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Race Ball: Our National Pastime?

• March 16, 2009 • 6:10 PM

We look at studies analyzing Major League Baseball’s race relations, economics and pop-ups.

Although half a century has passed since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, a suspicion has persisted that white fans are less than enthusiastic about rooting for black players. Among scholars, this belief can be traced to a pair of studies — one from the early 1970s, another from the early 1980s — that found an average attendance drop of 5 to 10 percent for games with an African-American starting pitcher.

In a paper published in December, economist Philip Hersch of Wichita State University revisited the same question using a much larger data set, examining statistics of the 15 seasons from 1954 to 1968. He controlled for a number of variables, including the pitchers’ records, the team’s place in the standings, the popularity of the visiting team and whether the game was played in the evening or on a holiday.

Hersch concluded his predecessors had made a bad call. He could find no evidence that black starting pitchers reduced attendance, even in the pre-civil rights movement era. “This finding does not preclude [the possibility] that customer discrimination existed,” he added. “For example, a team having black pitchers (and other players) on its roster may have suppressed attendance at all games, rather than just the games started by blacks. We simply find no evidence of discrimination on a game-by-game basis.”

Craig Depken of the University of Texas at Arlington and Jon Ford of Pepperdine University used a different approach to measure racial bias. The starting lineup of the All-Star team is determined by fan balloting. Were baseball buffs reluctant to cast their votes for black players? When the scholars looked at the years 1990 through 2000, the data threw them a curve.

“The evidence suggests that after controlling for player and team characteristics, blacks and Latinos were actually preferred by MLB All-Star voters during the 1990s,” they wrote. The two men found some regional differences: “Initial evidence suggests that the bias for blacks came from voters in the South and Midwest, the bias for Latinos from voters in the Midwest and West.” They also found “some residual bias for white players in the South.”

A Towering, Sky-high Metaphor That Happens Every Spring
Some of baseball’s best hold-your-breath moments occur when a batter hits a towering pop-up. Typically, one of the infielders will call off his teammates, confidently asserting he has the situation under control. But often he’ll zig and zag, stepping forward and back before catching the ball — or watching helplessly as it falls in front of his feet. Clete Boyer, one of the best defensive infielders of all time, noted that these plays “can really make you look like an idiot.”

Why are high pop-ups so difficult to track? A group of scholars including a psychologist, a physicist and a University of Arizona systems engineering professor addressed that question in a paper published last year in the American Journal of Physics. They noted that pop-ups are routine, with an average of nearly five per game. Yet familiarity with the phenomenon has not improved fielders’ competency. While such factors as bright sunlight and wind currents sometimes play a role, catching pop-ups remains tricky even on a calm night.

The problem is something called the Magnus force — first mentioned in the scientific literature by a young Isaac Newton (fan affiliation unknown) — which makes a spinning baseball curve and is particularly strong when a ball is popped up.

“For a typical fly ball to the outfield, the drag force causes the trajectory to be somewhat asymmetric, with the falling angle steeper than the rising angle,” notes lead author Michael McBeath. Players can easily adjust to this predictable sequence. But a pop-up “will have considerable backspin, resulting in a significantly larger Magnus force than for a fly ball.” Moreover, this force acts in opposite ways when the ball is going up and coming down. The result is “unusual trajectories, sometimes with cusps and loops.”

The authors came up with a strategy for frustrated fielders but concluded it “does not always lead to a smooth running path to intercept the ball.” In other words, there is no good answer to the pop-up problem, proving once again that baseball truly is a metaphor for life.

Socialists Never Could Hit the Curve Ball
In 1997, Major League Baseball instituted a revenue-sharing plan that allocates money to small-market teams in proportion to the amount their revenue falls below the league average. In 2003, the plan was amended to include a salary cap of a sort, in which big-market teams must pay a “luxury tax” if and when their payrolls rise above a certain level. The idea is to give more teams a fighting chance of making the playoffs and give more fans a reason to follow the hometown heroes.

Is it working? Commissioner Bud Selig says yes; he points to last season’s success of the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that improbably made it into the World Series, as evidence that “the sport has more competitive balance today than there has ever been.” There is evidence to back him up: Baseball Prospectus reported in 2006 that the correlation between a team’s market size and its playoff appearances is “extremely weak.”

But there does seem to be a flaw in the system. It was summarized nicely by a fan commenting on the Boston Red Sox Web site late last year: “Since there are no rules that (revenue-sharing funds) must be spent on payroll, the vast majority of it gets pocketed by the small-market owners. Shouldn’t they be forced to spend it on the field?”

Michael Lewis (no relation to the Moneyball author of the same name) has come up with a plan to make that more likely. An assistant professor of marketing at Washington University, he recently published an empirical analysis of MLB competitive balance and concluded the current system is somewhat counterproductive. While noting that smaller-market teams get less of an economic payoff from investing in quality players, he believes “the current system has exacerbated matters” because it “lessens the incentives for producing local revenues through winning.” In other words, why pay more for good players when, win or lose, you’re getting a steady revenue stream from the league?

Lewis proposes an alternative approach in which revenue sharing would still be based on market size, but it would also include “some factor that encourages investment in payroll.” One possibility: Reward teams that attain higher attendance rates — a reasonable gauge of their quality, since winning tends to bring out bigger crowds. Such a system, he argues, “better aligns the incentives of the teams with the goals of the overall league.”

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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