What essentially began with one man, 70 years ago this weekend, now encompasses a significant percentage of the Major League Baseball player pool. The white man's game Jackie Robinson integrated on April 15, 1947, has become more diverse than it has ever been, and grassroots efforts to improve the specific percentage of African-American players appear to be reaping real results beneath the big-league surface.
Combining the percentage of black players (7.7) and Latino, Asian and other diverse players (34.6) on active, non-disabled list Opening Day rosters in 2017, baseball -- a sport that was 98.3-percent white in 1947, according to the Society for American Baseball Research -- has reached unprecedented (and, when compared to the other major American team sports, unparalleled) levels of diversity.
"We want our game to be a diverse game," said Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs. "We think it's important that everybody has an equal shot of being the best they can on a baseball diamond."
To put that combined 42.3-percent figure into context, in the NFL and NBA, where African-American players make up the majority of player personnel, the percentage of non-black players in the most recent reports from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics and Sports were 30.3 percent and 25.7 percent, respectively.
Of course, whenever this topic arises in MLB -- especially around the anniversary of Robinson's groundbreaking debut -- the overall diversity gets less attention than the specific percentage of African-American players. And this year, that percentage declined on Opening Day rosters, from 8.3 to 7.7 -- a total of four players. But the 2017 number is slightly skewed by the five black players of American and Canadian descent who began this season on the DL (David Price, Ian Desmond, Micah Johnson, Tyson Ross and Dalton Pompey).
The decline over the decades also deserves some context. Though baseball's peak African-American population is often cited at 27 percent in the mid-1970s, that number was inflated by the inclusion of dark-skinned players from Latin American countries -- a mischaracterization uncovered several years ago in research by Mark Armour of SABR.
But the distinction between today's figure and what Armour determined to be the actual peak (18.7 percent in 1981), as well as the steady decline from the 17.2-percent figure in 1994, is still striking. And MLB has made many efforts to address the factors -- societal and otherwise -- that have contributed to that decline.
"The numbers are where they are at this point," Reagins said. "But there are more African-American players getting drafted at the higher levels than ever before, and we're creating programming -- and cost-free programming -- that addresses the elite African-American ballplayer that will impact our game over time as well."
MLB's grassroots youth engagement efforts include the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, the Play Ball initiative, the nine MLB Youth Academies either in operation (Compton, Calif., Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.) or in development (Bronx, N.Y., Kansas City and San Francisco) and the amateur development camps (the DREAM Series, the Breakthrough Series and the Elite Development Invitational) that address baseball and softball training for minority high school-age players.
The diversity efforts extend to all young athletes. This weekend, for example, marks the launch of the Trailblazer Series Girls Baseball Tournament in Compton -- MLB's first official effort to promote girls and women's baseball.
Survey the prospects scene, and you'll see the effects of these efforts on professional baseball's African-American player population.
Over the past five years, the first round of the amateur Draft has featured 34 African-American players out of 168 total selections, or 20.2 percent. In each of the past two Drafts, an alumnus of the RBI program and the Breakthrough Series (Dillon Tate in 2015 and Corey Ray in '16) was taken among the top five picks.
These prominent Draft selections have contributed toward African-Americans making up 14 percent of MLBPipeline.com's 2017 Top 100 Prospects list, with Latino players accounting for 33 percent. Black players account for 17 percent of the spots on the Top 100 posted by ESPN.com's Keith Law. Each of the top three and six of the top 25 prospects for the 2017 Draft, as determined by MLB.com, are African-Americans, including Hunter Greene, an alumnus of MLB's Youth Academy in Compton.
And at the high school level, five of the first 12 players on Baseball America's Top 100 High School Draft Prospects list are black.
So while the number of African-American players at the Major League level is a real issue in a game that is extremely proud to have had Jackie Robinson in its ranks, there are real reasons to believe there will soon be more black players following in his footsteps. And when you look at the full scope of diversity in MLB -- the races and ethnicities that comprise its clubhouses -- you see a sport unrecognizable from the one Robinson entered.