Why aren’t there more African-Americans in MLB? A conversation with ESPN’s Howard Bryant

In 1999, Major League Baseball enacted the Selig Rule, with the stated purpose of increasing the number of non-men and people of color in front office, managerial, and coaching positions. Unlike the NFL’s Rooney Rule, however, which requires teams to actually interview candidates, the Selig Rule was more lip service than actual reform. As Nathaniel Grow wrote for Fangraphs back in 2015,

Under the so-called “Selig Rule,” MLB teams are required to consider female or minority candidates “for all general manager, assistant general manager, field manager, director of player development and director of scouting positions.”

Notably, the Selig Rule does not require that teams actually interview any female or minority candidates for these positions. Instead, teams must merely consider candidates belonging to an underrepresented group before hiring someone else to fill one of the five aforementioned positions.

In other words, the Selig Rule doesn’t even require teams to make a show of interviewing underrepresented candidates — and even when those interviews do happen, they are essentially pro forma. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that two decades after the Selig Rule went into effect, the number of non-men and people of color in managerial, front office, and coaching positions has actually been going backwards, prompting some to call the Selig Rule a “farce”.

The first woman wasn’t hired to a full-time MLB coaching position until this year. Perhaps worse, managing and coaching positions are increasingly excluding black Americans, even as teams increasingly hire neophytes with no prior management experience. Two years ago, Rhiannon Walker wrote this for the Undefeated:

Sixteen black men have ascended to manager since [1972], filling 27 jobs — 10 interim and 17 full-time. Over that period, 224 men were hired to fill 470 openings (many jobs came open several times).

Two of the 27 openings were with teams that finished above .500 the previous season. Winning ballclubs have had substantially fewer issues extending managing opportunities to Latinx (nine of 31 openings) or Asian (one of two) skippers, by contrast. The average record of the teams that non-interim black managers inherited is 73-89.

For comparison, there have been 17 managerial jobs filled by individuals who didn’t have managerial or coaching experience at either the major league or minor league level. Frank Robinson and Buck Martinez are the lone people of color to manage with no prior experience.

ESPN’s Howard Bryant dove into those numbers on Twitter earlier this year, sharing numbers that are simply unacceptable for a sport which claims to be making efforts towards inclusion of African-Americans.

Gabe Kapler was the only serious candidate for San Francisco’s skipper job — the only candidate even interviewed by the Giants before he was hired as their manager, even after Kapler covered up a sexual assault while with the Dodgers.

Why are white men like Kapler being hired with records that include covering up crimes, whilst African-Americans never even receive offers?

Bryant, who is currently in Toronto for ESPN, was kind enough to speak with me about these issues in detail. After years of studying the problem, he is an expert – and his perspective is both sharp and nuanced. Bryant has also written a book about some of these issues, which I highly recommend.

“Any time you have a conversation about hiring, it is rooted in the idea of merit,” Bryant told me. “But that merit[-based hiring] has virtually never been practiced. And in the area of African-American managers, the prerequisites are enormous.” Bryant contrasted the qualifications African-American managers have had – largely All-Star caliber playing careers – with white neophytes being hired after mediocre playing careers or no managing experience at all. For white managerial candidates, “there’s no such thing as qualifications anymore,” Bryant told me. On the other hand, to be a manager in MLB, an African-American must be a “world class athlete among world class athletes. . . . If that’s your Black pipeline, all the Rooney rules and Selig rules, they don’t matter.”

The dearth of Black managers and front office executives, therefore, is a multifaceted problem — one which teams and the league are entirely aware of, and have taken little to no action to fix.

“It all starts with ownership. Their ranks are as white and as exclusive as the next level beneath them”, Bryant explained. Front offices, then, are comprised of people who look like the people who hired them.

“Most of them view themselves as politically neutral,” continued Bryant, who has spoken with a number of front offices on the subject. “White men especially are afforded the assumption of neutrality. They’re going after a very specific type of person who looks like them and has a very similar path as they do.”

That path is one that will lend itself towards following orders more than giving them. Because front offices are so meddling now, they want so much control, today’s executives want people who aren’t going to challenge them. People who are going to do what they’re told,” Bryant told me.

Other structural barriers are borne out by the numbers.

The pipeline to being a manager now seems to run through being a utility player or backup catcher — the twenty-fifth man, as it were. But today, just 8 percent of MLB players are African-American, as compared with 27 percent in 1978. So while Jerry DiPoto, Billy Beane, and Scott Servais might be able to parlay time spent as backups into managerial or front office careers, it’s far harder for Black players to even make a team as a utility player, let alone turn it into a second career. In that sense, Bryant explained, “[t]he idea of mediocrity as a player is really a white domain.” Bo Porter might be the exception that proves the rule; his pathway is constant for white players, yet Porter, by the numbers, is the worst Black player to ever earn a managing job.

Bryant refers to an age-old unwritten rule in baseball: “no Blacks on the bench.” To be a Black player in the Major Leagues, even (perhaps especially) today, you have to be good. The numbers bear this out. Frank Robinson hit .294/.389/.537 across a brilliant, Hall of Fame career during which he generated a mind-boggling 104 fWAR. Willie Randolph was a perennial All-Star who posted 62 fWAR during his career. Davey Lopes posted 41.8 fWAR and stole 557 bases. Cecil Cooper hit .298/.337/.466 (119 wRC+) across fifteen big league seasons. Hal McRae hit .300/.362/.466 across a decade-long prime en route to a career 122 wRC+. Dusty Baker posted ten seasons of 2+ fWAR or more, a career 117 wRC+, and 37.9 fWAR. Don Baylor hit backed his 118 wRC+ with 338 home runs, including six 25+ homer seasons. Maury Wills stole almost six hundred bases in his career, including 94 in 1965 and 104 in 1962. In other words, these aren’t just above-average players — they’re bona fide superstars and All-Stars who were among the best in the game at their positions.

Even those Black managers who weren’t perennial All-Stars were often still high-level players. Cito Gaston hit .318/.364/.543 (144 wRC+) in a mammoth 1970 season. Dave Roberts had five 30-steal seasons and might own the most famous stolen base of all time. Ron Washington spent parts of ten years in the Major Leagues.

But even that’s not enough. Bryant told me that MLB teams ascribe to an attitude, even today, of “they hire us because they need us to manage us”. In other words, teams want Black managers to oversee Black players. “There’s a reluctance on the part of baseball owners – and leaders in America in general – to let African-Americans manage whites.”

So if we want more black managers, we need more black players — but that won’t be accomplished through participation-based programs like reviving baseball in inner cities (RBI). Modern sports media asks African-American youth why they aren’t playing baseball, but that’s the wrong question – and an insulting one, says Bryant.

The reality is that MLB teams simply won’t compete for black talent. Bryant suggests that “players aren’t refusing or rejecting the game out of preference, but because of economic model.” For example, baseball is a non-revenue sport in college, as compared with basketball and football. Bryant pointed out that players like Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson, both running backs in the 1970s, would likely eschew baseball today.

The maddening part, as Bryant correctly points out, is that MLB has already shown a willingness to open the talent pool — just not for African-Americans. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the academy system incentivizes teams to develop prospects, thereby creating a direct pipeline for youngsters into affiliated baseball, and eventually to the big leagues and potential managerial posts.

The draft, however, disincentivizes teams to invest in African-American prospects in the United States. After all, the Yankees could well afford to build and fund state-of-the-art academies for black youth in the Bronx; they simply choose not to do so because other teams would then draft that talent. For Major League Baseball, suppressing player earnings through the draft is simply more important than opening pipelines into the game for African-American youths.

“The sport has not decided that this is worth addressing,” Bryant said — and he’s unfortunately right. The underlying question Bryant asks is this: “How willing are you to improve your economic model for Black people?” Baseball’s unwillingness mirrors that of society generally, to the detriment not only of African-Americans but of the sport as a whole. Bryant is correct; in baseball, as in American society, economics, it seems, is far too often more important than racial equity. The result is what Bryant calls “a white suburban game under-girded by foreign labor.” Again, he’s right; even MLB ballparks are moving into the suburbs.

It should be noted that some in MLB did take serious looks at properly funding baseball scholarships, a necessary first step. Bryant points to Dave Dombrowski, former Red Sox and Tigers General Manager, who as part of MLB’s diversity efforts explored proposals to that end. But, as Bryant told me, MLB considered Title IX’s requirement that an equal number of scholarships be provided for women as a “complicating factor”. MLB, it seems, would rather have more inequality than less.

The result of this systematic racism – for it is exactly that, in effect if not in intent – is a baseball that is inferior, a lesser game than what it could and should be. Bryant pointed out that this goes beyond mere morality. As more and more barriers are erected to African-Americans in our national pastime, more serious questions emerge. “Who gets to build wealth? Who gets to have a job?” Bryant asked. “What qualities do we value? What kinds of values are we going to promote and diminish?” It seems that, for MLB, the answer is once again whatever brings the greatest profit.

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