EDITOR’S NOTE: Orlando Hudson isn’t getting much playing time for the White Sox, but he nonetheless holds an important distinction. He is the only black MLB player in the city of Chicago, where about 33 percent of the population is black. Why have African-American players and fans drifted away from baseball? And does it matter? This is the third piece in a four-part series of stories asking those questions.
I’m disappointed in Chicago’s baseball teams.
Yes, it’s partly because the Cubs have one of the worst records in baseball. And, sure, I wish the White Sox would find a way to attract more fans (and a more diverse array of fans) to the ballpark.
But the biggest reason I’m disappointed is this: Between the two squads, there’s only one African-American player, Orlando Hudson of the Sox (and he’s been riding the bench since the team acquired Kevin Youkilis to play third base).
It’s not just the Sox and Cubs. Today, only about 8 percent of MLB players are African-American, compared to 19 percent in 1995.
So, sure, I’m disappointed, because I love the game, and I want to see teams that reflect the racial composition of my city. But, at the same time, I’m not here to cry racism, because here’s the irony: Even as African-American participation in baseball has fallen, the sport is more diverse than ever. The number of Latin players is at an all-time high, and Asian players are growing in number, too.
Off the field, baseball scores again: The business of baseball is more diverse than ever and offers an example other industries ought to emulate.
The 2011 MLB season saw an increase in people of color serving in vice president roles, according to data in the annual Lapchick Racial and Gender Report Card. African-Americans comprised 5.7 percent (4.0 percent in 2010) of the vice president positions, while Latinos comprised 4.8 percent (4.0 percent in 2010) and Asians were nearly 2 percent (1.8 percent in 2010).
Furthermore, for the first time in the history of the major leagues, two different teams are owned by persons of color. Arturo Moreno maintains his position as the owner of the Los Angeles Angels, and the Los Angeles Dodgers are now owned by a group that includes Earvin “Magic” Johnson—the first African-American owner of an MLB franchise.
These achievements shouldn’t be taken lightly. Baseball not only outperforms other sporting leagues in off-field diversity, it sets an example for corporate America to follow. Minorities represent about 34 percent of the nation’s private sector employees, but they make up just 14 percent of the directors on Fortune 500 corporate boards and 10 percent of top executives. When it comes to African-Americans in top jobs, the record is even worse.
Baseball understands what corporate America typically doesn’t: Diversity in business is a strategic advantage.
Consider the approach of Chicago’s own Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago White Sox and Bulls. Reinsdorf hired the first black general manager in Chicago sports history, Kenny Williams (who was the third black GM in major league baseball history).
“I don’t believe in set-asides,” Reinsdorf once told me, adding that they are an insult to the many qualified minorities out there. “When it comes to hiring,” he said, “if you open it up to the whole world, you are going to get more qualified people. If you limit hiring to white males, you shrink the pool of people.”
In an effort to expand the pool, MLB, in cooperation with the White Sox and other strategic partners, launched the inaugural MLB Diversity Business Summit yesterday at the Hyatt McCormick in Chicago. This event offers entrepreneurs and job seekers a chance to connect with MLB representatives and learn more about the business of baseball.
The league has a diversity committee made up of 10 team owners who serve along with Commissioner Bud Selig. They meet at least four times a year for more than an hour to talk about diversity and dig into the numbers. Each owner sees the performance of other teams. If one team is slacking, the other owners share practices to help that team improve.
But as Reinsdorf reminded me, the baseball business model is different than in most of corporate America. The teams compete fiercely, but much of their revenue—from television and games, for example—is jointly derived. Unlike other industries, they naturally cooperate on any concept that drives more revenue. It didn’t happen overnight, but the owners have come to realize that it’s not only the players on the field that bring in fans; a more inclusive workforce and supplier network gets attention too, making fans more likely to buy tickets.
So while “we’re trying to beat each others brains out on the court or field, we have to work jointly,” he said. “That is why we come together.”
Does it matter? Does diversity in the office and board room make for a better baseball team? Does it put more fans in the seats. Do fans care if there are black players on the field, in the dugout, or in the executive suite?
In a word, yes. People want to work for and patronize places they perceive to be empathetic to their lifestyle and culture. If you’re Italian or Jewish, for example, aren’t you drawn to an organization that employs other Italians or Jews? Obviously, it doesn’t guarantee you will go to work there or shop there. Other factors matter. But that connection draws interest, and that interest is important. It means the pool of people an organization comes into contact with is bigger—and potentially better—than it would have been otherwise. It means the possibility of more star employees, more consumers, more .300 hitters, more fans.
It’s great that baseball is doing well with diversity off the field, and that the representation of Latino and Asian players is on the rise. But that doesn’t mean baseball shouldn’t try to do even better. This is not about quotas, a concept I reject. But there’s an assumption that young black athletes have lost interest in baseball, opting for basketball and football instead. I don’t buy it. Not completely, anyway. If it’s true, it’s part of a cycle: Black athletes see fewer of their peers in the majors, so they show less interest in baseball.
“I feel it’s important for kids, African-American kids, to see an African-American face that plays baseball,” Matt Kemp of the Dodgers said last month. “I’m always telling people baseball needs to be more prominent in the African-American community”
There are tons of black kids with the talent to be the next Matt Kemp or Frank Thomas. But to hone that talent and steer them toward the majors, every team has to do more of what the White Sox are doing: Create inner-city youth initiatives that scour public schools and neighborhoods and provide funding for black kids—heck, for kids of all races and creeds—with the ability to play.
Give the kids more chances to play, and more of them will opt for baseball. Our teams will be the better for it, off and on the field.
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ROGER O. CROCKETT is the former Chicago Deputy Bureau Chief for BusinessWeek magazine and a contributor to Harvard Business Review online. Read his work at rocrockett.com and follow him at @rocrockett.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house; Matt Kemp photo courtesy SD Dirk/cc; Kenny Williams photo courtesy Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This report also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.