There was once a time when African Americans were so sharp at the sport of baseball that they had to be separated into their own league. Until 1945, there were no blacks (or Negroes) in Major League Baseball (MLB) until Jackie Robinson got a call from the Brooklyn Dodgers to make a trip uptown to New York. That meeting ended up getting him in the MLB, making him the first African American to break the color barrier in baseball. Prior to Mr. Robinson, the MLB would lie and say an athlete who clearly was African American, was Native American or things of that nature to get them in their league. Robinson was such a dynamic athlete that his number is retired and every year on April 15th is known as Jackie Robinson day; commemorating the legacy of the great one.
Arguably the most polarizing African America of the modern era is Ken Griffey Jr. His swagger on the field, in which he backed up with his playing skills on both offense and defense were spectacular. Griffey Jr. retired after 22 years in the pros with 630 Home Runs and 10 gold gloves on defense. Had he stayed healthy throughout his career, I’m sure he would have eclipsed 700 career home runs and probably won two or three more golden glove awards. He had a mean batting stance to go with his thunderous hits once he got wood on the ball.
But after the career of Griffey Jr., there has been a significant decline in African American baseball players.
You can probably count on two hands the number of African Americans who are above average in the MLB. Arguably the brightest personality in the majors belong to Nyjer Morgan of the Milwaukee Brewers. He is a character with the personality every locker room needs. That has nothing to do with play on the field, however. He doesn’t hit the most home runs or steal the most bases, but he is a great person to have on your team. Atlanta Braves right fielder Jason Heyward had a phenomenal rookie season, racking up 18 home runs and more than 70 RBIs. Early on, he got a few Griffey comparisons. I beg to differ on that argument, but at age 22, I think he has a bright future in the majors and hope he becomes a dominant athlete in the sport.
Pittsburgh Pirates’ CF Andrew McCutchen is a guy who has been getting better year after year. In his 2009 rookie season in the majors, McCutchen racked 12 HRs and drove in 54 runs. The following season, he put up 16 HRs and 56 RBIs. in 2011, he had an even better season, knocking 23 balls out the park and driving in 89 runs. In just 88 games this season, McCutchen has already hit 22 HRs and drove in 65 runs and is arguably the NL frontrunner for MVP. Standing only 5’10″ and weighing 185 pounds, I am not sure how long McCutchen can keep up the hard hitting at such a tender size. But him being only 26 years of age, there is no telling when he’ll decide to beef up in the weight room to keep up the 20-25+ HR seasons, to go along with his 20+ stolen bases.
But what I think the problem is with African Americans and the drop off of them in the majors is they do not want to wait their turn to shine. In baseball, not everyone jumps right into the majors. There are different development levels to go first. If you get sent to play AAA ball, look at it as a blessing, rather than being impatient to jump right into the majors.
Basketball and football have probably also played a contributing factor on African Americans being dismissive of playing baseball. With basketball, all one has to do is one year in college or one season overseas; then if they are good enough, they might be picked in the NBA draft. For football, one has to complete at least three years at a university before entering the NFL draft. Los Angeles Angels’ LF Mark Trumbo spent six seasons in the minors before making his MLB debut. He proved he was worthy enough to play in the majors, and he might win him an AL MVP this season.
Baseball’s stars don’t get much recognition as NFL or NBA stars. Kids grow up and see LeBron James and Kobe Bryant on their television, two all-time greats who didn’t go to college and jumped straight to the pros. A child see that on their screen and probably never pay attention to baseball. Or one might be watching football and see one of the greatest intimidators ever in Ray Lewis, or Adrian Peterson running over DBs, LeSean McCoy shaking LBs out their cleats, Calvin Johnson jumping over every DB who gets in front of him. Those things are entertaining and make a kid want to go outside and try to play out what they just saw on TV by their favorite athletes. Not every baseball game sells out; so one might turn on their TV and see a half-empty ballpark and think it is a waste of a sport. They don’t see pictures of Matt Kemp hitting walk-off home runs or Jemile Weeks stealing bases.
Often times you hear stories about triumphant backgrounds that some athletes have lived. Or you see a movie based on the life of an NFL player (The Blind Side). Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia came from one of the most rugged cities in California, Vallejo. He persevered to make it professionally and after signing his contract with the Yankees, made him the highest paid player in MLB history. Is that not something for black kids to look at for motivation? You even hear athletes getting called “sellouts.” To this day, Sabathia makes trips to the neighborhood he was raised in, he lives in the Oakland Hills and is a constant Oakland Raiders season ticket holder. Sabathia’s story doesn’t get enough recognition, especially in black communities. I think he should be the modeled African American baseball player. But for some reason, that seems obsolete.
It is frightening how scarce African Americans are in Major League Baseball. After having to create their own league (Negro League Baseball), with dreams of playing on the level to get worldwide recognition like white baseball players, it is sad to see not many blacks want to even play baseball. Hopefully the likes of McCutchen, Kemp, Sabathia and Heyward can get more credit for their play and more recognition to inspire young African American athletes. Only time will tell.