Black Joy

‘They brought swagger’: Is there hope for Black baseball?

Asked about African Americans’ waning interest in baseball, Earnest Horton Jr., a high school teacher who runs a camp and mentoring program in Chicago, 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 Reckon.

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.

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).

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.”

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 1, 2022 edition of The Black Joy newsletter. Sign up for Black Joy and all Reckon’s newsletters here.

R.L. Nave | rnave@reckonmedia.com

Ryan "R.L." Nave is Reckon's editor-in-chief. He has been a journalist in St. Louis, Mo; Springfield, Ill.; Seattle, Wa; Boulder, Co.; Jackson, Miss. and now calls Birmingham home.

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