This week marks the opening of US Major League Baseball’s playoffs, good timing for a second article comparing aspects of cricket and baseball.
The first article compared how the respective games are played on the field. This one looks at the global spread and influences of the two sports and the countries that play them.
Global playing numbers and spread
Getting robust statistics on the popularity of different sports is hard. Websites with figures for participation are mostly clickbait, with unsourced and wildly differing numbers.
Most sites list cricket in the top ten sports by number of participants, usually between third and eighth – either just ahead or well ahead of baseball. Estimates of park or street players are rubbery while peak associations have an interest in brandishing high numbers of registered players when pitching for funding or sponsorship.
Australia is an example. Cricket Australia’s National Cricket Census in 2019 showed 684,000 registered club cricketers. However, a Sun-Herald investigation found that a lot of the names in the Cricket Australia database had multiple entries. It put the real number of registered players at nearly 250,000.
An Indian government survey in 2015 reportedly estimated that 55 million or nearly five per cent of their people played some form of cricket. If this is accurate, adding other countries together suggests a total in the range of 60-80 million players worldwide.
The ICC has 12 full members and 94 associate members, to which we should add 14 West Indian countries and territories, which are represented in the ICC as a single association. So 120 territories in all.
The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) claims to have 141 members, and that about 65 million people worldwide play baseball or softball. On the other hand, ten years ago the International Baseball Federation (now part of the WSBC) had 124 members and claimed 33 million baseball players worldwide.
Nearly 16 million reportedly people play baseball in the US, nearly half the world total, and about ten million play softball. So 65 million globally might be on the high side.
The WBSC has been quoting the same figure of 65 million since 2013, when it launched a (successful) bid to get baseball and softball reinstated in the Olympics. Some of its member federations are in ICC non-member countries that probably have fewer baseballers than cricketers, and many countries in both organisations have only a handful of players.
It might depend on whether you consider baseball and softball two versions of the same sport, as the Olympics do. But overall the cricket and baseball sports each have an organised presence in a similar number of countries, with cricket possibly having more players.
Cricket is more global insofar as its top competitions are international contests – Tests, ODIs and T20Is – although the IPL commands a big place given the size of its paychecks and audiences.
In baseball, US MLB dominates attention much more than international competitions like the World Baseball Classic (WBC), held every four years, or the Olympics. The US gets very few of its very best players to go to the WBC, but still won it in 2017.
Literally no one from the 30 MLB clubs’ senior rosters of 26 players played on the US silver-medal winning team at the Tokyo Olympics. In other words, the top 500 players or more were unavailable because it clashed with the MLB season.
Cricket’s playing strength is less dominated by one country, with four or five countries able to challenge for the top spot – although a team of the top Dominican players could run the best US selection close (see below). Cricket’s strong nations also have a broader global span, over six continents, while baseball’s centre on the Americas and East Asia.
Japan and South Korea are the only countries outside the US with strong professional leagues. The top Japanese salaries are in the same ballpark as the Indian Premier League’s (four million-plus USD).
Baseball has a strong Hispanic and Caribbean flavour
While nearly all MLB players were American prior to World War Two, the share of foreign players has grown steadily since the 1940s. Of 906 players in the 30 MLB clubs’ top squads at the start of the 2021 season, 256 (28 per cent) were from outside the US, sourced from 20 countries.
The biggest contingents were from Hispanic nations in and around the Caribbean: the Dominican Republic (98, or 11 per cent), Venezuela (54), Cuba (19), Puerto Rico (18), Mexico (10), Colombia (6), plus Dutch territory Curacao (5) and Panama (2). Canada had ten, Japan seven and Korea four, although many of the top Japanese players stay at home thanks to the good salaries there.
Other Latin American countries with one player include Nicaragua, Honduras, Aruba, the Bahamas and Brazil. The remainder with one player each are Taiwan, Germany and Australia.
Identifying the top 900 professional cricketers for comparison isn’t straightforward. But across Test cricket, ODIs, English county cricket and the top T20 competitions I found players from 24 countries: 11 Test nations and ten West Indian states – Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, Guyana, Antigua, St Kitts, St Lucia, St Vincent, Dominica and Grenada – plus the Netherlands, Nepal and the USA.
The Dominican Republic, with 11 million people (three per cent of the US), punches well above its weight in supplying great ballplayers, echoing how Barbados (300,000) nurtured great cricketers historically (Garfield Sobers, the three Ws, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner). In 2021 Dominicans ranked in three of the top five places among batters in MLB.
The number of foreign players per team in MLB is not limited, unlike in the IPL or BBL. In Friday’s first playoff game between the Houston Astros and the Chicago White Sox, 13 of the 26 who took the field were Latin American – six Cubans, three Dominicans, two Puerto Ricans and two Venezuelans. The other 13 were US-born and raised.
The presence of Americans of Hispanic heritage in MLB has also grown. Five of the seven most common surnames among MLB players (including from overseas) are Rodriguez, Gonzalez, Ramirez, Martinez and Sanchez. It is perhaps reminiscent of how every Test cricket nation has had representatives with roots in India or Pakistan.
It is surely no coincidence that the strongest baseballing nations per capita are, as in cricket, Caribbean countries or territories with a lot of descendants of African slaves – Dominican Republican, Cuba, Curacao, Aruba and Puerto Rico.
The role of African-Americans in baseball has also been a big sub-plot in the sport’s history. MLB was racially segregated until 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American hired by a major league club. Subsequently, black players took an outsized role in baseball as in other US sports, producing some of the biggest stars, such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Junior.
However, African-American representation on MLB rosters peaked in 1986 at 19 percent and had dropped to below eight per cent in 2021. Reasons include the higher cost of baseball at school (paying for extra coaching or playing in the winter), fewer college scholarships than in gridiron or basketball and the popularity of basketball in African-American communities.
This sounds similar to issues in English cricket, where the number of black professional cricketers – most of Caribbean descent – has fallen by 75 per cent since the 1990s, according to Sky Sports UK. The disappearance of cricket from English state schools is one factor.
Echoes of empire?
Cricket is played almost exclusively by former British colonies and others, like Afghanistan, who had the honour of being invaded by the British Empire.
Many baseballing territories likewise feature on the list of places that the US has variously invaded, occupied, colonised, intervened or supported coups in or liberated.
They include Canada (1812), Mexico (1835, 1846, 1859, 1891, 1914, 1916 ), Korea (1871, 1945, 1950), Hawaii (1893-), American Samoa (1898-), Puerto Rico (1898-), Cuba (1898, 1906, 1912, 1961), Philippines (1899-42, 1944), Panama (1903, 1941, 1989), Nicaragua (1909, 1912-33, 1981-90), Haiti (1915-1934, 1994), Dominican Republic (1916-34, 1961, 1965), Japan (1863, 1945-52), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), Chile (1973) and El Salvador (1979-92).
Aussies and Canadians
The first Australian in the US big leagues was Joe Quinn, born in Queensland and spending his childhood in Campbelltown near Sydney. Quinn played 17 seasons for various clubs from 1884 and was the only Australian-born player to reach the US majors until 1986. Liam Hendriks, a leading pitcher with the Chicago White Sox, is the only Australian currently with a regular MLB gig.
Canada has lots of links with US baseball, with various cities hosting teams in lower-tier US leagues. Since 1969 it has been home to either one or two MLB franchises – currently just one, the Toronto Blue Jays.
While a sprinkling of Canadian players have distinguished themselves in MLB, they haven’t been a force in the same way that Dominicans, Venezuelans or Cubans have. I guess the shorter summers are to blame? Cricket is played in Canada, but as in the US it remains a minor sport dominated by ex-pats and recent immigrants.
Viewers and audiences
Attention from viewers and spectators is another measure of global interest in sport. Cricket can probably boast more pairs of eyes watching on TV or in person – over one billion according to some estimates versus around 500 million-plus for baseball. I will cover how the two sports match up in the money stakes in the next article. I also plan to compare traditions, controversies, statistics and umpiring.