Baseball as a Social Policy

OPENING DAY. All was in place for the first home game of the year as the Fenway Faithful filled the cozy confines of baseball's most beloved ballpark. Red, white and blue bunting fluttered in the wind blowing in from center field. Perrenial vendors emerged from their winter hibernation to hawk peanuts, pretzels and pennants outside the park.

Inside, as the Red Sox went down to defeat once again, the age-old cynicism that seems to have accompanied the Beantown team ever since the end of World War I was as strong as ever. The two guys sitting behind me in the bleachers, in a vain attempt to catch some exposure on ESPN, held up a sheet between innings that read "74 years of frustration. Win one before we die." This spring has all the making of a typical season of baseball in Boston.

AND THAT means the reappearance of one other aspect of the game at Fenway which was glaringly obvious at Monday's home opener: Few Blacks will be in attendance. Mostly white hands will rise up in the rhythmic passes of The Wave around the ballpark.

I have always noticed that Blacks don't turn out in droves at baseball games. But recent studies and surveys back up my observation. The findings are greatly troubling, not just because they reveal an example of latent racism in our society, but also because baseball could--were it to attract Black fans--help in some small way to alleviate the plight of America's inner city poor.

At a typical Red Sox home game, fewer than one percent of the fans are Black. Kenneth M. Richman '90 discovered this fact in researching his senior thesis, "Not Even in the Ballpark: Low Black Baseball Spectatorship and the Sources of Social Segregation."


Of course, Blacks make up a much larger proportion of the population than their one percent showing in Fenway. (Boston itself is approximately 23 percent Black) Richman's survey of randomly selected middle school students in the Boston area indicated that Black students were only 53 percent as likely as white students to have attended a Red Sox game during the 1989 season.

And this trend is not limited to Boston and Fenway Park, Even though the Red Sox were the last baseball club to integrate and Boston sports teams have traditionally been dogged by charges of racism, the low attendance by Blacks at baseball games is a nationwide fact--even in urban centers with large Black populations.

Five percent in New York, 4 percent in Atlanta, only 2 percent in Philadelphia--Blacks just don't show up at the park. A 1988 survey of over 20,000 households across the country discovered that while 11.2 percent of white Americans attend baseball games, only 4.9 percent of Blacks do so.

On the surface, this is a surprising phenomenon. Baseball has become a relatively well-integrated sport and has been linked by historians to the United States' absorption of immigrants and minorities.

Cheering on the local club allowed immigrants to join what urban sociologist Gunther Barth calls a "turbulent democracy of protesters" at the ballpark, all rooting for the hometown team.

Others such as baseball historian Harold Seymour disagree. He argues that the high cost of tickets and the fact that games were only played on weekdays (meaning only fans who could afford to skip an afternoon of work could attend) effectively prevented the lower classes from attending games.

However, a Boston Herald description of the crowd attending a 1903 game pitting Boston against Pittsburgh conveys a classless ballpark environment: "The vast throng that looked on as the American champions were forced down to defact was cosmopolitan in the broadest sense of the word. Side by side sat professional men and grocery clerks, ministers and sports, college professors and graduates of he sand lots, all bound together by one great, all-absorbing love for the national game."

EIGHTY-NINE years later, the Boston team continues to lose. But does this model of baseball as the great integrator still apply in America's multicultural society of the '90s?

It seems that it could. Twenty-three percent of major league baseball rosters were Black in 1989. Hispanic players occupy many starting positions as well. The role models are there, but the fans are not. Darryl Strawberry and Ramon Martinez could lead the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World series, but that won't necessarily bring Blacks and other minorities to the parks.

Why don't Blacks come to baseball games? Richman offers several explanations, including the presence of racism at public gatherings. What is unfortunate is that baseball--in some small way--could help alleviate some problems particular to the Black community in America's cities.