There is nothing that better signals the end of a bitter winter and the beginning of spring like the start of another Major League Baseball season. Baseball has a special place on the mantel of American history. It gained its lore in the Roaring '20s with the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby. It survived to help heal the nation after the Great Depression and two World Wars. It helped push America through the Civil Rights Era when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American player to play in an MLB game. Robinson paved the way for other players of color such as Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Fernando Valenzuela and Hideo Nomo. We now see MLB including women on its coaching staffs and becoming an inclusive leader within the LGBTQ community.
I keep hearing there is nothing more American than baseball and apple pie. I might debate the claim that apple pie is representative of America, but I want baseball to be representative of America's greatest strength, our rich diversity. On Jackie Robinson Day, The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida released its annual Major League Baseball Racial and Gender Report Card (RGRC). Compared to the 2018 report card, it shows a slight increase in racial hiring practices and a slight decrease in gender hiring practices. MLB earned an A- on the issue of racial hiring, a C for gender hiring practices, and an overall grade of B- on the 2019 RGRC.
Professional baseball used to be one of the most segregated sports in history, with a separate Negro League. The game is now one of the most diverse sports, on and off the field. In 2019, the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros opened their respective seasons with rosters that included players of Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Vietnamese, South Korean, Dominican and Italian descent. Across MLB, 41 percent of the players on 2018 Opening Day rosters were from a diverse background (African-American, African-Canadian, Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander). This is certainly representative of the America that I love and am grateful to live and work in every day.
As the TIDES team went deeper into the numbers, we continue to find that the professional league offices lead the way with racial and gender hiring practices with much better results than the league's teams. The MLB Central Office is no exception, as its professional staff is comprised of 33.3 percent people of color, and 37.3 percent of the directors and managers were people of color. However, the representation of people of color at the senior executive level dropped from 24.6 percent at the end of 2017 to 23.2 percent at the end of 2018.
I am concerned that MLB Central Office has the lowest gender grade among its counterparts in the NFL, NBA, WNBA and MLS. The professional staff is comprised of only 30.8 percent women, down from 31.8 percent in 2017. Women in director and managerial positions also declined from 33.6 percent in 2017 to 30.1 percent in 2018. Improvement was evident with the increase of women in senior executive level positions from 24.6 percent in 2017 to 26.8 percent in 2018. MLB will need to build a broad and sustainable pipeline to continue improving these numbers.
Like the other leagues, MLB has a poor record of diversity among its team owners. The same is true for general managers, who are among the key decision-makers for their respective teams and are recognized leaders in their communities and across MLB. They have considerable influence on the development of these communities and the future of baseball. It is imperative to have diverse thought, experience and opinions at the highest levels.
Though progress was made this year, I still have concerns about the low number of African-American players. In 2017, African-American players represented only 7.7 percent of the players in MLB. That increased to 8.4 percent of the 2018 Opening Day rosters. That was the highest number of African-American players in MLB in the last six years. It is, however, a far cry from the all-time high of 18 percent in 1991.
MLB, like the other professional sports leagues, makes considerable efforts to foster and develop programs focused on improving diversity and inclusion within the league and its communities. Many of the diversity and inclusion issues that plague our professional sports leagues start with providing our youth with access. Access to facilities. Access to uniforms and equipment. Access to coaches and mentors. Access to education. This lack of access dramatically impacts our youth who grow up in urban areas that often have a disproportionate number of underserved neighborhoods. It is hard to imagine a lack of access if our influential sports leaders in these communities could offer diverse thought, experience and opinions on how to enrich the lives of the members of these communities.
In a statement from Rainbow PUSH Coalition President Jesse Jackson and Sports Director Pastor Joseph Bryant, shared that "seven years before the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, eight years before the emergence of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks as leaders of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, Jackie Robinson led the drive to break down barriers of race and ignorance. He took the pain and the insults and changed the world. As we celebrate the 72nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier, it is still important that the sports world prioritizes opening more doors of opportunity on and off the field. Dr. Richard Lapchick reports that the Major League Baseball league office leads the way among the major sports in racial and gender diversity hiring and inclusion initiatives. Yet across the boards, the actual number of women and minorities are continuously low at every level. There is not a talent deficit, there is an opportunity deficit. The same way Branch Rickey was willing to give Jackie Robinson an OPPORTUNITY to play at the highest level, league officials and team owners must be intentional about opening their doors to more qualified minority candidates. There also needs to be more emphasis put on the MLB Urban Youth Academy Programs in cities across America to help discover the next great pool of talent to join today's star players like Mookie Betts, Andrew McCutchen, Aaron Judge and Matt Kemp. Jackie's impact and influence is still needed in a most desperate way. Therefore, let us not merely celebrate Jackie Robinson DAY but work together to make to a Jackie Robinson DIFFERENCE!"
The TIDES report again shows my concern with the MLB's gender hiring practices at the MLB Central Office and at the team level. The good news is that in 2018, MLB had 32 women holding on-field operations roles, an 88 percent increase from 2017. MLB also had seven women with on-field coaching roles. Twenty-nine of the 30 teams had at least one woman serving in a senior vice president or vice president role. I tip my hat again to the Boston Red Sox for leading the way with 10 women in senior vice president or vice president roles. We also took notice of the New York Mets hiring Jessica Mendoza, a gold medalist in softball at the 2004 Olympics and ESPN baseball analyst, as their Baseball Operations Advisor.
MLB is in a great position to promote gender equality and inclusion within sport. Outside of the professional ranks of baseball, very few people might be aware of our United States women's national baseball team, which is ranked fourth in the world after playing for the bronze medal in the Women's Baseball World Cup in 2018. The United States women's national softball team is ranked No. 1 in the world after winning the Women's Softball World Championship in 2018. In 2019, we started to see many reports that show NCAA women's softball has become a revenue-generating sport for many athletic departments, just behind football and men's basketball, and baseball. MLB needs to improve its gender grade to above a C, where it has been stuck since the 2012 MLB Racial and Gender Report Card.
Delise S. O'Meally, the Executive Director of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, shared with me, "Since the adoption of Title IX, we have seen a direct correlation between opportunity and participation. We also know that visibility increases interest; we all watched young Mo'ne Davis pitch lights out in little league competition a few years ago, and have seen the positive impact for girls in baseball and softball. Major League Baseball, while making strides in so many areas, must increase opportunities for women in its leadership structure, team offices, and on the diamond. A study conducted by the league almost a decade ago showed that 45 percent of their fan base was female. Clearly, women enjoy this well-favored pastime as much as men, and deserve a piece of this American pie."
MLB's commitment to diversity and inclusion shines brightly in its extensive initiatives and partnerships. The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program and PLAY BALL are grassroots initiatives to help improve opportunities for urban youth. The Diversity Pipeline Program, Fellowship Program and the UNFILTERED series are fostering diversity and inclusion in the workplace. I also took notice of MiLB's Copa de la Diversión program targeting underrepresented fans.
Most important, from my perspective, is the support for Jackie Robinson Day and the impact it has on the world. On the 72nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier, each player will again wear No. 42 to celebrate the values and commitment toward building a diverse and inclusive country where we are privileged to live.
And for the record, Jackie Robinson and I shared the same favorite dessert: a nice bowl of ice cream. It goes very well with apple pie.
David Zimmerman contributed to this column.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 17 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice. He has been a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sport. Follow him on Twitter @richardlapchick and on Facebook.