wwjd - baseball's black eye
Photo Credit: MLB

WWJD #23: Baseball’s Black Eye



Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball on April 15th, 1947. MLB celebrates this momentous moment in American history by having every player across Major League Baseball wear Robinson’s universally retired #42 on that day. Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig tabbed April 15th, “Jackie Robinson Day,” as MLB honors him and his legacy. 


But sadly, Major League Baseball has done very little in recent years to honor the legacy of Jackie Robinson–what he fought for and what he had to deal with for other minorities, especially African Americans who wanted to play baseball.  


baseball's black eye
Photo Credit: AP Photo/File

The lack of African Americans playing in Major League Baseball in 2020 is alarming. The percentage of African American players in baseball as a whole has been on the decline in recent years. 

Only 7.7 percent of players on MLB Opening Day rosters last year were African American. According to SABR, African American players haven’t been above 10 percent since 2004. The peak year, at 18.7 percent, was back in 1981.

That is not the type of legacy Robinson and then Brooklyn Dodgers team president Branch Rickey, envisioned when Robinson took the field against the Boston Braves in 1947. While the Dodgers won the game 5-3 and Robinson went 0-3, history was made, which was supposed to change the game forever.  


Major League Baseball has even failed at hiring African Americans for open managerial roles. 


Two years ago, Rhiannon Walker wrote this for The Undefeated

Sixteen black men have ascended to manager since (1972), filling 27 jobs — 10 interim and 17 full-time. Over that period, 224 men were hired to fill 470 openings (many positions came open several times).

Two of the 27 openings were with teams that finished above .500 the previous season. Winning ball clubs have had substantially fewer issues extending managing opportunities to Latin (nine of 31 openings) or Asian (one of two) skippers, by contrast. The average record of the teams that non-interim black managers inherited is 73-89.

For comparison, there have been 17 managerial jobs filled by individuals who didn’t have managerial or coaching experience at either the major league or minor league level. Frank Robinson and Buck Martinez are the lone people of color to manage with no prior experience.


baseball's black eye
Photo Credit: UCLA

Astros manager, Dusty Baker, is one of only two black managers in baseball, along with the Dodgers’ Dave RobertsBaker finds the lack of black players in the sport “frustrating,” he said. Hopefully, in this decade and the next decade, there will be more guys that get a chance. All they need is a chance. A lot of guys have been bypassed and overlooked,Baker told Kristie Rieken of the Associated Press.

So is MLB saying without saying that there are not qualified African Americans who can manage in the major leagues? Are players who are now coaching in organizations or have the background to manage not being given a fair shot?  

Over the years, MLB Hall of Fame members Barry LarkinRon WashingtonTerry PendeltonBo PorterLloyd McClendonGary JonesDaryl BellPat ListachJerry ManuelDeMarlo Hale, and Willie Randolph have all been mentioned for various openings, yet have not gotten the job. 

For ManuelWashington, and McClendon, all of whom have previous managerial experience, they have yet to get another opportunity to lead a franchise. But MLB has recycled managers like Bobby ValentineAJ HinchJim Riggleman, and others with no problem. While Hinch does have a (tainted) World Series victory as the Astros manager, others have gotten multiple opportunities after having limited or less success than some of those above mentioned African American candidates.

Why is it that African American managers or head coaches in all sports have such a hard time getting opportunities to show that they can lead a team? In contrast, white managers or head coaches get recycled frequently and land on their feet much quicker.   


Part of the problem is that MLB is lacking even as decision makers.


There have been only five African American GMs in baseball history, and three franchises still have never hired a minority to be their GM or manager: the St. Louis CardinalsMinnesota Twins, and Oakland Athletics.

Al Avila of the Detroit Tigers and Farhan Zaidi of the San Francisco Giants are the only minority GMs. Simultaneously, Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox and Michael Hill of the Miami Marlins are the only African Americans in charge of their baseball departments. 


baseball's back eye
Photo Credit: MLB

“I’ve had a unique position sitting in different rooms and watching people come and go since 1993,” Williams told USA Today. “There have been years where I felt progress was really being made, and I didn’t feel so alone in that respect. Now, there are times that well, I’ve never been easier to spot in a room in executive meetings.”

Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem and Tyrone Brooks, MLB’s Senior Director of the Front Office and Field Staff Diversity Pipeline Program, are hopeful there will be an increase in minority hiring simply because more candidates are being interviewed.

Individuals are now getting themselves on the radar,” Brooks said. “It was great for them to have the opportunity, get them into the preparation process, and what to expect going into it.”

Ideally, you want to have depth in your search, and that’s what we’re encouraging each club to do. And we automatically remind clubs of our minority interactive policy.”

It’s called the Selig Rule, adopted in 1999 by former commissioner Bud Selig, requiring teams to interview minority candidates when filling a top-level position. Brooks’ office also assists those wanting to prepare or go through mock interviews, which Charlie Montoyo did when he landed the Toronto Blue Jays’ managerial job a year ago.


In recent years, MLB has made a concerted effort to reach out to a more diverse audience, but seeing the results in a player population change will take a while.


Growing up in the 1980s and 1990’s, all of my friends played baseball. Every kid in my neighborhood and elementary school played Little League Baseball. We all dreamed of playing in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the Little League World Series

Twice a week, we would descend on our local baseball fields, play games, and hang out at the ballpark playing over the line, pepper, and pickle. We would try to mimic batting stances of our favorite players and debate who was the best player in the game. 


baseball's black eye
Photo Credit: NY Times

On Saturday mornings, we’d watch This Week in Baseball (hosted by the legendary Mel Allen) and then the MLB Game of the Week (on NBC). Hearing the golden voice of Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola call the national game or Bob Costas and Tony Kubek calling the regional games, was part of our Saturday pre-game tradition.

While growing up in Southern California, I had the pleasure and honor of listening to Vin Scully call Los Angeles Dodgers’ games. It was a legitimate baseball history lesson every day when I turned on the TV to watch a game. I got to hear the greatest announcer of all-time give a play-by-play account of baseball and life in general. 

But Scully made it a point, almost in every telecast, to tell a story about Jackie Robinson or Roy Campanella or Don Newcombe. When the team was in another city–say Pittsburghhe would tell countless Roberto Clemente stories. He would tell the stories of minority ballplayers so we could learn about them, and that was how I learned the history of baseball. 



Baseball has outpriced itself in communities that could use it the most.  


Baseball is also far more expensive than other sports. Consider the cost of a good glove ($250), bat ($300+), cleats ($100+), batting gloves ($50+), and sliding pants ($25+). That’s over $700 in gear alone. The cost of playing Little League baseball varies, but on average, it’s now $125 to play.

This is part of the reason other sports pique the interest of kids today more than baseball. Football is America’s passion and is far more exciting and entertaining to watch than baseball. Basketball is also viewed as more fun and easier to practice than baseball. 

You can work on your footwork, route running, dribbling, shooting, or speed by yourself. For the most part, with baseball, you need to have another person with you to practice. 


Minority kids also see people on TV who look like them playing those sports, which makes those sports more relatable. 


baseball's black eye
Photo Credit: RBI Program

That is why programs such as MLB’s RBI Program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) is vital to creating another avenue to the game. RBI would’ve been entering its 32nd year of play in 2020, but COVID19 essentially canceled the season.

From its inception in 1989 through the 2018 season, RBI grew from a local program for boys in South Central Los Angeles to an international campaign encompassing more than 200 cities and as many as 150,000 male and female participants per year. 

In 2010, Jr. RBI was launched, designed to create new playing divisions that provide baseball and softball opportunities for children ages 5-12 that also serve as a feeder to age 13-18 baseball and softball divisions.

RBI also motivates participants to stay in school and pursue post-secondary education. School attendance/performance is a requirement for joining and remaining on many RBI teamsRBI has been embraced in so many communities because it teaches kids that being a success in life takes more than succeeding on the ballfield — it also means achieving in the classroom and the community.

The RBI Program alumni include major leaguers CC SabathiaJimmy RollinsCoco CrispJames LoneyCarl CrawfordB. J. UptonJustin UptonJulio BorbonEfren NavarroRicky RomeroYovani GallardoChris YoungJ. P. CrawfordDominic Smith and James McDonald, as well as MLB draftees Trevor Reckling and Victor Roache.


Major League Baseball needs to promote its African American stars.


MLB has done a great job promoting their Latin stars in their home countries, but they have failed to do the same with their African American stars in the United States.


baseball's black eye
Photo Credit: ESPN

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Seattle Mariners centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. should have been the face of baseball. He was, by far, the most popular player and brought a youthful exuberance to the game. His smile and personality lit up rooms, and kids loved to pretend to be him. 

But even though they tried, baseball failed to market him and capitalize on his popularity with kids. They still marketed older players such as Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers and the Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripkin Jr., or players who were “safer” like the Atlanta Braves Greg MaddoxTom Glavine, and John Smoltz


MLB didn’t market players like Griffey Jr.Ricky HendersonTony GwynnEric DavisDarryl Strawberry, Barry Larkin, and other African American big leaguers when they were at the height of their careers. 

The Cleveland Indians of the ’90s had a multi-cultural team made up of players of all races. Kenny LoftonAlbert BellCarlos BaergaOmar VizquelRoberto and Sandy AlomarManny RamirezMatt Williams, and Jim Thome made up the “core” at one point. Yet again, MLB didn’t promote the young Indians team.  

The New York Yankees “Core 4” had an African American and Puerto Rican in Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada, a Dominican Mariano Rivera and an American Andy Pettitte. All four players had tremendous careers and came from different backgrounds. They were the heartbeat of the Yankees dynasty that resulted in 5 World Series titles.

Rivera was voted as the first unanimous Hall of Famer last year, and Jeter, who should have been the second unanimous selection, was elected into the Hall of Fame this year. Pettitte and Posada will also get consideration and may enter the Baseball Hall of Fame at some point. 


baseball's black eye
Photo Credit: News Day

Even Derek Jeter wasn’t “the face of MLB” until well after he won multiple World Series. More importantly, to MLB, he was known as a “safe player” due to his squeaky clean reputation. MLB chose to promote Alex RodriguezMike Piazza, and Mark McGwire.

What is one of the common denominators between that group? They all were in the Mitchell Report and linked to or admitted PED use. Yet, Barry Bonds has been banished, in part, for his alleged PED use. (And yeah, I know he wasn’t the nicest person or the easiest to be around, but he was still the best player in the game at that time.) 


Sadly, outside of Yankees fans or baseball fans, kids weren’t trying to be Jeter; they wanted to be RodriguezPiazzaMcGwire, Curt SchillingRandy Johnson, and others, partly because MLB was promoting them more than Jeter

Today, MLB has some legitimate African American stars playing in the big leagues — stars like Mookie BettsAaron JudgeGiancarlo StantonTim AndersonJosh BellMarcus SemienMarcus StromanTommy PhamGeorge SpringerMichael Brantley, and David Price. MLB should easily be able to market and promote the game in areas that they haven’t recently.


What can Major League Baseball do to solve this issue?


MLB needs to work with Little League Baseball (LLBB), the clothing and equipment manufacturers, video game makers, and networks to figure this out. 

They need to make the game more affordable to play. Spending $725+ on equipment is too much, and spending $125 to play LLBB is just as absurd. I give the video game makers credit for putting out a great product, but like with the NBA 2k series, they give the consumer multiple choices as to who they want on the cover. 


baseball's black eye
Photo Credit: ABC 7

When an African American player becomes a star, do you wait to see if he’s a safe choice or hesitate to make him the face of The Show? You did that before, and your choices weren’t who you thought they were.     

As for the networks, work with MLB to make the game more exciting. While baseball is steeped in tradition and nostalgia, the TV product is also dull and not appealing for the casual fan to watch. Modernize the game. The NBA and NFL have surpassed MLB in popularity, partly because they keep finding and trying new ways to improve their sports.


Chicks may dig the long ball, but it is annoying to watch and wait for it to happen. Speed, excitement, a fast pace, and ball games that keep you on the edge of your seat will have people excited to play. 

Lastly, baseball and those in power have long been scared of the skeletons in their closets. They are very protective of which ones they let out. For the game to move forward, accept the past for what it is. Rip the band-aid off and move forward. 


It’s time for MLB to stop making a farce of what Jackie Robinson fought for and put up with while he played. Reach back into the inner cities and make the game fun and affordable for all the kids who live there. Grow your sport there just as passionately as you do in the suburbs.  


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-Joe Arrigo – Franchise Sports Media


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