How Much Does Baseball Miss the Black Player?

Excuse us for drifting back approximately 4000 years in Internet time, but we were absolutely struck by an offhand comment by Nate Silver on BASEBALL PROSPECTUS last Thursday that we haven’t seen anyone else bring to the fore yet.

Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle

While testing out a new statistical tool that compares the offensive contributions of all players at each position since 1954, Silver points out that center fielders have offered less with their bats with each passing decade (subscription required):

“The most dramatic shift has come at center field, which has gone from being an above-average offensive position to one that’s distinctly below average. Granted, we are starting our graph right in the era of Willie, Mickey, and Duke, but the decline of center field offense has been steady over the past 50 years. My pet theory is that this might have to do with the decreasing participation of black players in the game; among the top 50 seasons for VORP at the center field position since 1957, 27 were accomplished by African-Americans.”

According to this intriguing theory (or at least our interpretation), African-Americans make better center fielders than white and Latinos on the whole. Therefore, their slow disappearance from the game has lowered the skill level on the field and weakened Major League Baseball’s product.

Again, we hope you’ll forgive us, but that seemed worthy of further discussion.

Of course, Bud Selig has made the inclusion and celebration of African-Americans in the game one of his top priorities. Therefore, we don’t fault the effort. However, we always considered it more of a marketing issue. Fewer African-American fans meant fewer people to sell ballcaps to, similar to NASCAR and the Latino viewer.

It never really occurred to us that we were perhaps facing a measurable second talent drain from the game due to the absence of African-Americans. That’s assuming, of course, we are. We always tread on unstable ground when we talk about gritty gutty Wes Welker or let Dusty Baker talk about race.

Therefore, we turn to you, considerate reader. What do you think about Silver’s theory? How else do you think the game might be affected by the absence of the African-American player? How far can we safely carry this notion, if at all?