If you know anything about the legacy of baseball then you know how important Black American players have been to the sport.
Growing up in the ’80s, baseball was truly America’s national pastime. The game was the true embodiment of the country and the Black players were like superheroes. I remember growing up watching Bo Jackson scale the outfield wall like gravity didn’t apply to him. I remember cheering as Rickey Henderson, the fastest baseball player I’ve ever seen, stole home base in a blur, diving over the catcher like he wasn’t even there. And then there was Ken Griffey Jr., arguably the most popular baseball player to ever walk the earth. When Ken Griffey Jr. stepped into the batter’s box, it was like watching Michael Jordan take a last-second shot. (Not to mention we actually watch Michael Jordan try to hit a baseball for a season, wild times.)
Growing up Black in America used to mean some of your favorite athletes played in the MLB. Even some of our favorite football players played baseball, including Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson. But when you turn the game on now, Black American players are nowhere to be found. How is this even possible? Did Jackie Robinson’s legacy mean nothing? Did Hank Aaron’s home runs not inspire enough generations? Even when we were not wanted in the sport, we made a way.
Life wasn’t easy for Jackson Robinson when he first entered Major League Baseball. Robinson received death threats regularly, some letters even threatened violence against Robinson’s wife and son; but Robinson preserved. His legacy opened the door for new generations of Black baseball players who saw themselves in him. But that legacy doesn’t seem to resonate anymore.
According to a report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), American Black players made up 18% of all MLB rosters in 1991. On opening day in 2022, American Black players only made up 7.2% of all MLB rosters, the lowest percentage since TIDES began assessing the demographics. In 2022, for the first time since 1950, there was not a single American-born Black player on either team in the World Series. It’s also not just the players. The MLB only has two Black managers, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and the Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker. Despite baseball’s rich history in Black American culture, why are Black athletes looking to other sports for careers?
Since I can remember (which is somewhere in the late 1980s) baseball has pretty much been the same. The game hasn’t evolved much since its inception in the late 1800s. Both the NFL and the NBA have constantly and consistently adjusted their rules with the tides of time. Generations are different and many times our most beloved sports require changes to improve. Baseball’s stiff and rigid traditions sometimes make the game boring. But MLB is trying to improve in those regards. New rules implemented this year like a pitcher’s clock and larger base pads will try to speed up the game. Players are also now allowed to celebrate a home run with a bat flip, which used to be looked down upon. Little tweaks like this will surely make the game more exciting and could help bring more Black American talent to the game, but certainly not enough.
If Major League Baseball really wants more U.S.–born Blacks to play baseball again, then it will need to make a concerted effort to bring baseball back to the hood. In other words, the MLB needs to invest dollars into inner-city baseball programs. I remember my father telling me stories about growing up in baseball leagues in Philadelphia playing with other kids from around the neighborhood. Neighborhood baseball fields were kept and maintained, leagues were important to the growth of the children and MLB was heavily involved. Now, it seems the MLB would rather invest their money in farm systems in Spanish-speaking countries instead of putting the resources in the Black communities right here in the states. It’s not that young Black players aren’t good at the sport, they’re just not playing baseball because many of them don’t have anywhere to play.
This year, the MLB seems like it’s trying to address some of its diversity problems. In 2017 they launched the DREAM Series, which is a showcase event focused on the dynamics of pitching and catching for a diverse group of predominantly Black high school athletes. The event is operated by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball. It focuses on developing the player on and off the field through seminars, mentorship, scout evaluations and much more. There’s no telling if this will actually bring Black players back to baseball, but it’s a start.
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