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Baseball Racism: The Irish in 1880

Professional baseball is one of the purest meritocracies in the American job market: if someone possesses baseball talent, odds are that they will be tendered a job offer. But baseball reflects American society, and like all other sectors of American society, baseball has a history of discrimination which it still has to deal with. In previous columns for Fangraphs, I’ve discussed homophobia in the context of the anti-discrimination language in the new CBA; sexism in the context of Kim Ng’s move to the commissioner’s office, as well as the increasing presence of women in all levels of the game; and racism in the context of Milton Bradley’s retirement. I recently came across a scholarly article that used data from the 1880 census to examine anti-Irish discrimination in baseball in the late 19th century. It offers interesting parallels with the recent history we’re more familiar with. As the author, E. Woodrow “Woody” Eckard, an economics professor at the UC Denver Business School, concludes:

First, Irish players had to display superior performance to earn regular positions. Second, they generally were relegated to less important field positions. Regular Irish players were also more likely to be assigned to fill in at field positions other than their regular ones. Last, the Irish were underrepresented as managers. The evidence also suggests fan discrimination, with the presence of Irish players positively correlated with their cities’ Irish populations. These patterns, again with the exception of pitcher, mirror those observed for African Americans in the first decade or two after Jackie Robinson broke the MLB “color line” in 1947.

Eckard notes that this discrimination did not prevent Irish players from getting jobs in baseball: “Roughly one-third of players were Irish, similar to the proportion of Irish in the general populations of cities with major-league ball teams.” There was no anti-Irish color line. Rather, the discrimination against Irish players was more subtle. But that very subtlety helps to make the history of the 1880s all the more applicable to the tensions of the present day.

Indeed, as a commenter pointed out on the Milton Bradley story, the portrayal of Irish at the end of the 19th century was very similar to that of African Americans in the middle of the 20th century. As Eckard writes: “The basic elements of the stereotype were innate low intelligence, unreliability, laziness, and (for males) a penchant for drunkenness and fighting. Newspaper and magazine cartoonists of the era often portrayed the Irish with simian features.”

Eckard then develops a number of hypotheses to measure possible anti-Irish discrimination in baseball. Most of these hypotheses have been substantiated with regard to African American players in the decades following baseball’s integration in 1947.

  1. 1. Irish players might have a higher mean performance: due to discrimination, given a choice between an Irish player and a non-Irish player of comparable value, a racist owner would choose the non-Irish player, which would mean that only standout Irish players would be employed.
  2. 2. Teams with Irish players might have a higher winning percentage: a team unwilling to employ Irish players would be disadvantaging itself with regard to the talent pool compared to a team that was willing to use Irish players.
  3. 3. Irish players might have less desirable positions on the diamond, as racist teams reserved the more desirable positions for non-Irish players, who would also be paid a higher wage.
  4. 4. For similar reasons, Irish players might be forced to change positions more often so that the positional preferences of non-Irish players could be accommodated.
  5. 5. There would be fewer Irish managers in baseball, to placate racist players who wouldn’t want to play for an Irish manager.
  6. 6. Because racist fans might not want to watch Irish players, Irish players might only be employed by teams in cities with a high Irish population.

Eckard compares the triple slash lines of Irish players compared to non-Irish players, as well as the proportion of Irish players at each position and the number of Irish players on each team, and demonstrates these hypotheses to be largely correct. Irish players did have demonstrably better performance but were less prevalent at premium positions and as managers. Cities with larger Irish populations had more Irish players on their teams. Despite the fact that the number of Irish players in baseball was higher than the Irish proportion of the U.S. population, Irish-American ballplayers appear to have faced demonstrable discrimination.

(The second hypothesis, about team winning percentage, is not statistically significant at the 5% level, but is significant at the 10% level.)

Eckard determined Irish ethnicity by examining player records in ancestry.com to determine whether they or their father were born in Ireland; the author then established a probability of Irishness for all other white players by comparing the number of people with their surname to the number of people with their surname who also had a father born in Ireland. He repeated this process with players of German ancestry and English ancestry to determine whether any similar discrimination could be discerned, and found that there appeared to be a statistically significant anti-German bias in managers, but could not find support for the other discrimination hypotheses listed above.

The author is careful to note that his analysis reveals subtle results, and that discriminatory outcomes are different from overt racism:

It is not clear that contemporary baseball owners and players were even aware of the relatively subtle manifestations of discrimination revealed in the above statistical analysis. The popular modern image of the game in the late 1800s as a (European) ethnicity-blind meritocracy might require only a minor revision.

I enjoy looking at baseball history because our game has the richest history of any American professional sport. It’s frankly awesome that a tenured professor can conduct meaningful research using the OBP and slugging percentage of Hall of Famers like Ned Hanlon and King Kelly. But history can also help us better understand baseball today. (I remain fascinated by the history of performance-enhancing drugs in the 19th century.) The stereotypes that followed Irish players later dogged African Americans, as did the discriminatory practices. Moreover, those practices were not merely as simple as barring them from the profession. Much as integration did not end racism in American society, it did not prevent discrimination in baseball.

Nor, I daresay, has racism ended in society, though it is also almost certainly true that the most important color in baseball is green. In modern American usage, the word “racism” tends to apply to relations between African Americans and whites, but the history of racism is much broader. It also, perhaps just maybe, offers hope for the future. After all, the amount of anti-Irish discrimination in modern society is vanishingly low. Of course, there are a few major differences between Irish-Americans and African Americans. There are few subjects more fraught than skin tone, which seems to be one of the more universal marks of discrimination around the world. But the Irish experience demonstrates that discrimination is neither necessary nor permanent. In a hundred years, it may all simply seem like ancient history.