By Exavier Pope – Two Major League Baseball teams’ fates just collided in an epic seven-game World Series as the heavily favored Houston Astros were vanquished by the repeatedly clutch Washington Nationals.
The teams were part of the biggest stories at the start of the season. The Astros were expected to be here, and the only question facing the talent-rich team was whether their high performance would continue. The Astros built a juggernaut that won the franchise’s first championship in 2017 and had come off winning 103 games and a loss in the American League Championship Series to the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in 2018. According to the bookmaker Bovada, the Astros had 6/1 odds (+600 in money-line terms) to win the Series at the start of the season.
On the other hand, plenty of questions surrounded the Washington Nationals. The team had lost arguably their biggest player in Bryce Harper in a sweepstakes that stalled the signing of other players at MLB’s Winter Meetings, the annual off-season conference of baseball’s owners and executives that ushers in the sport’s biggest fee agency acquisitions and rule changes. The Nationals’ odds to go all the way were 18/1 going into the 2019 regular season.
Whatever the odds might have been for either World Series team, a more serious story bubbling underneath the surface going into the season was the small number of African-American players and Major League Baseball’s efforts toward fixing a glaring issue in the sport.
Only six players in this year’s World Series are African-Americans: three for the Washington Nationals, three for the Houston Astros (George Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh James).
According to USA Sports, there were only 68 African Americans out of the total of 882 players in Major League Baseball on opening-day rosters, injured lists and restricted lists.
Eleven teams didn’t have more than a single African-American player on their 25-man roster, including three that did not have any.
The abysmally low representation raises a question with the sport on its biggest stage: What is the state of African-Americans in baseball?
The Shadow of Aaron
Hank Aaron is arguably the biggest ambassador of Major League Baseball. Aaron eclipsing Babe Ruth’s career home run record April 8, 1974, in Atlanta remains one of the sport’s iconic moments.
For the past five years, Major League Baseball, operated jointly with MLB’s Players Association and USA Baseball and funded by MLB-MLBPA Youth Development have run Hank Aaron Invitational, once known as the Developmental Invitational.
The event, now attended by nearly 1,000 players over its run, aims to increase opportunities for African Americans to gain access to developmental opportunities in baseball.
“It starts at a young age in the game of baseball,” Andrew McCutchen, now with the Philadelphia Phillies, said at an MLB Network roundtable event in April 2017. “If you can’t afford it, if you can’t pay for it, we’re thrown out, we move to something else.”
McCutchen was referring to the barrier of entry of increasingly expensive and inaccessible development camps and travel ball, which can shut out entire communities unlike basketball and football.
Major League Baseball, recognizing the disparity, has been more hands on with initiatives like the Dream Series and The Prospect Development Pipeline, an invitation-only series of numerous events across United States.
The Hank Aaron Invitational has seen some modest success. According to Major League Baseball, nearly 90% of all event alumni who have graduated high school (from 2016-2019) are either playing college baseball or at the professional level. 18 players are playing professionally in minor league systems. Most notably, alumni such as Hunter Greene (#2 overall selection in 2017 by the Cincinnati Reds), and 2019 2nd round draftees, Mike Harris (Braves), Kyren Paris (Angels) and Nasim Nuñez (Marlins) would not have been seen by scouts but for events like the Hank Aaron Invitational.
Being able to gain access to critical development opportunities and marketing off the field was key to the career of Hank Aaron during and after baseball.
Hank Aaron took advantages of opportunities off the field to invest in the auto, food service, and real industries to create a great life outside the game of baseball. With the urging and advice of his longtime friend civil right icon and former mayor of Atlanta Andrew Young, Aaron was able to use his platform to impact his life off the field.
“We were just good friends and I saw in addition to him being great he was also very shy and unassuming. I just tried to speak up for him,” remarked Andrew Young to Forbes.com, who appeared at this year’s invitational in early August to support Aaron.
Young’s help of Aaron was partially facilitated by long time music executive Clarence Avant, who was inspired to help Aaron after learning of the many death threats Aaron received chasing Ruth’s record.
Known in entertainment circles as the “Black Godfather,” Avant, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, had a reputation for selectively choosing individuals in sports and entertainment to assist in creating bigger avenues for their platforms.
Avant had also assisted Muhammad Ali and even helped hall of fane Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown get his start in acting.
Avant contacted Young to strategically discus getting Aaron endorsement opportunities prior to Aaron breaking Ruth’s record. Avant went straight into Atlanta based Coca-Cola and the meeting led to a floodgate of opportunities for Aaron.
“It makes you feel wonderful, when you can do things like this that makes you feel like you are doing something the good Lord want you to do,” Aaron told me about being an ambassador on and off the field for Major League Baseball.
The Second Wave of Baseball Ambassadors
Hank Aaron is three generations removed from the golden era of African American athletes in Major League Baseball. The game has younger ambassadors for diversity in the sport who seek to use the platform that they achieved being inspired by Aaron.
“I feel like I’m obligated to go back and keep the game,” Marquis Grissom told me. Grissom is a former MLB centerfielder with the Montreal Expos, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants between 1989 and 2005.
“It’s all about development. When I was coming up there was a lot of talent that wasn’t developed. I was one of the lucky ones that squeaked through that had the ability and work ethic to get that far but there were so many who were left behind they didn’t have the same opportunity I had. If you have the fundamentals and the foundation, you have a chance to be successful,” Grissom told me at this year’s Hank Aaron Invitational.
Grissom believes the stolen base is a “lost art” in the modern analytics driven sport that has devalued the steal and imparts the importance of utilizing the stolen base to young African American baseball players in spite of the downward trend.
Grissom twice lead the National League in stolen bases with 76 and 78 swiped bags in consecutive 1991 and ’92 MLB seasons. Those numbers in consecutive seasons hasn’t happened in either league since and no player has stolen that many bases since New York Mets Jose Reyes in 2007.
Many of the great stolen bases runners of the 80s and early 90s like Ricky Henderson, Vince Coleman, Grissom, and Kenny Lofton were African American.
“Us as African American players need every opportunity to be the best player we want to be. The more you can add baserunning to your repertoire the better.”
Another former African American Major League Baseball player who calls himself one of the “lucky ones” and feels an obligation to give back to the game and devolving African American players is LaTroy Hawkins, retired closer for 12 different MLB ballclubs in a long and succcessful career spanning from 1995-2015.
“I played in the generation that was part of the decline,” Hawkins told me at the Hank Aaron Invitational. “I played when African American participation dipped way below 10%. I would always get the question about what could be done, so when I was done playing, I wanted to give back to the game of baseball,” Hawkins passionately expressed.
According to the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), in 1975 the year after Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, MLB reached its highest African American participation rate in the sports history at 18.5%.
At the beginning of Hawkins career that number had creeped down to 16.1% over 20 years. The next 20 years would see that number plummet to 7.5% by the end of Hawkins career.
“A lot of stuff I learned on my own and from watching TV. The Chicago Cubs had a camp and my grandfather took me to it,” Hawkins explains about the change in access to the game of baseball.
“We didn’t have to worry about being on a travel team back then where it is only the kids who can afford it. Today’s minorities and underserved area kids have to worry about it, but the exposure is not there.”
Hawkins also points to today’s analytics and it impact on African American participation in baseball.
“We have a lot of athletes. Our kids are not robots. We’re trying to bring that dynamic of athleticism back into the game with analytics involved.”
Access and analytics are two big components of reversing the tide of declining African American participation in baseball. As much as retired players such as Grissom and Hawkins enjoy teaching baseball, they recognize the importance of their presence.
Current Miami Marlins outfielder and 16-year veteran Curtis Granderson believes it is critical.
“I think a big part is seeing it,” the Chicago native told me, who in 2013 donated a $5 million to his alma mater University of Illinois at Chicago’s athletic department to build a new baseball field and indoor sports complex.
According the Chicago Sun-Times, at the time it was the most substantial one-time donation ever to a university by an athlete.
“You see people that look like you, you know, that can be your inspiration to get you started, to start asking questions about what I need to work on what I need to focus on. I enjoyed watching guys like Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Ozzie Smith. You know, these are guys that look like me. Seeing guys who look like me made me be more interested in the game,” opined Granderson, who participated in a Marlins community event painting Charles R. Drew K-8 Center in the majority African American Brownsville neighborhood in Miami, Florida on August 9.
Representation matters, but community outreach can create new fans and future players in the sport.
“It’s great we get a chance to have a number of these guys back into the community and people to see and to know it really isn’t that difficult.
‘TV makes you guys look so far away, but then when I get a chance to see you guys up close and personal they’re not that much different than me’ can very beneficial when you get a chance to spark that,” explained Granderson.
The Next Wave
“My dad used to love Ozzie Smith because he was a wizard on the infield. I took his swagger, and I put it as my own,” Alabama State University first base prospect Darrien McDowell, who was one of the participants at the Hank Aaron Invitational in early August, told me, echoing some of the sentiments shared by Granderson.
McDowell became connected to the invitational by participating in MLB Breakthrough Series. According to Major League Baseball, the initiative established in 2008, is a joint effort of USA Baseball and Major League Baseball that “focuses on developing the player on and off the field through seminars, mentorship, gameplay, scout evaluations, video coverage and the highest level of instruction all while providing a platform for the players to perform for scouts and collegiate coaches. The events are completely cost-free with USAB covering expenses for the players.”
Access is to the game of baseball is not limited to young men. Women have increasingly participated in baseball and softball.
According to Major League Baseball, for the third consecutive year baseball and softball combined to be the most participated team sport in the United States with the past reported year of 2018 showing 25.6 million participants.
Part of the uptick can be loosely attributed to the increased popularity of the Little League World Series and Mo’Ne Davis. The now Hampton University Freshmen was the first girl to win Little League World Series game and her team’s run became a ratings bonanza for LLWS broadcast partner ESPN. On August 20, 2014 Davis pitching the LLWS semifinals recorded a 3.4 overnight rating and set a record for LLWS viewership.
Davis went on to become the first player to be nab a Sports Illustrated cover while still playing in Little League.
“I hope to inspire young girls, even young boys,” Davis told me at an invite-only event August 8 at Marlins Park in Miami hosted by MLB and Miami Marlins where Davis met and greeted girls high school softball players.
“I’m building a brand,” Davis remarked, describing her role in a wave of big sporting triumphs this decade for women including USA gymnastics, swimming, soccer that has increased the marketability of women athletes.
“Everything that happened in Williamsport sparked everything in terms of giving women a little bit more coverage. I’m not the first, but I sparked more interest in women’s sports and that’s kinda cool,” said 18-year Davis.
Davis is using her rare elevated platform in the game of baseball to speak out on pay equity for women’s athletes too.
“It’s just not fair. I feel women have to work twice as hard to make what a quarter of the men are making. I feel we’re working in the right direction, but not at the right speed.”
Working in the right direction but not the right speed can easily be said about the front office in Major League Baseball.
According to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) 2019 MLB Racial and Gender Report Card released in April, the Chicago White Sox started out the season as one of only five Major League Baseball teams with a manager who is a person of color (Rick Renteria), and having two out of the only four total diverse individuals holding the position of President of Baseball Operations with an MLB team, a title representing the top role of the Club’s baseball operations, or the position of General Manager (Kenny Williams, Farhan Zaidi).
The sparse number of African American making baseball decisions becomes even more rare in ownership. There are no majority African American owners in MLB.
The most visible minority shareholder is 5 time World Series champion New York Yankees former second baseman Derek Jeter who owns a 4% ownership stake in the Miami Marlins.
“It starts with goals and dreams. I had a dream and a mission to play professional baseball. Then about 10 years left of my career my next dream was to be a part of an ownership group because I wanted to be able to build something. Hopefully I pave the way and in a few years we’re not saying I’m one of the few,” Jeter told me at the same Charles Drew K-8 Miami Marlins community service event attended by Curtis Granderson August 9 in Miami.
Jeter said in his journey to pave the way he had a long term plan to have an ownership stake in an MLB team and had a litany of advisers preparing for such a quick transition after retiring in 2014.
“I didn’t wake up and say It want to be part of an ownership group. I learned as much as I could from so many people along the way I know from people in baseball, basketball, football. I picked the brains of other careers that wasn’t necessarily sports. Building a team is building a team whether on the field or off the field, whether in sports or outside of sports,” Jeter explained.
Since the player known as “The Captain” has assumed minority ownership in the Marlins, the role of paving the way for other players ascending into a role of ownership has made Jeter a frequent go to for other active and recently retired players.
“I’m here to offer as much advise as I possibly can.”
This year’s World Series reveals one of Major League Baseball’s glaring issues of African American representation. MLB may not ever achieve the height of African American participation on the field as it did in the mid seventies during the twilight of Hank Aaron’s historic career.
However, with MLB, USA Baseball, MLBPA, and retired players’ efforts to stem the downward trend, an influx of interest from a girl turned women ambassador for the sport, and a highly visible new minority African American owner in Derek Jeter willing to impart his knowledge unto others, the numbers may not remain at its current lows for long.
MLB is working in the right direction. Whether baseball can up its velocity for change in a rapidly shifting sports world remains one of the sports’ lingering questions headed into the offseason.
Correction: This article has been updated to include the three African-American players for the Houston Astros. A previous version stated there were none on the Astros’ roster.