African-American Pitchers

Every weekday afternoon, I hear the tink-tink-tinking of aluminum bats emanating from Willie Stargell Field, one block from my house. Over time, the sound has become oddly soothing to me, like the ticking of a favorite clock. I often wonder, am I listening to the sounds of the next Dontrelle Willis or Jimmy Rollins to come out of Encinal High?

Willis, who grew up two blocks from here, was mentioned in two recent articles about the scarcity of African-American baseball players. Tim Keown pointed out that there are only four African-American starting pitchers in the majors now: Willis, Darren Oliver, CC Sabathia, and Jerome Williams. Bruce Jenkins points out that only 10% of major league rosters are now African-American.

Keown blames the urban/suburban cultural split. Jenkins blames TV. But is there really a problem?

I count 207 foreign-born players on current 25-man rosters. So that means that there are 543 American-born players.

If 10% of all 25-man rosters are African-American, that’s 75 players. That means 13.8% of American major leaguers are African-American, compared to 12.9% of the general US population (pdf). Jenkins’ complaint looks like it’s not really even a problem.

Keown, however, may have a point. Since 20% of major league rosters are starting pitchers, you should expect about 15 African-American starting pitchers out of 75. Instead, there are only four. But the issue isn’t, as Keown and Jenkins present it, why African-Americans are not playing baseball enough. The issue is why, when they do play, they don’t become pitchers.

It seems unlikely to me that the cause of that is TV or suburbia. I’d guess that stereotyping is the most likely culprit. If you’re African-American, you get stereotyped as an athletic type, so you get to play a position where speed or strength matters. Often, that means “not pitcher”.

Willis, Oliver, and Sabathia are all from Northern California. Williams is from Hawaii. It is a coincidence that the only African-American starting pitchers come from the only two US states where no ethnic group has a majority?

[Correction: New Mexico also has no ethnic majority. Texas does, barely, according to the 2000 census: it’s 52.4% “white, non-Hispanic”.]

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