Not a Level Playing Field

Social Sciences4 MIN READ

Colby economists show bias influenced baseball’s highest honor

By Gerry Boyle ’78
September 29, 2020

Professor of Economics David Findlay was reading the latest issue of Sports Illustrated over lunch when a baseball factoid caught his eye: some baseball writers did not vote for baseball legend Hank Aaron’s induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame. “How on earth could someone not vote for Hank Aaron, the home run king and the career home run leader in baseball?” Findlay recalled sputtering at the time.

Moving from indignant sports fan to clear-eyed economist, the next day he approached his colleague Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics Cliff Reid, who had previously studied the effect of discrimination on wages and salaries in other industries. Reid was in, and the resulting groundbreaking econometric analysis that would reveal racial and ethnic discrimination in Hall of Fame voting was underway.

Black and Hispanic players were nominated at a higher rate than white players, the economists showed, but the rate would have been significantly higher still if the same standards had been applied across the board. It was a conclusion that had ramifications for the players, but Findlay says there is a bigger issue to consider—the influence of biased public figures on Hall of Fame nominations and their readers.

The Colby economists began their investigation after that fateful lunch in 1992, and pursued it for several years, gathering raw data by hand in the pre-Internet age. The first paper was published in 1997, and with then-colleague John Santos on the team, the research showed that from the period 1981 to 1997, Black and Hispanic players had to have higher numbers than white players to be nominated to be on the ballot for baseball’s most prestigious honor.

And it is the irrefutable numbers that make professional sports fertile ground for this sort of study, Findlay said. “There is a reason why sports is a wonderful industry to explore on issues of discrimination. There is a tremendous amount of information about player productivity and performance.”

Unlike productivity barometers in some other jobs, baseball is cut and dry. Players either get a hit or they don’t. Pitchers give up runs or they don’t. Performance is continuously calibrated to three decimal points, and those numbers allow for direct and objective comparison.

The Colby economists looked at the same criteria that the baseball writers on the Hall of Fame committees considered: offensive average, at bats, hits, home runs, appearances in a World Series game, Gold Glove awards. They then added variables for race and ethnicity.

Several cases, they reported, jumped out of the data set. Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Willie Davis, who is Black, had more career hits than some who were inducted into the Hall of Fame, and he won three Gold Glove awards for his defensive play. Yet Davis was never even nominated to be on the Hall of Fame ballot. Neither was Tony Armas, a Latino who led the American League in home runs twice, or Cuban Zoilo Versalles, who was MVP in 1965 and won two Gold Glove awards. Only eight players had 2,000 or more hits and were not included on a Hall of Fame ballot or never received a vote from the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. All eight players of those were Black or Hispanic.

The numbers told more of the story. Black players, the studies showed, had a predicted nomination rate 12.1 percent higher than white players. But if the same standards applied to white players were applied to Black players, they would have had a nomination rate 21.7 percent higher. “So while Blacks are more likely than whites to be nominated to a Hall [of Fame] ballot, they are less likely all else equal.” For Hispanic players, the rate would have jumped from 8.7 to 19.6 percent if they had been treated like whites, the economists concluded.

And the discrimination increased as offensive productivity grew. In other words, the most deserving Black and Hispanic players faced the most impact.

The Colby economists’ studies, published from 1997 to 2012, sparked more studies, some using different methodology. Some confirmed the Findlay and Reid results. One showed that there was even more discrimination.

Findlay sees the baseball writers whose bias was exposed by the econometrics as influencers with large followings and the ability to skew the perceptions of thousands of readers. If they hold racial and ethnic bias, how is that conveyed in their work? “There can be ripple effects of this,” Findlay said.

Ultimately, he said, the problem has implications beyond baseball.

“I think the bigger issue is that you’ve got to think deeply about the ways in which racial and ethnic preferences and others might manifest themselves,” Findlay said, “and then explore them and find out exactly what they are. And force society to take a hard look at itself. And of course that’s what’s happening all around us right now.

“And then the question is why. Why does it exist? How can we eliminate it?”