While Clemente had a case against certain writers for the ignorant and offensive portrait they painted of him, it’s not clear that Clemente had a case as MVP: Other than his customary fine batting average, 1960 wasn’t a banner year for the great rightfielder. As ranked by WAR, he’s not among the 10 best players in the league. One might argue he deserved better than an eighth-place showing, but the numbers don’t necessarily support that argument.[i]
But Clemente raised a much more important question: Do attitudes toward race influence MVP selections?
Granted, that’s not entirely accurate. Black players have captured a total of 12 AL MVP awards in the 68 seasons since Jackie Robinson pioneered integration efforts in 1947 (as compared with 33 MVPs awarded to black players in the National League over the same time period).[ii]
More troubling? No black player has been named the American League MVP since 1997; only two black players (Ken Griffey Jr., 1997; Mo Vaughn, 1995) have claimed the award in the last 21 years (as compared with seven black players in the NL).
Something seems amiss, no? It seems … odd that since 1947 black players have captured the MVP half the time in the NL, as compared with only 18% of the hardware in the AL.
But before we condemn the AL voters and congratulate the NL’s ...
Anyone notice that Hispanic players aren’t named MVP in the National League?
From 1947 to 2015, NL voters have given the award to an Hispanic player only six times – with three of those awards going to Albert Pujols (2005, 2008-09). Over in the America league, Hispanic players have captured 15 total awards, or 22% of the available MVP hardware.
Coincidence? Or something more sinister and sad? Are AL and NL MVP voters biased against specific racial and/or ethnic groups?
It seems like a damning indictment of voter attitudes, but the facts say otherwise. It’s inarguable that that the National League had a near-monopoly on black superstars in the 1950s and 60s (of course, this was because the NL was much more progressive when it came to employing black players). This was the heyday of Campanella and Banks, Mays and McCovey, Aaron and Gibson. The AL simply had no comparable black players. We should also grant that the MVP award, like the league championship, was being passed around the Yankees’ clubhouse during this period. With 14 pennants in 16 years, it’s to be expected that New York was going to be disproportionately represented in the AL MVP voting (and they were, taking nine awards from 1950-1962).
Most Valuable Players 1949-1969
Despite only two MVPs awarded to black players, it’s tough to find a truly terrible American League vote over the time period. Reggie Jackson was the league’s best position player 1969, but there’s nothing insidious about the Killebrew award (the ‘Killer’ paced the league in home runs, RBI, walks, and on-base percentage for the division-winning Twins); 1954 MVP runner-up Larry Doby certainly had a case – but voters loved catchers around this time, explaining Berra’s second nod as Most Valuable.[iii] Things started to even out a bit in the 70s, with five black MVPs in the National League (we count the 1979 tie vote), six in the American League:
Most Valuable Players, 1970-1979
From 1980 on, it’s not close: The National League has seen a black player claim the award 13 times, while the AL can only claim five such awards. And the optics seem to get worse when we focus on the last 19 years:
Most Valuable Players, 1997-2015
At first glance, the discrepancy seems troubling – seven to zero? But the second glance reveals why: Of the seven awards handed out to NL players, Barry Bonds owns four. Take Bonds out of the equation, and the NL count seems less impressive.
And then there are demographic factors at play. Since peaking at nearly 19% of the player population in 1981, the number of African-Americans in baseball has been in decline:
“The percentage of African-Americans held steady between 16% and 19% for a quarter-century (1972-1996) but has since plummeted by more than half. There is seemingly no end to theories as to why this happened, but most of them are speculative… The prevalent opinion seems to be that the cause of the decline in African-Americans is external to major league baseball: that African-Americans are focusing on other sports as youths, either by choice or because of fewer opportunities to play baseball.” – Mark Armour and Daniel R. Levitt, “Baseball Demographics, 1947-2012,” SABR.org.
As of Opening Day 2014, African-Americans comprised only 8.3% of the player population. At the same time, the number of Hispanic players has steadily risen from barely countable in the early 1950s to more than 27% as of 2012. Major League Baseball’s racial composition might go a long way in explaining MVP demographics. According to the respected Pew Research Center:
“In 2012, whites comprised about the same share of the population (63%) as they did in Major League Baseball, according to the most recent comparable data,” wrote Pew’s Jens Manuel Krogstad. “By contrast, Hispanics were overrepresented in baseball, comprising 26.9% of players and 17% of the U.S. population. In 2012, blacks were underrepresented in baseball, making up 7.2% of players and 13% of the nation’s population. Asians made up 1.9% of players in 2012 and 5% of the U.S. population.”[iv]
Given baseball’s player demographics from 1947-2015, it’s clear that on an institutional level, race has not played a factor in AL MVP voting: With 18% of MVP awards going to African-American players, the AL vote has essentially aligned with the historical composition of the player population; the NL vote has dramatically exceeded what one would expect given the composition of the player population – and this discrepancy can in large part be explained by the imbalance of great black players between the two leagues in the 1950s-’60s, and the preponderance of multiple winners in the NL. Joe Morgan, Barry Bonds, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, and Willie Mays have 16 awards among them; in the AL, only Frank Thomas can claim two awards. This has nothing to do with racial attitudes of MVP voters, and everything to do with player performance (or dumb voting – Griffey should count at least two or possibly three awards in his trophy case).
Since 1996, when the Latino player population first exceeded 20%, Pujols and Sammy Sosa (1998) are the only two Latino players named NL MVP; the AL counts six players over the same time period.
What gives? Latino players have, on the whole, totaled about 25% of the player population since 1996. It is reasonable to project this player segment to capture about one out of every four MVP awards. Is bias at play?
It would seem not. For the same reasons African American players dominated the National League vote for decades, Latino players have been relatively overrepresented in recent AL votes, capturing 50% of available awards since 1996: Alex Rodriguez (2003, 2005, 2007), Juan Gonzalez (1996, 1998), Miguel Cabrera (2012-13) Vladimir Guerrero (2004), Miguel Tejada (2002), and Ivan Rodriguez (1999) have 10 awards among them.[v]
While it’s true that Latino players have been underrepresented in the NL vote, it’s simply been a matter of timing. Here, again, is the MVP roll call since 2001:
Bonds was easily the most productive player in the league during his 2001-2004 run.
You can certainly make a strong case for Pujols over Howard in 2006, but Howard did hit .313/.425/.659, with a league-leading 58 HR and 149 RBI.
Jimmy Rollins wasn’t the best choice for the award in 2007; Pujols would have been a better option – as would have David Wright, Chase Utley, or Chipper Jones (with this vote going to Utley). Votto is a perfectly fine choice in 2010, even if Pujols was just as good.
The only legitimate option to Ryan Braun in 2011 is the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp, who is African American. The Cardinals’ Yadier Molina was spectacular in 2012; MVP Buster Posey was better.
Molina was again a legitimate MVP candidate in 2013, but McCutchen was the best all-around player in the league for a Pirates team that shrugged off two decades of mediocrity to claim a post-season berth.
Kershaw was clearly the league’s most valuable player in 2014; the same is true of Harper in 2015.
We can’t know what lies in the hearts and minds of individual voters, and it would be naive to think that some form of individual bias – whether it be personal animus toward a player, or attitude toward an entire race – has never influenced an MVP ballot. But as a whole, the MVP electorate has been colorblind. While voters en masse have made some terrible choices over the years, race seems to have had nothing to do with it.
[ii] Not even the MVP trophy could lessen the toll paid by Robinson. He openly contemplated retirement when learning of his award. “The sooner I can get out of baseball, the better,” he said in 1949. “The strain of the last three or four years has done something to me.”
[iii] It’s more accurate to say they loved New York catchers: Campanella and Berra captured six awards between them from 1951-1955.
[iv] In response to those sobering statistics, then-Commissioner Bud Selig convened a task force charged with stemming the continued decline in the numbers of African-American players. According to The New York Times, the task force since 2014 has focused efforts on expanding baseball’s urban leagues and academies; improving and modernizing coaching (which suggests a connection between coaching and the ability to attract young black athletes), and aggressively marketing black players. It’s a complex issue, with no easy solution. The most promising and accomplished young athletes choose football and basketball over baseball, and elite college programs gear their scholarships as such. As Tyler Kepner of The New York Times wrote, “There may be only so much baseball can do.”
[v] Gonzalez, of course, was a terrible pick both years; Tejada’s award was questionable; Ivan Rodriguez was a borderline pick, while Guerrero was … defensible.