During the days leading up to and immediately following Major League Baseball’s Jackie Robinson Day celebration, much speculation centered on why, 57 years after the great Brooklyn Dodgers player broke the so-called color line, blacks number fewer in baseball. In 1981, African-Americans represented 19 percent of all roster players. Today, only 8.7 percent are black.
The primary reason cited for the steep decline in African-American players is that most black kids would rather play basketball. But few analysts are willing to state the obvious: foreign-born players, mostly from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, have replaced black players. The evolution from black to Caribbean players isn’t as casual as owners would have fans believe, that it’s an extension of improved global scouting or a greater skill level among players from warm-weather climates who play baseball year around.
Instead, black players, and to a lesser degree white players, have been systematically displaced because of the little-known P-1 visa. Here’s how it works.
In 2006, Congress passed the COMPETE Act which lifted the cap on the P visa for professional baseball players. George W. Bush, then-president, had owned the Texas Rangers. Before the COMPETE Act, most players came to the U.S. on H-2B visas for seasonal employees that are capped at about 66,000 annually. Players also had to vie with other seasonal employees like agricultural workers or summer resort staff for the hard-to-get visas.
After the COMPETE Act became law, MLB owners could sign an unlimited number of foreign-born players with every confidence that they could bring them to the U.S. at any time. That overseas players could be signed for much less money than American prospects was even more appealing to owners.
According to a Mother Jones article by investigative reporter Ian Jones, the average signing bonus for a Caribbean player is half or less the sum offered to an American player. To an impoverished Caribbean player, even small money, plus the lure of legal entry to the U.S., is impossible to turn down.
The P-1 visa is a bonanza for owners. Their minor league franchises are stocked nearly 50 percent by foreign-born players.
In short, black and white Americans are victims of the cheap labor lobby. When a visa cap is lifted on any worker category, as it was with the P-1, the effect is to devastate Americans in that employment field.
Because foreign-born players who reach the major leagues are talented, owners have been able to get away with their unforgivable abandonment of blacks. Not that this bothers the owners in any way. According to Forbes, baseball revenue was $8 billion last year and is poised to go way, way higher once new broadcast contracts kick in during the next few years.