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Oftentimes, when I bring up baseball with some of my peers — African American men in their 30s and 40s — I’m met with blank stares and a familiar refrain: “Baseball is boring.”
It’s a confounding sentiment. While baseball lacks the constant motion of basketball (and hockey for that matter), most of a pro football game involves moving the pigskin inches at a time.
I guess I also don’t understand because I’m from America’s baseball city. When you’re born in St. Louis, Cardinals baseball, history and fandom is etched into your DNA. The Cards and Busch Stadium are among the strongest organizing forces of social life. The same is true in Chicago, New York and L.A.
Above all, I don’t understand because we produced greats like James “Cool Papa” Bell, Josh Gibson, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Andre Dawson, Bo Jackson, Satchel Paige, Ken Griffey Jr., Ozzie Smith and so many of the sport’s most electrifying players.
In the 1970s, African Americans made up about slightly less than 20% of Major League Baseball rosters; today, that number is about 7% (although, overall, pro baseball is the most diverse it’s ever been. Today, 38% of MLB players are folks of color).
This week’s newsletter will examine some of the reasons why there are increasingly fewer Black players on the diamond. We’ll also introduce a couple folks who still celebrating America’s pastime.
Thanks to Starr for letting me, um, pinch hit this week. In the meantime, don’t balk at forwarding this newsletter to a friend who loves the old ball game.
‘The way the narrative is spinning is we’re totally not playing...that’s just not the case’
When I called Earnest Horton Jr., a high school teacher who runs a camp and mentoring program in Chicago, about African Americans’ waning interest in baseball, he flat out disagreed with the premise of the question.
“The way the narrative is spinning is we’re totally not playing; we’re just out of baseball games. That’s just not the case,” Horton told me.
Horton, 35, who hails from the Chicago South Side neighborhood of Chatham, and played college ball at the historically Black University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, concedes that structural barriers do exist that make it harder for Black kids to break into the sport.
Historically, baseball was a sport that was accessible to working class people. Bats, balls and even gloves were relatively cheap. A group of friends could meet up at a park, sandlot or even narrow street for a game; bases could be fashioned from literal garbage. Over time, equipment, including safety gear, has vastly improved in quality and become more expensive.
But perhaps the most significant increase, Horton explains: “Baseball is a game, right now, that in order to excel you have to have elite training. You need training that costs anywhere from $80 an hour to $150 an hour, four to five days a week to even be considered top notch. So there’s a clear economic disparity.”
To drive that point home, in Chicago the median income for African Americans is about $30,000 compared to $71,000 for whites — one of the largest income gaps in the nation. “If you love baseball to death, at some point you’re going to have to decide, Is this financially viable for me?,” Preston Wilson, a retired major leaguer who won a World Series with the Cardinals in 2006, told Sports Illustrated a few years ago about African American participation in the sport.
Then, there’s the cultural divide and straight up racism from fans and fellow players. Racism is as much a part of baseball’s legacy as peanuts and Cracker Jack. It’s why the Negro Leagues existed in the first place. And many of us now know the violence suffered by early integrationists, most notably Jackie Robinson.
The 70s marked the peak of Black players in the MLB. But even during the 80s, you had a generation of exciting African American standouts. The Cardinals’ Ozzie Smith started games by doing somersaults for fans. It was the era of the two-sport athlete, with Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders; Kenny Lofton came a little later. The Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. had one of the most valuable rookie trading cards of all time.
“They brought swagger,” Horton said.
And that swagger was marketable and profitable. Horton believes that Major League Baseball fails to market its African American stars today. Alabama native Tim Anderson’s batting title 2019 batting title with the Chicago White Sox is overshadowed by the so-called bat flip incident for which Anderson, who is Black, was suspended for a game. Mookie Betts, currently an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is a Nashville native who won World Series championships with the Boston Red Sox in 2018 — he was also the American League MVP — and Dodgers in 2020.
“There’s no way Mookie Betts shouldn’t be the face of baseball,” Horton said.
Despite all of this, Horton, who travels the country and is developing a Black Baseball Matters app, sees promise on the horizon. For example, Del Mathews, who is Black and formerly ran MLB Urban Youth Academies in Compton, California and New Orleans, is now vice president of player development and recruiting for the league. Tony Reagins, also African American, is MLB’s chief of baseball development and will serve as general manager for Team USA in the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
“You’re going to see a surge,” he says, hopefully. “It’s coming.”
Meet Shakeia Taylor, sportswriter extraordinaire
The Baseball Writers Association of America boasts a membership of around 700 journalists working at newspapers, magazines and websites. It’s hard to know how many women are writing about baseball today. The BWAA elected its first woman president in 2012, when CBS Sports noted that “women and minorities are still under-represented in the organization and the profession in general.”
What we do know is that many women, including Black women, have a passion for the game (see: my mom). Some even write about it from time to time.
I caught up with Shakeia Taylor, who writes about all manner of sportsball and is a baseball historian and writer living in Chicago, about her writing career, baseball nerdom, durags and how she practices joy.
How’d you get into baseball?
I got into it seriously as an elementary school student. Fifth grade, actually. My family moved from North Carolina to Ohio. And all of my new friends and classmates were Cleveland baseball fans. So it was a way to make friends.
What about your journey into writing about baseball — were you marrying two loves?
In 2016, in the spring, I got laid off. I had been working to try to better understand analytics so I started a blog. That’s kind of where the writing jumped off from. I started a blog where I would go to games not just in Chicago, but around the Midwest, and I would write about my experience. And people started paying attention to it.
One of the things that stuck out to me about analytics was for the most part everyone who was talking about analytics was white and male. They weren’t making analytics fun. They weren’t making analytics interesting. It was just math. So I felt like somebody like me could apply it and find ways that are more interesting to discuss it.
What were some of the more fun pieces from your early blogging days?
The most fun thing to come out of it came later and that was the Marcus Stroman durag piece. I wasn’t doing anything serious. It was just a fun exercise in something that young black kids could understand, immediately pick up on. Marcus Stroman is wearing an orange durag, a blue durag. How well is he pitching? Is your team winning when you wear this durag? I think that was probably the most fun and the most memorable time I’ve had with analytics and writing.
How do you choose what to write about?
I find inspiration in the most random places. Sometimes I’ll be watching TV or it’ll be something happening that I want to correct.
The thing that happened for years in baseball journalism is the stories of black players were told, always from a white lens. So we always got these stories of, you know..... ‘They persisted in spite of racism.’ And as a Black person you’re like, in spite of racism?
Sometimes things like that push me to retell this story. I’m going to put all of the things that you took out back in. No one wants to talk about the hate mail and the threats and people not wanting to talk to you or (for) your family to be around, you can’t travel with the team. So sometimes I’m just inspired by — I don’t want to call them errors — but the consistency with which traditional white media can scrub the nastiness of history away.
The joy of baseball
As a Black woman writing about sports, Taylor encounters sexism and racism. Here’s how she practices self-care....
Boundaries. I’m heavy on the boundaries. I don’t work after certain times or all day, all night. I do write at night. That’s when my brain works best. But if I know that I’m gonna write all night, then I might chill all day. I certainly take time to do nothing. I think, as writers, we have to acknowledge that sometimes doing nothing is a part of the process. This idea that we need to constantly be producing is kind of wild to me. I wonder if we’ve become quantity over quality people that way.
Music. I’m a big R&B person. My favorite song is “I like” by Guy. I could hear it at least six times and not even be like, “Why is the song on again?”
Talk about writing with other writers. I like to find out other people’s process. I realize that’s talking about work when I’m not working, but I enjoy what I do.
Reading. There are books everywhere. Books in every room except the bathroom. But as a writer, I just try not to take myself too seriously and do stuff that I enjoy.
Go to games. I go to games as a fan and I have to tell people — I’m here as a fan.
Be on the lookout for an announcement about a new all-star team at Reckon.