Time.com: Are Baseball Umpires Racist?

In its August 13 article, Time.com asks the question: "Are Baseball Umpires Racist?" As you can imagine, the title itself suggests the answer.

The article begins with this ominous opening:

Bad calls by the ump are as much a part of baseball as home run records, rabid fans and watery beer, but a new study shows that an umpire's decision may have a disturbing ulterior motive: racism.

The ammunition for this surprising claim is a recently-released study by Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin. Hamermesh, with the support of several economics professors, studied over two million pitches throw in Major League Baseball games from 2004 to 2006.

From the study, Hamermesh concluded that:

Major League Baseball umpires tend to call more strikes when the pitcher is of their same race; when they're not, umps call more balls. It doesn't happen all the time — in about 1% of pitches thrown — but that's still one pitch per game, and it could be the one that makes the difference. "One pitch called the other way affects things a lot," says Hamermesh. "Baseball is a very closely played game." What's more, says Hamermesh, a slight umpire bias affects more than just the score; it also has an indirect effect on a team's psyche. Baseball is a game of strategy. If a pitcher knows he's more likely to get questionable pitches called as strikes, he'll start picking off at the corners. But if he knows he's at a disadvantage, he might feel forced to throw more directly over the plate, possibly giving up hits.

Oh - but this just scratches the surface of the racism in Major League Baseball. As it turns out, the racism just happens to favor the white ballplayers.

Controlling for all other outside factors, such as the pitcher's tendency to throw strikes, the umpires' tendency to call strikes and the batter's ability to attract balls, researchers found evidence of same-race bias — and the data revealed that the bias benefits mostly white pitchers. Not surprising, since 71% of MLB pitchers and 87% of umpires are white.

The highest percentage of strikes were called when both the home-plate umpire and pitcher were white, and the lowest percentage were called between a white ump and a black pitcher.

And it also turns out that the umpires aren't merely racists, but they are cowardly racists who are less likely to exhibit their bias when lots of people are watching.

Though his research confirms that bias exists, Hamermesh says it can be easily reduced or eliminated. When a game's attendance is particularly high, when the call is made on a full count or when ballparks use QuesTec, an electronic system that evaluates the accuracy of umpires' calls after the game, the biased behavior disappeared, according to the study. "The umpires hate those [QuesTec] systems," Hamermesh says. "When you're going to be watched and have to pay more attention, you don't subconsciously favor people like yourself. When discrimination has a price, you don't observe it as much." Right now, the QuesTec system is used in 11 of MLB's 30 ballparks, mostly in the American League.

As might be expected, the Time.com article cites few of the statistical findings from the study (which can be found on Hamermesh's University of Texas faculty page). The study itself shows that when the pitcher and umpire are of the same race - strikes are called 32.1% of the time. But when the pitcher and the umpire are of different races - strikes are called 31.5% of the time. Hmmm - hardly compelling. The study also finds that the race of the batter has no impact on the calling of balls and strikes, which would seem to undercut the rest of the conclusions.

You have to wonder if the analysis of the numbers compelled the conclusion - or whether the conclusion compelled the analysis of the numbers.

Sports Race Issues Culture/Society Time Katie Rooney