Black Players Were Held to a Higher Standard After Jackie Robinson Broke the Colour Barrier

In (unintentionally) keeping with one of the themes from the last post — let’s talk about baseball after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier. Most people will tell you that even after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in 1947, black players had to be that much better than white players before they were given a chance to play. Having not been alive in 1947, many might take the word of those that were. However, we don’t have to! Let’s take a quick detour.

In the mid-90s and especially the 2000s, sabermetrics began making its way into the fold. In short, sabermetrics is a more sophisticated way to analyze baseball statistics. From Fangraphs:

Sabermetrics is about trying to evaluate the sport more accurately. For decades, statistics like home runs, runs batted in, batting average, wins, and earned run average were all we had to determine which players were good, which were bad, and which were in between. But as gathering, collecting, and sharing information became easier, a group of baseball teams and analysts started to develop statistics that were slightly harder to track and disseminate, but ones that were a much better reflection of talent or performance.

The most obvious example of this is the difference between batting average and on-base percentage. A walk is a positive outcome for the batter, and while it isn’t as valuable as a single or a double, it is much better than making an out. Batting average completely ignores walks, meaning that it is failing to capture important information about the hitter. Beyond that, batting average and on-base percentage assume that each hit or time on base is equally valuable, when we know that extra base hits lead to more runs than singles and walks. So there needs to be a way to credit hitters for getting on base, but also for how much their particular way of reaching base is worth. Sabermetrics, at its heart, is about making sure we capture as much of that as possible.

One of the statistics to come out of sabermetrics is called “Wins Above Replacement.” Once again, from Fangraphs:

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is an attempt by the sabermetric baseball community to summarize a player’s total contributions to their team in one statistic. WAR basically looks at a player and asks the question, “If this player got injured and their team had to replace them with a minor leaguer or someone from their bench, how much value would the team be losing?” This value is expressed in a wins format, so we could say that Player X is worth +6.3 wins to their team while Player Y is only worth +3.5 wins.

Now that we know a bit more about sabermetrics and WAR, let’s get back to the 1950s and the colour barrier. As I said earlier, many might rely on the perceptions of those who were alive to witness baseball in the 1950s. However, we have a statistic like WAR that can help us better understand — empirically — whether black players really did have to play that much better to earn their spot on a team. From research published recently:

The data presented here provide support for anecdotal observations about racial bias in the major leagues. For decades, Black players who were promoted to the major leagues turned out to be more valuable players than White ones promoted at the same time.

Now that we know that there’s data to support the idea of this injustice, when do you think it ended? That is, when do you think that black players had to stop being that much better than white players? Before I read the research, I’m not sure what I would have guessed. Why don’t you take a second and think about what’s happened since 1950 and when you think this injustice has fallen away (or whether you think it’s still going on?) Again, from the research:

[Research] indicates that at least through 1975 (28 years after major league baseball was first integrated), Black players were still held to higher standards: simply put, they had to be better to reach the majors. After that point in time, the difference in eventual performance between White and Black players promoted to the major leagues was no longer significant.

So, it seems that in 1975, twenty-eight years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, the goal was finally realized. Of course, as the last sentence in the above-quoted research says, ‘no longer significant.’ That doesn’t mean that there still wasn’t an prejudicial effect, but just that in measuring that effect via WAR, it was no longer significant after 1975.

The Society for American Baseball Research (the same group behind sabermetrics) put together some helpful visualizations of the baseball demographics from 1947 to 2012. In reviewing some of them, there isn’t any ‘obvious’ reason for why the prejudicial effect is no longer significant post-1975. I’ve included one of the graphs and encourage you to read the whole article as it talks about the decline in black players in MLB.

ResearchBlogging.orgNewman, L., Zhang, L., & Huang, R. (2015). Prejudice in Major League Baseball: Have Black Players Been Held to a Higher Standard Than White Players? Journal of Sport & Social Issues DOI: 10.1177/0193723515594211

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