Fewer African-Americans are playing in Major League Baseball today than two decades ago. The percentage was 8.5 percent on this season's Opening Day rosters.
Commissioner Bud Selig announced on Wednesday the formation of a task force to tackle the issue of on-field diversity.
New data, though, demonstrates that the decline in African-America players, while steep, isn't as precipitous as widely believed. The accepted wisdom is that the high-water mark was reached in 1975, when it was reported that 27 percent of big leaguers were African-Americans. But exhaustive research by Mark Armour, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, shows that the actual number never exceeded 19 percent.
"To be fair, the numbers have dropped,'' said Armour. "I believe the numbers have dropped from 18-19 percent, which is what they were for about two decades.
"From the 1970s through the '90s, the numbers were in the high teens. Now they're half that," said Armour, who writes software for the Environmental Protection Agency.
"What I determined, and I [analyzed data from 1947, when Jackie Robinson made his debut] up to 1986 ... is that the number never got to 20 percent. The black-player number, counting all dark-skinned players, was in the high 20s for a period. But not the African-American number. All the press stuff that comes out every April compares the African-American numbers from today with the all-black-players number from the '70s. And that's where they make their mistake."
Armour didn't set out to disprove earlier studies.
"I was actually studying a completely different thing," he said. "What I was interested in was to answer a different question, which was how integration changed the game. How fast did it go? How valuable were the players who were integrating the game? In order to do that, I had to determine who were the people who would have been playing who would not have been able to play before Jackie Robinson."
Armour also wrote a biography of former Red Sox general manager and one-time American League president Joe Cronin. Since Boston was the last team to integrate, Armour wanted to explore how much the franchise had missed out on by ignoring a group rich with talent.
"Then when the studies started coming out several years ago talking about how many black players there were in the game, I was doing the work for a different purpose," Armour said. "And I immediately said, 'Hey, these numbers are wrong. These numbers can't possibly be right.' And every year I'd make some attempt to correct it. I haven't gotten very far but I'm 100-percent convinced my numbers are correct."
Even with all his data, Armour can't fully explain why fewer African-Americans are playing big league baseball beyond the fact that there are so many players of other ethnicities, primarily Latin American and Asian, now in the game.
"Some of it is that the number of white players has also dropped," he said. "There are so many people who are non-Americans who are playing. That's a big part of it. But that doesn't explain all of it. The drop is too large to account for that. It [started] somewhere in the mid '90s and by 2003, 2004, it went from the high teens to eight or nine percent. And I can't explain that. That's not a math problem. That's Michael Jordan, maybe. I don't know.
"But I do not believe Major League Baseball has discriminated. It's very obvious to me that Major League Baseball does not want this problem to be out there. So there's no reason for them to discriminate. It's a societal thing and I'm sure they want to get to the bottom of it if they can."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com.