moved offshore, crack cocaine found its way into cities and rural areas, baseball’s TV ratings fell, David Stern successfully marketed the NBA, the 1990’s influx of big league talent from Japan, South Korea, Latin America, Curacao and elsewhere, and it is no surprise that the Black community is producing fewer Reggie Jackson’s, Frank Thomas’ and Ryan Howard’s.
There are fewer programs to nurture talent, scarce places to practice, insufficient number of adult trainers, larger numbers of youth playing in the Far East and Latin America, and little social media, online, or gaming inroads made by baseball. Such variables dictate a downturn in involvement.
To primarily trace that trend to absent fatherhood, and not heavily to cultural and social drivers, is akin to attributing today’s lessened interest and participation in jazz music, or track and field, to single mothering.
Black America’s disproportionate focus on following, and playing games, has long been a byproduct of lack of opportunity in other areas, highly publicized representation, and ease of access. Once those factors change, in any combination, attention shifts elsewhere, even within athletics.
Baseball was the national pastime when Richie Allen, Lou Brock, Jim Wynn and Al Downing were little boys. Large cities boasted active Police Athletic Leagues or Boys Clubs (the name in those days), recreation leagues and discount programs and group rates for organizations bringing children to ballgames. The televised Baseball Game of the Week was a big deal when there were only three TV networks. And Bobby Bonds, Dusty Baker and Vida Blue were born during The Baby Boom.
Baseball was the subject of movies and Broadway plays, and ballplayers endorsed products on TV. Local businesses sponsored youth teams. Those were cultural factors. Neighborhoods, resources, role models and media have changed. Other sports have gained ground with parents and kids. Football and basketball, where viewers can see all the players in one camera shot, are perfectly suited for television.
Children have far more options, many of them digital, and indoors. Today, boys may self-select media, even on their phones. Though neither was ever U.S. national pastime, Black boys might also dominate volleyball, or youth hockey, if adult coaches steered them in that direction.
How many nationally known boxers are there today, who were born Black in the U.S? How many tap dancers?
While role models matter, fatherhood, or the lack thereof, is not the reason that Tommy Hearns, Ray Leonard, Larry Holmes, Aaron Pryor, Michael Spinks and Mike Tyson were of the 1980’s, and not the 2010’s.
Sugar Ray Robinson was taught to fight by his sister. Muhammad Ali came to boxing by the circuitous route of anger over a stolen bicycle, Joe Frazier joined a gym to lose weight, Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston because of incarceration. Today, a lot of them, if even inclined to sports, would be football players. Parenting had nothing to do with it. Older sisters are also credited with the athletic motivation of Buck Williams, Reggie Miller, Muggsy Bogues and Dennis Rodman.
Absent Black fatherhood in the U.S. has been blamed for enough, but not nearly enough has been blamed for absent Black fatherhood.
Because baseball has unique barriers, professional and in branding, which govern participation ratios from juvenile to adulthood, and Black cultural interaction with sport has historical components not as easy to quantify numerically, The Austin Institute’s findings appear to paint a picture more correlative than causal.
Heralded in a press release headed “Baseball Is A White Man’s Sport?”, the report overlooks trends I have observed beyond the U.S., and the nuance that has informed Black U.S. departure from 1950’s and 1960’s level attention to pursuits such as jazz, boxing and track and field.
It also underplays what the major leagues have not done to engage youth. Introducing the study under such a headline, also diminishes the contribution of Sammy Sosa, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, Vladimir Guerrero, Ichiro Suzuki, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz and Miguel Cabrera since 1990.