Recently, Chris Rock did a segment for Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel on HBO in which he highlighted a number of reasons for the decline in interest in baseball in the African American community including the decline in the number of African American major leaguers. The concern with diminishing numbers of African American players and fans is not new. Approaching the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball in 1997, Claire Smith wrote an article on the cover of the New York Times detailing the decline in African American interest in the national pastime. Major League Baseball admitted their concern with this issue when they funded the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner cities) program in the 1990s.
However, as several scholars have pointed out in the last few days, notably Adrian Burgos, Wilfredo Gomez, and Tyran Steward, Rock does not engage at all with the Afro-Latino presence in the game today. These three scholars are spot on in their critique of Rock and the historical blindness of his position. However, Burgos, Gomez, and Steward, like Rock, focus heavily on the game on the field in their exploration of the state of African American baseball fans. I find nothing to disagree with in Burgos, Gomez, or Steward’s explorations, but I think there is a factor involved that neither those scholars nor Rock touch upon and that is the effect of new stadium construction in the 1960s and 1970s on the African American baseball fan. In no way do I deny that players on the field contribute to fan demographics, or that if Major League Baseball invested in urban America the way it did in the Caribbean, fan demographics might be different. I am also not arguing that new stadium construction in the 1960s and 1970s is the most important factor in contemporary fan demographics, just that it is a very important point, and the full story cannot be told without it (and a lot of other points as well).
Before 1947 and the (re)integration of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson, the vast majority of fans at Major League Baseball games were white, the vast majority of fans at Negro League games were African American, and the vast majority of stadiums were in industrial cities where, due to the Great Migration, the majority of African Americans lived. Following integration, African American fans turned out in great number to watch Major League Baseball games, particularly Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers. As has been well established, integration of the major leagues put the Negro Leagues out of business. While some teams were well behind on integration, in the 1950s and 1960s the numbers of African Americans on Major League Baseball teams grew as teams were increasingly willing to overlook prejudiced notions about who should be on the field. Instead, teams did whatever they could do to put the best and cheapest team on the field. At the same time that the integration of Major League Baseball increased and the Negro Leagues collapsed, many middle- and upper-class whites fled urban areas for the suburbs. Major League teams at the end of the 1950s largely found themselves in urban neighborhoods that were no longer composed of the traditional demographic base who came to their games.
Steward argues that the end of the Negro Leagues greatly decreased the number of African American baseball fans. I agree that this was the case, but I do not think that this had to be the case. There was a brief exception to the rule that whites were always the majority of fans in attendance at Major League Baseball games, or at least that whites represented a larger percentage of fans in the stands than they did residents of the city. That exception occurred in the decades immediately following integration. However, this exception rapidly came to an end as teams moved away from African American neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s. These moves made it far more difficult for African American fans to get to games. If teams had not fled African American neighborhoods then I don’t think the end of the Negro Leagues had to lead to such a great decline in African American baseball fans.
There are a number of reasons why many Major League teams moved in the 1960s and 1970s, but as Alan Sager and Arthur Culbert explained at a Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture over twenty years ago, Major League teams were most likely to move when they were in African American neighborhoods and were most likely to move from African American neighborhoods to white ones. Furthermore, many new ballparks in these decades were largely inaccessible from African American neighborhoods and without a car. It seems then that teams decided to move out of a fear of losing their traditional fan base, middle- and upper-class whites who demanded car-accessible ballparks in new neighborhoods, rather than remain in African American neighborhoods and embrace a new fan base. I’m suggesting that by moving, teams lost the chance to cement a different demographic group as a key fan base. Because there was little to no baseball being played in urban African American neighborhoods by the 1970s, there were few opportunities for Major League Baseball to develop new African American fans. While the increase in Latino players in Major League Baseball since the 1970s created many Afro-Latino fans of Major League Baseball, Major League teams’ flight from urban American decimated the African American fan base.
Many of the new wave of ballparks built in the 1990s and 2000s were in or near African American neighborhoods, but they were strategically separated from those neighborhoods in a variety of ways. These stadiums were also based on a nostalgia for the 1920s when the first generation of concrete and steel baseball stadiums were in their prime. Rock’s analysis of the use of nostalgia at Major League Baseball games and its lack of appeal to the African American community is spot on. Aside from being an era of beautiful ballparks, the era in which these new parks are intended to recall was also one when African American fans at Major League games were largely unwelcome and Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation were part of daily life. Nostalgically appealing to the 1920s as a time in which all was supposedly good will not do much to attract a community that was excluded from the game in that time period. Perhaps if baseball’s nostalgia focused on the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the peak years of African American star power in the majors, the results might be different. But those decades do not have the same pull for the most whites who have, aside from a brief exception, always made up the majority of fans in attendance at Major League Baseball games. Choosing to flee African American neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s to embrace white fans created an era in which Major League Baseball would like to grow its African American fan base, but seems to lack the tools to do so. Major League Baseball today expresses a lot of interest in revitalizing baseball in urban areas, but baseball in those would not have needed any revitalizing if Major League Baseball had not left them behind in the 1960s and 1970s.