October 10, 2008

THE "KNOW ONE WHEN YOU SEE ONE" SCIENTIFIC METHOD?

Out of Left Field: The Errors In Counting Black Ballplayers (CARL BIALIK, 10/10/08, Wall Street Journal)

In the past decade...dozens of articles have lamented the declining proportion of black players, from 27% of all major leaguers in the mid-1970s to 8.2% last season, even as the percentage of Americans who are of African descent has inched up in recent decades.

For all its currency, that decline appears to be way off. In recent years, two baseball researchers, working independently, have found that blacks probably never made up more than 20% of major leaguers.

The findings are interesting because research on race in baseball can have an impact beyond the diamond. Baseball is a popular laboratory for workplace studies of diversity and discrimination, including how race influences assignments to specific jobs and how diversity affects company success.

A drop to 8% from 20% is still a sharp one, but perhaps it isn't so surprising given the influx of Asians and Latin Americans, and Americans of Asian and Latino descent, into the game. In 1975, when 19.4% of 844 players to appear in the majors were African-American, fewer than 11% of players were Asian or Latino, according to Tom Timmerman, professor of business management at Tennessee Tech University. In 2006, nearly 28% of major leaguers were Asian or Latino.

Baseball researchers still use a crude method to assign a single race to each player -- by gazing at baseball cards, flipping through media guides and judging whether surnames are Latino.

The exercise of grouping players by race runs into obstacles that have for decades confronted the U.S. Census Bureau and others. For the 1960 Census, respondents themselves identified their race; before then, enumerators largely marked down race according to their own observations, says Charles Hirschman, a sociologist at the University of Washington. In 2000, respondents could check off multiple boxes, meaning they could identify themselves, for example, as both black and of Latino origin.

Complicating the picture is that many foreign-born baseball players are from Latin America and have dark skin. Many consider themselves Latinos but would have been excluded from baseball before Jackie Robinson. Perhaps a third of today's major leaguers wouldn't have been allowed in the game before the color barrier was lifted.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 10, 2008 10:07 AM
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