While America celebrates the iconic Jackie Robinson, the current dearth of Black players is definitely nothing to celebrate. Baseball, the so-called “American pastime,” was once an arena in which African-American players were not allowed to participate. Racism and segregation, which were prevalent in American history, found a place on sports fields, where the spotlight was on them, presenting a stage for Jim Crow’s dominance over black America.
In 1867, the National Association of Amateur Baseball Players rejected African-American membership, and, in 1876, owners of the professional National League signed a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep Black players out. Because of this, Rube Foster, the best African-American pitcher in the first decade of the 1900s, founded the Negro National League for Black players, which led to the formation of other leagues called “The Negro Leagues.”
These leagues, which produced legendary players such as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Walter “Buck” Leonard, are where Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s color line in 1947, began playing for the Kansas City Monarchs. The paths blazed by these amazing and resilient players of The Negro Leagues paved the way for great black baseball players such as Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Ken Griffey Jr., Ozzie Smith, Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, and Hank Aaron, all of whom can trace their baseball opportunities back to them.
On opening day in 1991, Black American players made up 18% of all MLB rosters compared to a paltry 7.2% on opening day of 2022.
However, in today’s baseball, there are hardly any Black American players. On opening day in 1991, Black American players made up 18% of all MLB rosters, compared to a paltry 7.2% on opening day of 2022. Not one American-born Black player participated in the 2022 World Series matchup between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros. The last time that happened was in 1950. The lack of Black players in baseball is intentional, says former professional baseball player Corey Smith. “I think it’s designed like that,” Cummings says. “We don’t have many places to play anymore. At one time, baseball was the main sport for Blacks. It’s unfortunate because it’s the sport you can play the longest without getting hurt and make the most money.”
Like any other discipline or sport that lacks diversity, it is difficult to recruit people when they don’t see themselves represented in the first place. Unlike basketball, which has been marketed as a hip sport that keeps its ear glued to Black culture and hip-hop music, baseball does not have a similar appeal. In any NBA arena across the country, hip-hop music blasts from the speakers, dance routines choreographed to hip-hop beats, and commercials that merge the culture with the sport. With baseball, there is no such representation. The music that gets played at the stadium matters from a fan experience perspective, says Smith. “Black folks don’t want to hear ‘Sweet Carolina’ playing every game.”
The lack of Black representation extends beyond the players, and managers, too. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Dave Roberts and the Houston Astros’ Dusty Baker were the only two Black managers in Major League Baseball in 2022. Smith says, “Baseball is one of the toughest sports for Black players. Black players have to be twice as good as white players. I’ve outhit players and led organizations in home runs, RBIs, and extra base hits but never got called up, while other guys are steadily getting the call.”