In 1949, the Brooklyn Dodger’s lineup for Game 1 of the World Series was pretty astounding for African Americans.
At second base was, of course, Jackie Robinson — the first African American in Major League Baseball. At catcher was Roy Campanella, whose mother was black and father was Sicilian; he had joined the Dodgers a year after Robinson broke the color barrier. And starting the game at pitcher was Don Newcombe, one of the first African-American pitchers in the league.
Now, mind you, this was just two years after Robinson broke the color barrier with the Dodgers. But now three black players were starting in the World Series.
Fast-forward to present day, and now about 40 percent of players are nonwhite. The Dodgers, now of Los Angeles, are playing in Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday against the Houston Astros. And here’s what the Dodgers starting lineup will likely look like for Game 1 of the 2017 World Series:
On many levels, it looks like baseball has become far more diverse — and by many measures, it really has. There’s a lot to celebrate about baseball’s history, including desegregation and the many nonwhite stars the sports has produced. This is what a generic Major League team’s demographics look like now:
But only looking at who’s on the field misses something very important: Baseball is still very white. The people who are in power are almost all white — and the cultural forces behind baseball are too.
“Baseball is a white man’s sport”
When Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones, who is black, was asked why baseball players didn’t kneel for the national anthem like NFL player Colin Kaepernick, he said this to USA Today last year:
We already have two strikes against us already, so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game. In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us. Baseball is a white man’s sport.
There is a lot implied here.
For one, baseball players are still mostly white — and there’s been a trend of fewer and fewer African Americans in the sport, largely being replaced by Latino players:
While these demographics aren’t too out of line with nationwide demographics, it doesn’t tell the full picture of just how white baseball is. For that, we need to take our eyes off the field and look at who is in positions of power in Major League Baseball.
The managers are mostly white
Managers — the head coaches on each team — are usually white men, though historically there have been a handful of African-American and Latino managers. But at the beginning of the 2016 season, there were just two.
But everyone else on the bench isn’t as homogenous. About 38 percent of all other coaches, like hitting and pitching coaches, were not white at the start of the 2016 season. That’s almost double what it was in 1993, when only 20 percent of coaches were not white.
The CEOs are all white
Team CEOs and presidents are at the top of the administrative food chain. All the positions were held by white people at the beginning of the 2016 season, and almost all were held by white people in the past 15 years.
The general managers, who tend to make the baseball decisions, were 87 percent white in 2016, and that hasn’t changed much in the past 20 years. Vice presidents of teams were white 86 percent of the time, which isn’t much different from the previous 20 years.
All but one majority owner are white
Majority owners — who have varied levels of involvement on the baseball side but are the ultimate bosses — are all white, except for Angels owner Arturo Moreno, who is Latino. This lack of diversity at the top is a sports-wide problem.
The fans are largely white
These are the demographics of fans, gathered from television data. (Note that Nielsen categorizes by black and Hispanic viewers, and not African American and Latino, like Major League Baseball.) The large majority of fans are older white men.
Last year, when Jones, the Orioles outfielder, was playing at Boston’s Fenway Park, at least one fan yelled a racial slur at him. One fan was ejected for throwing a bag of peanuts at Jones. The Red Sox did apologize, but several people, including former Red Sox player Curt Schilling, either questioned Jones’s account or straight up said he was lying.
And these people insist baseball culture should stay white
A few months ago, I was emailed a study that blamed absent fathers for the decline of black players in baseball. It shows several correlations in data sets that all point to one thing: “It takes a father to make a professional baseball player.” It plays into the narrative that baseball is passed down from generation to generation, with fathers being the natural teachers, since, as the chief researcher said, “it takes two to play catch.”
I used to be a sportswriter, so I’ve seen some of these correlation made before, both in data and by players themselves. But blaming black men for being absent fathers completely ignores the underlying causes — specifically, policies that criminalized an entire generation of black men.
The study does acknowledge that a family’s wealth and education attainment matter in baseball participation, so they had to control for these variables. But, again, it ignores underlying causes, like policies that forced black families into poor neighborhoods and ones that made it difficult for black families to accrue wealth.
It's a whole lot harder to play catch when larger economic forces have pushed you to live in a less desirable, less safe neighborhood.
And that matters: Honing baseball skills, more than other sports, requires guided repetition — and Pirates first baseman Josh Bell argues it’s now required at an earlier age as the sport gets more competitive. This means camps and summer programs and traveling teams, but those cost a lot of money.
Baseball’s culture tends to ignore those challenges. The sport is represented in classic movies like The Sandlot and Field of Dreams as easily accessible — as an everyman’s game — but deeply rooted economic hurdles can put baseball out of reach.
Baseball culture has sacred unwritten rules that govern the sport, and it sends an implicit message
In the early ’90s, when I first learned the game, my favorite player was Ken Griffey Jr. He was a fast, power-hitting outfielder — and perhaps most importantly, he wore his hat backward and had his shirt untucked during the pregame rituals. This kind of expression broke no rules, but it was outside baseball norms — enough to upset Yankees manager Buck Showalter, who said it was disrespectful to the game and its past.
I heard several of my baseball coaches parrot Showalter when I wore my hat backward.
And that wasn’t the only time I was chided in baseball. My father and I played catch, but he wasn’t passing anything down; he was being a good dad who wanted to play a game with his son. So I only learned the rules when I broke them. I was yelled at for not tucking in my shirt, for not jumping over the foul line, for not keeping silent when a pitcher had a perfect game going, and for not turning my hat inside out when we were rallying, because apparently that was the only time it was okay to put your hat on differently.
These unwritten rules aren’t inherent to the game. Other cultures have other baseball traditions, but players are berated for bringing those to America. Last year, Dominican slugger Jose Bautista hit a huge playoff home run and then flipped his bat — something that’s more accepted in other baseball cultures. He was incessantly criticized for this, being called a “disgrace” to Latino players and even a poor role model. (He responded with this wonderfully scathing article.) Even when Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki came to the major leagues and won the MVP his first year, the baseball media couldn’t stop exoticizing his routine.
One of the most repeated baseball stories is about Satchel Paige, a pitcher who played most of his career in the Negro Leagues, since he wasn’t allowed in the Major Leagues. Legend has it that one time, Paige intentionally walked the bases loaded — and then told his fielders to sit down. Then he proceeded to strike out the next three batters, ending the inning. It’s showboating at its finest. But if Bautista’s bat flip could cause such a ruckus, Paige’s antics might’ve gotten him banned from Major League Baseball. (Oh, right, he was already banned.)
There are a lot of thoughts on how to bring more black children into baseball, like community programs that try to provide opportunities to inner-city minority children. But there is still a core group of people who talk a lot about baseball as if it’s sacred because of the vague American ideals it represents. We know they exist in baseball’s mainstream because they come out of the woodwork every time baseball doesn’t look the way they think it should. But as sportswriter Will Leitch told the New York Times Magazine, “I don’t think the game is fading. I think the notion of what the game is supposed to stand for is fading.”
When people say baseball is a game that is supposed to be passed down from fathers to sons, they’re not just saying that because fathers can be on the other end of a thrown ball. And when people say baseball is supposed to look a certain way, they’re not just saying that because it’s in the rulebooks or because it’ll make you a better player. Rather, It’s a coded message that baseball is about being more white.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece said the Cubs won the World Series in 1945. That was actually their last World Series appearance. My apologies to Cubs fans who waited 108 years for their championship last year.