Sociology At A Baseball Game Part 1: Race Matters

What’s sociological about baseball? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how racial stratification and segregation can be observed in the stands at a baseball game.

At the end of June, I attended a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. Sadly, the Cardinals lost the game, but that is not going to stop me from sharing with you some my sociological observations at the ballpark. This is part one of a three part series. In this first installment, I am going to talk to you about racial stratification and segregation at the ballpark. Keep in mind, that this discussion is focused only on the fans in the stands and not about who is on the field.

The racial stratification and segregation at baseball games held in St. Louis is striking. (I’m not saying that St. Louis is unique, it is just the case I am most familiar with and am using.) By stratification, sociologists mean inequality. Be segregation, sociologists mean that different social groups (in this case, racial, but could be talking about gender, age, and so on) are separated in daily life (e.g., housing, school, or work).

To understand why race appears as it does at Busch Stadium, I visited the U.S. Census to learn the racial demographics of the city of St. Louis.  43.9% of St. Louis is White and 49.2% of St. Louis is Black. A person would never know this by spending time inside the stadium.

A baseball game is somewhat imperfect to learn about race in a given city because of where the fans come from. We drove 135 miles each way to attend the game and we make it a point to go to baseball games when we travel. This means that a team’s fan-base draws from a larger geographical area than just the city. In the case of St. Louis, if we broaden the Census search to St. Louis County, we find that 71.0% of St. Louis County is White and 23.4% of the county is Black. In other words, if we expand the search from the city level to the county, one quickly finds that Blacks are very much a numerical minority. But wait, let’s check one more thing…let’s cross the Mississippi River and go back into Illinois to East St. Louis. Blacks account for 98% of the population of East St. Louis and Whites account for 0.9% of the population. At the local level, there is a large Black population to draw upon for fans. So where are the Black fans in the stands?

Looking around the stadium, I could only count a handful of Black people who were there to watch the baseball game. As a sociologist, this leads me to ask, what is going on here? There are Black people who live close enough to get to the baseball game. So the next statistics I looked for from the U.S. Census had to do with social class: median household income and percent below poverty.

Location St. Louis (city) St. Louis County East St. Louis
Percent Black 49.2% 23.4% 98%
Median Household Income $33,652 $57,561 $20,356
Percent Below Poverty 26.0% 9.6% 41.0%

Aha! The lack of diversity among the fans in the stands, could be attributed to social class. Though it is possible to get tickets for as low as $15 right now and you can bring in your own non-alcoholic beverages to save some money, $15 is still pretty high for someone living below the poverty line, especially if you want bring your family and not just yourself. It is important to keep in mind that though, there is a relationship between race and class, this also means there are still a number of Blacks who do have the financial means to attend a baseball game in St. Louis. Racial and class stratification, then, are related. (I’ll talk more about class in part 2 of this series.)

So what about racial segregation at the baseball game?

The workers were a bit more racially diverse than the fans, but there was clear racial segregation based on job type. Ushers, bartenders, fan photographers, and gate entrance workers were White. The workers going up and down the aisles selling popcorn, cotton candy, and beer were all Black. This work is probably the hardest work in the entire stadium. If a martian landed in Busch Stadium, they would characterize the U.S. as a place where Blacks serve Whites. Forget martians, I imagine my preschooler learned this much from our attendance at the game. Fans have fairly brief encounters with ushers, bartenders, fan photographers, and gate entrance workers. Fans spend the bulk of their time observing the roaming food vendors, while watching the game.

Baseball may be just a game, but observing the racial dynamics of what takes place off the field can give us a glimpse or racial dynamics of the larger community.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How are race and class related to one another?
  2. How do jobs become racially segregated? Why does racial segregation in jobs matter?
  3. Have you ever attended a professional baseball game? If you have, was your experience similar to the author’s? If you have not, why not?
  4. Can the racial stratification and segregation be observed at other professional sporting events? How?