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Where have the African-American pitchers and catchers gone?

Sarah Glenn

I have a love/hate relationship with racial identification.

Actually, it's more like a tolerate/dislike relationship. I've got ambivalent feelings about affirmative action, but I lean toward more than against. At the same time, I can't escape the sneaking feeling that the more we identify ourselves according to race -- which a social construct more than science -- the more we'll identify others according to their race. Which seems like less than a good thing, generally speaking.

So I've occasionally indulged in pointless protests. More than once, I've identified myself as African-American because the best science says that my ancestors hailed from Africa -- specifically, East Africa or perhaps North Africa. Sure, you have to back some thousands of years. But you know, it's a funny thing: Those forms you fill out have boxes to check, but they don't offer any definitions. So I feel like anything that's literally accurate is fair, and in one literal sense we're all African-Americans.

But we do like our data sets for so many different reasons. A few years ago, for perfectly good reasons, my friend Mark Armour counted all the black major leaguers from 1947 onward. Now, Armour and Dan Levitt have extended Mark's original work and published the results at SABR's Website:

For the present study, Dan did the work to determine the 10,240 players who have played since 1947, which players played in which seasons, their primary positions and other demographic or statistical information. For each of these players, I divided them into four demographic categories: African-American, Latino, Asian, and White. We understand this is not an exact science. Many players are of mixed-race, from Roy Campanella to Derek Jeter. To some people, race is mostly about self-identification, others believe it to be cultural, and still others believe it is solely about skin color.

For the purposes of this article, skin color was necessarily the determining factor, principally because this is how Organized Baseball itself defined the issue prior to Robinson (and even for many years thereafter.) As there are more than 10,000 players, disagreements on a few of them are not going to change our conclusions.

I think that's right. If we're going to have these potentially distasteful conversations, we do need some frame of reference. "Self-identification" and "cultural" are no use to us, and while "skin color" can be a tricky thing, it's played a key role in the history of the sport. So in the context of the sport, it doesn't seem (to me) inappropriate to reference skin color. And of course Major League Baseball's coming up with epidermis-based numbers, too.

Now, it's important to point out something: Armour's "African-American" category does not include David Ortiz or Pedro Martinez or any of the other foreign-born players whose skin color would have kept them out of the white major leagues before 1947. Personally, I would prefer a term like "U.S.-born black players" or something, because of course the Dominican Republic is part of the Americas.

I just think that when we're dealing with delicate subjects, it's important to be precise. And the literal meaning of "African-American" leads to imprecision. But let us agree, for the rest of this essay, that "African-American" refers to U.S.-born players who would not have been allowed to play in the majors prior to 1947. This includes Roy Campanella (whose mother was considered "Negro") and Derek Jeter (whose mother is considered "black").

Actually, I've trod this ground quite recently. But just to summarize the most basic findings, the relative number of African-American players increased slowly but steadily until the 1970s, when the figure leveled off in the range of 17-19 percent. It hovered around 17 percent until 1995, when the percentage began falling and hasn't really stopped since; last season it was just 7.2 percent, the lowest since 1958.

Again, we've been over this before. What's new is that Armour and Levitt have now classified players by position, which allows them to create a bunch of nifty graphs. I urge you to look at them, but they lead to this:

The past 20 years has witnessed a decline in African-American players in the game. This has become common knowledge, though we do not believe that the data has been publicly presented back to 1947 in a place that is easy to find.

The downward trend is present at all positions, although the overall decline has been exacerbated by the increased share of roster spots being allocated to pitchers and catchers.

One fact that might blow your mind: the last African-American catcher was Charles Johnson, eight years ago.

Another: There are now 10 times more Latino pitchers than African-American pitchers.

Of course, as Armour points out, there have never been a great number of African-American pitchers and catchers. Why? I have no idea, unless it's for the same sort of reason (or reasons) why we don't see many black punters and kickers in the National Football League. But now the catchers have disappeared completely, and the pitchers have nearly disappeared. I mean, once Darren Oliver and LaTroy Hawkins are gone ...

Anyway, there have always been few African-American pitchers, and many African-American outfielders. But every team essentially has two or three more pitchers than they used to, and one or even two fewer outfielders. So when Bud Selig's new BLUE RIBBON COMMITTEE looking for ways to increase the number of African-American players, that's a good place to start: Figure out what happened to the black pitchers and catcher, and how to get them back. Because absent some rule change -- which I would love, by the way -- those seven- and eight-man bullpens aren't going anywhere.

But of course the real issue is societal. And I wish Commissioner Bud and Dave Dombrowski the best of luck with that one.