The Oakland A's have always been a little ahead of the curve. Their players, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, mainlined steroids into the culture of baseball. Later, general manager Billy Beane mainstreamed advanced statistical analysis into professional front offices. But the team's next proposed move — out of Oakland and into Silicon Valley — is emblematic of a depressing trend that is reversing one of baseball's finest accomplishments, and the latest example of how modern capitalism is re-segregating the game.
Everyone seems to hate Oakland as a baseball city. Writers joke that the city's stadium, the Coliseum, is more like a mausoleum. It regularly ranks last or next-to-last in rankings of ballparks. Over the weekend, the field at the Coliseum became unplayable, leading to a postponed game even though it was not raining and there was no rain expected. Twice in the past year, sections of the Coliseum have reeked of sewage.
Owner Lew Wolff bought the team in 2005 with the hope of moving the A's out of the city-managed Coliseum and into a swankier venue in San Jose. Writing last year, Dave Schoenfield summed up the reasons why the A's should go ahead with the move.
Why do the A's want to move? Santa Clara County has a population of more than 1.7 million and is one of the most affluent counties in the nation. Alameda County has a population of 1.5 million and a median household income $20,000 less than Santa Clara County according to the 2000 census. [ESPN]
What Shoenfield neglected to mention is the issue of race. Even though Oakland's black population has been steeply declining, over 28 percent of Oakland residents identify as black or African American, according to the 2010 Census. Meanwhile, just 3.2 percent of San Jose residents say the same.
Moving the A's to San Jose would symbolize the way baseball is moving away from black Americans as a whole. Every year, baseball makes a fuss over "the percentage," that is, the percentage of African Americans who are playing the game, which has been in decline for two decades, even as the game gets more racially diverse by pulling in more players from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Rim. MLB has made efforts to reverse the decline — like the Breakthrough Series to showcase young African American talent to scouts — with some success. But baseball's problem may be larger than any one program.
One of the stories baseball loves to tell about itself is how monetary interest drove the sport to integrate ahead of the U.S. armed forces (and well ahead of the American South). In seeking to obtain Jackie Robinson's services, the Dodgers' Branch Rickey believed that blacks moving into northern cities were an untapped market for Major League Baseball. Baseball was always an urban game in America, with a rural imagination.
But at the beginning of the 21st century, that is no longer true. Baseball is becoming an exurban game: out of Oakland and into the spawning Silicon Valley. And the A's are hardly alone. The Atlanta Braves aren't planning on changing cities exactly, but they do want to move from Atlanta (54 percent African American) to Cobb County (26.2 percent African American). At various times, team owners in Chicago have thought about moving — or outright threatened to move — the Cubs and White Sox out of their respective fields to the suburbs. So, too, have the owners of the Red Sox.
The migration from diverse cities to the wealthier and whiter suburbs is very much apparent at the youth level, which is dominated by families with means who have moved out of the city. They have made the cost of joining youth "travel teams" so exorbitant — in terms of both money and time — that they have started to exclude all but the highest income brackets of families. In this world, moms who have day jobs can't help their 10-year-olds compete at a level that is elite in more ways than one.
Perhaps the truth is that the changes in baseball, a high-dollar entertainment business, merely reflect the character of capitalism, for good and for ill. In the 1940s, that meant greater urbanization, which in turn meant greater diversity in baseball.
But capitalism has changed, which is resulting in a de facto re-segregation. An age of specialization and high-investment parenting means domestic baseball is being secluded in a gated community at the youth level. An age of globalization introduces baseball's own version of "highly skilled workers" who are plucked from the international market. And as sports leagues look to get more money from core fans rather than expanding their markets at the margins, more black families are priced out of the game and its culture. Just a casual look at the bleachers in Oakland shows that even if the city is 28 percent black, that is not at all reflected in the crowd wearing green and yellow.
MLB should be commended for its awareness of the problem, and for the programs it has introduced. But in the world of sports and entertainment, the move from Atlanta to the 'burbs, from Oakland to Silicon Valley, shows that teams are more than willing to chase dollars at the expense of diversity.