A week ago, John Sickels wrote an interesting blog post, more of a musing than an analysis:
A) At the amateur level (high school, college, etc.), baseball is primarily a game for the children of wealth and the upper middle class. Do you think that is true or false?
B) If you accept that A is true, is that good for the sport and what, if anything, should be done about it?
I accept his proposition. I played Little League baseball for five years or so, and I was a growing boy — I remember how many pairs of cleats and clean white jerseys and pants and metal bats and gloves I went through, to say nothing of the summer camps, the days at the batting cages, and the dues for the league themselves, much of which probably went to the trophy I invariably got for showing up every year. This despite the fact that I was, as many of my readers no doubt will have guessed, no good at all.
Because I wasn’t any good at all, my parents saved on things like travel (because I certainly wasn’t traveling), personal instruction, or the “metal contraption” that Trevor Bauer’s dad built for him.
But I had no idea how much they were spending. For a family with multiple kids playing youth sports, it can easily be in the thousands, if not much more. A blog post on CBS Moneywatch in 2009 quoted one family who paid $4000 for their 9-year old to play on a traveling baseball team, and another family who paid $8,000-$10,000 for their three daughters to play volleyball. Obviously, it’s easy to do it cheaper — they could buy used equipment, and so forth. But still, that’s the amount that it cost for just one year. If your child likes sports, that’s a repeating cost until they turn 18.
Generations ago, many people learned to play baseball on sandlots. America is a lot less rural than it was fifty years ago, and baseball is a farmland sport, requiring big open spaces, which are awfully expensive when you live in a city. But that means that baseball is too expensive for many people. Which leads to John Sickels’s next question: what does that mean for baseball?
I’ve written about race before on this blog, but this is really more of a question about socioeconomic class. We all know that the proportion of African-Americans in the game has declined as the proportion of Hispanic players, both dark- and light-skinned, has increased. There are a lot of reasons that a poor African-American kid might choose football or basketball over baseball while growing up, and many of them are economic.
As Chris Isadore wrote in a 2007 column on CNNMoney.com:
It takes a certain amount of economic resources for a baseball player to go to college and whites, on average, have higher incomes than blacks in the U.S. So for a black athlete that needs financial assistance to attend college, it makes more sense to try for a football or basketball scholarship. This is a big reason why college baseball teams have even a lower percentage of black players than does the major league, said [MLB executive Jimmie Lee] Solomon.
“A Division 1 football program can give out 85 scholarships, and baseball teams only 11.7,” said Solomon. “If you’re an African American kid and you need help to go to school, do the math.”
Torii Hunter famously and controversially made a similar point: Latin American prospects are often cheaper to sign at age 16 than American prospects are to draft at 18 or 22. As Hunter put it, teams would think to themselves: “Why should I get this kid from the South Side of Chicago and have Scott Boras represent him and pay him $5 million when you can get a Dominican guy for a bag of chips?”
I am not aware of the exact figures, but I think that it is fair to assume that a rising proportion of the major league players who grew up poor are international free agents signed out of Latin America, and that the median family income of American-born players has increased as their overall proportion has declined. In other words, I would guess that major league baseball is increasingly made up of American-born players whose families were relatively well off, and Latin American players whose families were not.
It is often said that soccer is the world’s most popular sport because all you need is a ball. Baseball is a worldwide sport, from Japan to Netherlands to Italy, but it is a lot harder to play. Henry Aaron grew up hitting bottle caps with a stick (which he held cross-handed, with his left hand on top of his right). Nowadays, in poor communities, the sport being played in the street typically isn’t baseball.
So, is the decline of poor Americans playing baseball making the game more elitist in America? Or is it merely a symptom of widening socioeconomic inequality in American society at large? I would argue that it’s more the latter. Baseball is no longer the most popular sport in America, and I don’t think that race or class have much to do with it. But the economic makeup of baseball is changing, and I don’t think it’s changing for the better.
If I’m lucky enough to have children some day, I’d like to play catch with my kids. I’d like to teach them to root for the Braves. And if they want to play baseball, boy or girl, I want them to be able to play. I just hope I’ll be able to afford it.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.