MLB Must Embrace Its Rich Black Past To Strengthen Its Black Future

The 2018 MLB All-Star Game will be played in Washington, DC.  

While the proverbial Chocolate City is looking distinctly cafe au lait these days, when the hometown Nationals set up shop in 2005 after more than 20 years as the Montreal Expos, it was the closest thing to Negro League Baseball in the city since the Homestead Grays ended their days playing in old Griffith Stadium in the late 1940’s. 

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The story of Washington D.C.’s Negro League baseball team. I was the producer and co-editor on this film.

Indeed, then-mayor Anthony Williams was so aware of that Negro League history that he had proposed that the Nationals be called the Washington Grays. 

While Mayor Williams lost that battle, having Frank Robinson as the teams first manager — in 1975 Robinson became Major League baseballs first Black manager when he was hired by the Cleveland Indians — helped solidify a link to the broader African American experience and baseball.

Yet there is some irony that as a historically Black city is hosting the annual mid-summer classic, Mookie Betts, Michael Brantley, George Springer (wait, hes Black?), Matt Kemp, Lorenzo Cain, and quite frankly, even Aaron Judgethe six Black players chosen for this years game —  were to walk through a traditional Black hood, they would likely go unnoticed.  

For a league that has done little to promote its biggest white star, Mike Trout, who even with ESPN and playing in a major media market like Los Angeles might be invisible in some major American cities, their marketing of the sports major Black and Latino stars is far worse.

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Mookie Betts gets a lucky break when Justin Smoak fails to corral his foul popup, then concludes his 13-pitch AB with a grand slam About Major League Baseball: Major League Baseball (MLB) is the most historic professional sports league in the United States and consists of 30 member clubs in the U.S.

It wasnt always like this.

When I began following baseball in the 1970s, Black ballplayers (in an era when they counted Black and Latino players together) were at least a quarter of the league.  And though I was a New York Met fan, whose own relationship with home-grown Black talent was a little shady, I could look at players over at Yankee Stadium like Roy White, Mickey Rivers, Willie Randolph, Oscar Gamble (and his big-ass fro), as well as national superstars like Willie Stargell, George Foster, Reggie Smith, Rod Carew, Dusty Baker, Eddie Murray, Jim Rice, and Andre Dawson, who in many ways were the faces of the league then. 

How many little Black kids in the 1970s tried to mimic Joe Morgans rapid arm flex standing the batters box, or Reggie Jacksons grandioise trips around the bases after a home run (dude had his own candy bar), or have their baseball cap sit atop their heads just  the Phillies Bake McBride.

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Admittedly, the 1970s represented a time in which Baseball could still make a legitimate claim on being Americas Pastime, and when past stars like Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were still revered as part of the nostalgia for the so-called innocence of the 1950s.  

As both the NFL, NBA, and even NASCAR, upped the ante in promoting their sports and their respective stars, at least two generations of Americas youth have come to see baseball as a plodding, boring, overly cerebral sport, and those are fair charges.  

While some fans could recall debating about New York Citys  center-fielders in the 1950s — as Terry Cashman did in a song called Willie, Mickey and the Duke, by the 1980s baseball could not produce a tandem of stars that could compete with say Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and later Michael Jordan. 

The diminished popularity of baseball as a whole had coincided with a dramatic decrease in the number of Black professional players. A recent survey had the percentage of Black ballplayers at just less than 8%. 

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MLB has sought to address the racial gap in the sport. The Andre Dawson Classic, which provides a platform for baseball teams at HBCUs every February being one such example. 

There have been many reasons cited for the lack of a presence of Black ball players, including things like the lack of available sites to play in the ghetto, the relative expense of playing organized sports like baseball, and even provocative claims like those made by former Def Jam Record executive Bill Stephney that the absence of fathers in Black neighborhoods had an impact on Black youth interest in the sport. 

While there is some legitimacy to all of these theories, the fact of the matter is that Major League Baseball has done an awful job marketing the sport to youth, who might simply be looking for stars who look like us.

For example,  Derrick Patrick, who grew up in Chicago as a White-Sox fan (he despised the Cubs) and now plays college baseball for the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), recalls seeing Jermaine Dye, a member the 2005 White Sox that won the World Series.  

Ironically the players that most caught Patricks attention wouldve been David Ortiz or Robinson Cano, who at the time I assumed were Black.  

As he got older and started playing the sport seriously, Patrick recalls the examples of Andrew McCutchen (then of the Pittsburgh Pirates), and Curtis Granderson, a UIC alum, who led the league in runs and RBIs as a Yankee in 2011. 

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Yet what Patrick most remembers about Granderson are the things that dont show on the stat sheet: Seeing what he has done on the field, in training, AND in the community has not only inspired me to be a better athlete, but to be a better man.  

And perhaps, this is what MLB is missing.

Ken Griffey, Jr. was arguably the last baseball player to transcend the sport in the ways that we might associate with Tom Brady in football or LeBron James in basketball. But while the NFL and NBA continues reference past stars like Peyton Manning and Michael Jordan, for example, MLB has failed to do so with a figure like Griffey.

Patrick is realistic about the state of the sport: the greatest of my generation top five I don’t believe there is one black person. You talk about the best in the game, that’s what attracts new fans, and those athletes are Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Jose Altuve, Clayton Kershaw 

And while the Red Soxs Mookie Betts could easily be included in this group — hes a favorite to win the American League MVP this year — the reality is that most folk wouldnt be able to pick him out of a police lineup; yet the same could be said about Trout, Bryant, and Altuve. 

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You could make an argument the former football player and current minor league baseball player Tim Tebow might be the most well known professional baseball player in the country now. 

Baseball needs to become cool says Patrick, so we need players that are cool that have a swagger, a certain moxie that is attractive like Barry Bonds or Rickey Henderson.  

MLB | A Rickey Henderson Tribute

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These very attributes are the very things that make someone like Bryce Harper so important to the future of the sport, yet Black ballplayers like Betts and Giancarlo Stanton shouldnt have to be performative like Harper or Griffey, Jr. in order for MLB to better promote their talents. 

Patrick adds, Blacks aren’t at the forefront of organizations, generally speaking, and that translates to fewer black fans.


Dr. Mark Anthony Neal is Chair of the Department of African & African American Studies and the founding director of the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship (CADCE) at Duke University where he offers courses on Black Masculinity, Popular Culture, and Digital Humanities, including signature courses on Michael Jackson & the Black Performance Tradition, and The History of Hip-Hop, which he co-teaches with Grammy Award Winning producer 9th Wonder (Patrick Douthit).

He also co-directs the Duke Council on Race and Ethnicity (DCORE).

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