Re-Orienting the Contemporary Narrative of African Americans in Baseball

by Eric M. Washington.
Jackie Robinson batting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1954
Jackie Robinson batting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1954

It is very late on Wednesday, April 15, 2015. This particular day and year marks the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Many historians and Americans in general consider Lincoln that most significant president in this country’s history. He was the first Republican to win a presidential election, and of course he steered the country during its darkest period, the Civil War. For most Americans, his crowning achievement was the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. While Lincoln’s assassination is an important event in the history of America, April 15 is also Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball. MLB has commemorated this day since 2004, and since 2007 all players, coaches, and managers don the famed #42, which was Robinson’s number during his playing days with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-1956. In 1997, then MLB commissioner Bud Selig retired #42 throughout the league. How can a historian compare these two events? Abraham Lincoln was an American president, and navigated the country during the Civil War. Lincoln is a symbol of freedom. I would admit that Lincoln is an important global historical figure. No doubt. But Jackie Robinson, in his own right, is one of the more important Americans of the 20th century; and his influence is still felt at present.

Uniformed baseball players, all wearing number 42
BOSTON – APRIL 15: It was ‘Jackie Robinson Day’ all around major league baseball, and in his honor, all players, coaches and umpires wore his number 42. Here, the Nationals’ Jayson Werth, far right, greets his teammates as the exit the field after defeating the Red Sox 10-5. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

During the past few years, current New York Met outfielder Curtis Granderson has emerged as the spokesperson on African-American baseball issues. In an article published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2011, Granderson, then a New York Yankee, remarked on his challenge to teammates to count the number of African Americans attending the game as fans. He challenged them to see if they could find ten. In Texas on that particular day, he and his teammates could only count fewer than ten. In some cities, there were more; but there in Arlington, Texas there were no more than ten African Americans the Yankees could count. For Granderson, this was a sad reality.

Yet this sad reality is also on the field. As of the start of this season, 7.8% of MLB players are African American. In 1986, African-American ballplayers composed 19% of MLB players. This is a generational problem. When I was a boy, it was my father who introduced me to baseball as a game and as a viewer of the game. I have vague memories of Willie Mays playing for the Mets, but I do remember when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. I also remember Willie McCovey’s last season with the Giants in 1980. Of course, I remember Willie Stargell and the “We are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates who won the 1979 World Series. These were African-American baseball stars who, along with Joe Morgan and Ferguson Jenkins (who’s actually Canadian), are members of the Hall of Fame. I also remember players like Garry Maddox and Bake McBride of the Philadelphia Phillies, Reggie Smith and Dusty Baker of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Jim Rice and George “the Boomer” Scott of the Boston Red Sox, Ellis Valentine and Andre Dawson of the Montreal Expos, etc. In brief, I knew every African-American ball player on each team. Why? Because I considered baseball just as much as football and basketball as an African-American game. This is a point that journalist Rob Parker made back in 2011 in an article on “What happened to OUR game?” In supporting the argument that baseball is an African-American game, Parker wrote: “It has been since we finally were allowed to compete with everybody else in 1947 with Jackie Robinson’s admission into the major leagues. Look at the record books. We are everywhere. And count the best players who ever played this game. Many of them are African-American, have black skin.”

Why the paucity of African-American baseball players? Parker blamed basketball’s ascendancy as a more appealing sport for African-American boys coupled with basketball coaches making the best African-American players play year-round; therefore, they quit baseball even though they may be promising players. I want to offer another possible reason: the notion of the lack of masculinity in baseball. Football with its speed and hard-hitting exudes mascunility. Even basketball with its fluidity and artistry still provides boys the opportunity to flaunt their masculine prowess by dunking over another boy (“posterizing”), or “braking ankles” with killer cross-over dribbles. The one-on-one element in basketball in which there can be a clear victor and a clear vanquished is largely missing in baseball. Yet baseball does have this element in the game: the pitcher-batter confrontation has it, but it fails to capture the attention of young urban dwellers by and large.

Baseball card featuring African American player holding a bat
Minnie Monoso of the Chicago White Sox on a 1961 Topps baseball card

Though it is lamentable that there are few African-American baseball players in 2015, there is another side of this narrative. Look at the numbers of Afro-Latino baseball players. Latino ballplayers are 27% of all MLB players. Many of the Latino ballplayers are of African descent. I have a sneaking suspicion that Jackie Robinson would be proud to see baseball as diverse as it has ever been. A clear reminder of Jackie Robinson’s impact on baseball players of the African Diaspora occurred with the recent passing of Cuban-born Minnie Minoso. Though Cuban-born, Minoso has gone down in history as the first “black” player in Chicago White Sox history debuting with the team in 1951. Dominican-born Ozzie Virgil, Sr. is the first “black” player in Detroit Tiger history donning the old English D in 1958. Though I knew all of the African-American baseball players, I also knew all of the Afro-Latino players such as those who played for my “hometown” Houston Astros (I’m from New Orleans, but Houston was the closest team to us) like Dominicans Cesar Cedeno, Joaquin Andujar, and Jesus Alou. Like other Astros J. R. Richards, Bob Watson, and Enos Cabell, Cedeno, Andujar, and Alou looked like me. I agree with Rob Parker that baseball is OUR game, but OUR’s in an inclusive sense of the African Diaspora in the western hemisphere.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

2 thoughts on “Re-Orienting the Contemporary Narrative of African Americans in Baseball

  1. Pingback: “Youneverknow:” My Journey into Afro-Latino History and Culture | Historical Horizons

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