African-American ballplayers now make up seven percent of major leaguers, down from 25 percent in 1981. Seven percent equals about 52 players (25-man roster multiplied by 30 teams). There are some very good players among them, but few, if any, stand out as certain Hall of Famers.
Forty years ago, in 1965, there were also about 50 black players (25-man roster multiplied by 20 teams). The contrast between the two years—2015 and 1965—shows a dramatic decline in quality, as well as quantity. I’ll demonstrate by making two All-Star teams.
PITCHER—David Price, C.C. Sabathia; CATCHER—Russell Martin (Canadian, North American); FIRST BASE—Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder (DH also); James Loney; SECOND BASE—Brandon Phillips, Dee Gordon; THIRD BASE—Josh Harrison; SHORTSTOP—Jimmy Rollins, Addison Russell; LEFT FIELD—Justin Upton; CENTER FIELD—Andrew McCutcheon, Lorenzo Cain, Adam Jones, Torii Hunter, Dexter Fowler; RIGHT FIELD—Jason Heyward, Matt Kemp, Curtis Granderson, Carl Crawford.
PITCHER—Satchel Paige, Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins (Canadian, North American), Mudcat Grant, Blue Moon Odom; CATCHER—Elston Howard, Earl Battey, Johnny Roseboro; FIRST BASE—Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Bill White; SECOND BASE—Joe Morgan; THIRD BASE—Jim Gilliam, Dick Allen; SHORTSTOP—Ernie Banks, Maury Wills; LEFT FIELD—Frank Robinson, Lou Brock, Willie Horton, Willie Davis, Tommy Davis, Wes Covington; CENTER FIELD—Willie Mays, Curt Flood, Tommy Agee, Paul Blair, Cleon Jones; RIGHT FIELD—Henry Aaron, Billy Williams, Jim Wynn, Bob Oliver.
The 2015 group has eleven players who could be in a Hall of Fame conversation: David Price, Prince Fielder, Lorenzo Cain, Andrew McCutcheon, Matt Kemp, Torii Hunter, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, and Brandon Phillips among the veterans; plus Dee Gordon and Addison Russell, two youngsters. Only five of the veterans have a legitimate shot—McCutcheon, Upton, Cain, Heyward, and Kemp, who are still young. Kemp is questionable due to injuries. Fielder has the DH curse. Hunter had a long career (19 years), but his numbers don’t add up to Hall of Fame.
Price has an excellent winning percentage (.650), but he would have to sustain his record for another eight years to even equal the status of Mike Mussina, who didn’t make the Hall in his first shot last year, despite being 117 games over .500 (270-153). Price also carries the burden of a poor post-season record. Other good players, such as Rollins, Granderson, and Howard do not have Hall of Fame credentials. I cite Addison Russell and Dee Gordon for their youth and potential. I see them as Joe Morgan was in 1965.
The 1965 group boasts a full dozen Hall of Famers: Satchel Paige, Bob Gibson, Ferguson Jenkins, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Joe Morgan, Ernie Banks, Frank Robinson, Lou Brock, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and Billy Williams. The group also includes several excellent players.
Now I’m aware that I have the benefit of hindsight with the 1965 group. Still, guys like Aaron, Mays, Robinson, Banks, and McCovey had glittering records already in 1965; and Paige was an obvious Hall of Famer once Negro Leaguers were fully recognized.
I believe that this group of black ballplayers burst onto the scene in the fifties and early sixties because of the inspiration of Jackie Robinson in 1947. With the rise of the NBA and NFL black athletes saw greater opportunity by pursuing careers in basketball and football, which is one of the reasons for the decline of African-American baseball players.