In a time of racial unrest following the death of George Floyd, MLB should be forced to reckon with its steep decline in African-American players.
Every April 15, Major League Baseball touts the legacy of Jackie Robinson and the game’s role in changing the face of sports in America. Yet as fewer and fewer African-American players take part in the sport, MLB has seemingly lost its focus on issues of race and those affecting society at large. A legacy celebrated loudly each year feels quieter and quieter in action around the rest of the calendar.
Baseball was the last major sports league in America to react to the death of George Floyd. It was only on Wednesday, nine days after Floyd’s death and massive protests engulfed most American cities, that the league office finally released a statement calling out racism.
“To be clear, our game has zero tolerance for racism and racial injustice. The reality that the Black community lives in fear or anxiety over racial discrimination, prejudice or violence is unacceptable,” the statement reads. “Addressing this issue requires action both within our sport and society. MLB is committed to engaging our communities to invoke change.”
It was a clear statement against the problems facing American society, albeit a much-delayed one. It’s nothing new for the sport. Back in 2016, when Colin Kaepernick first raised the issue of police violence by taking a knee during the national anthem, few baseball players took part. Adam Jones, then with the Baltimore Orioles, perfectly understood why.
“We already have two strikes against us already, so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game,” he said at the time. “In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us. Baseball is a white man’s sport.”
The racial disparity as reflected in America’s pastime wasn’t always so stark.
Baseball in the 1970s and 1980s looked like a completely different game. It was an era of mutton chop sideburns, afros under ball-caps, and colorful uniforms, of nicknames like “Cobra” and “Pops.” It was also a time dominated by African-American players.
The 1980 All-Star Game bridged those two decades of baseball history. Played on a Tuesday night in front of 56,000 fans at Dodger Stadium, the NL extended their winning streak over the AL to nine straight Midsummer Classics with a 4-2 victory. Ken Griffey Sr., an African-American, was named the game’s MVP. All three RBIs for the victorious NL side were by African-Americans: Griffey, George Hendrick, and Dave Winfield. Eighteen players in the game were black.
Fast forward to 2019, and that game seems like it’s from a bygone era. Only four players who appeared in the All-Star Game last July in Cleveland were African-American (Josh Bell for the NL, Michael Brantley, Mookie Betts, and Marcus Stroman for the AL).
At the start of last season, 7.7 percent of players on Opening Day rosters were African-American. That’s a slight increase from three years earlier, when 6.7 percent of MLB players were black, the lowest since 1957. Nearly 20 percent of ballplayers were African-American in 1981, the apogee of black participation in the sport.
Between 1985-2007, African-Americans won 14 of 23 NL MVP Awards; they won 10 AL MVPs from 1971-1997. The NL has had two since, Andrew McCutchen in 2013 and Giancarlo Stanton in 2017, who is African-American of mixed heritage. Betts is the only African-American to win AL MVP since 1997. None of the last five World Series champions had more than three black players on their roster. The 1979 “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates had 10 African-Americans among the 24 players who appeared in the World Series that year.
That doesn’t mean MLB doesn’t have black stars to promote. Stanton and Aaron Judge are teammates on the New York Yankees, the league’s most famous team in the country’s biggest market. The Yankees duo featured prominently in the league’s 2019 “Let the Kids Play” and “We Play Loud” initiatives that sought to promote a new generation of stars breaking out from the stereotypes of a game gone stodgy.
Stroman, Betts, and his Dodgers teammate David Price are marketable stars. But so are players who are not as well-known nationally, like 2019 breakout star and AL batting champ Tim Anderson of the White Sox and the Pirates’ Bell.
But there have also been examples of why potential stars have stayed away. Kyler Murray was a top baseball prospect, the ninth overall pick for the Oakland Athletics in 2018. After being taken first overall in the NFL Draft, he chose football instead, taking an instant chance to make millions of dollars and play at the highest level over potentially years in the Minor Leagues riding buses to small ballparks across small-town America.
This past week it was those stars the game does have, along with other players, who showed themselves to be more proactive than the league and its owners in rising to the moment. Stanton, one of the game’s most visible African-American players, shared a video on social media. Anderson posted a montage of himself engaging with “Black Lives Matter” graffiti that has sprung up in cities across the country. White players like Lucas Giolito of the White Sox and Jack Flaherty of the Cardinals showed their solidarity with messages calling for racial equality. The league’s social accounts didn’t amplify any player’s message until after putting own its own much-delayed statement.
Monte Harrison, a Minor Leaguer in the Miami Marlins organization, took a direct shot at the league on Tuesday for remaining silent for so long.
“We see the other Major Sports for example (NBA, NFL, NHL…) coming together to address the situation that has happened with George Floyd. From a sport that has declined in percentages over the years of having African-Americans play in this game,” he wrote in a scathing social media post. “I see the love from my baseball brothers from all over the world showing the movement & wanting the change to be made. Publicly coming out of the shadows to show they are with us…but, it hurts to see the game I love & play with all my heart, blood, sweat & tears has not released an official statement regarding this matter. So I ask you what’s your “Why”?”
Baseball needs to answer that question in a number of ways if it wants to better honor its history and uphold the legacy it celebrates on Jackie Robinson Day.
Baseball needs to do a better job of promoting the African-American players they do have. Give young black men in America a glimpse of role models to follow, of players they can try to emulate, and they’ll hopefully flock back to the game. Show that the league cares about the issues that are affecting the community and fans will become more attached to the game. If not, baseball risks losing an entire generation of fans and aspiring players, leaving it more isolated from society than it has shown the past week it already is.