Are Baseball Umpires Racist?

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Russ Schleipman / Corbis

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.

According to the new study led by Daniel Hamermesh, a professor of economics at the University of Texas at Austin, 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.

In the new study, Hamermesh's team analyzed the calls on 2.1 million pitches thrown in the Major League between the 2004 and 2006 seasons. 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. The study also found that minority umpires judged Asian pitchers more unfairly than they did white pitchers. It's a significant disadvantage for Asian pitchers because the MLB doesn't have any Asian umpires. Interestingly enough, Hamermesh's research found that the race of the batter didn't seem to matter — the correlation was only between the pitcher and the home-plate ump. Rich Levin, an MLB spokesman, refused to comment on the research findings.

Bias in officiating is nothing new in the world of sports. A study released last May showed that referees in the National Basketball Association make racially biased calls too, calling more fouls against players of the opposite race. That was the study that spurred Hamermesh to look at the issue in baseball, and he thinks his findings are even more revealing — in basketball, fouls are called by an entire officiating crew, but in baseball most calls are made exclusively by the home-plate umpire. "In the NBA you don't always know who is making the calls, whereas in baseball it's the home-plate umpire," Hamermesh says.

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.

Hamermesh, who has studied discrimination at all levels, says that bias is instilled in infancy — much like enduring personality traits such as shyness or high self-esteem — as an essential part of human behavior. "We all have these subconscious preferences for our own group," he says. Ever the economist, Hamermesh adds, "It's important to look at it in baseball because of the amount of money that's being made — the salary of the umpires, baseball players and the amount of revenue that's being made by the industry. All these things make this important."

But the takeaway message of his study is a hopeful one, says Hamermesh: discrimination can be corrected. "I expect that [MLB] will not be very happy about this, but the fact that with a little bit of effort this kind of behavior can be altered, that's very gratifying. I wish with society as a whole we could reduce the impact of discrimination as easily as it could be done in baseball."

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