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Tue, 07.13.2021

Black History, and Major League Baseball, a story

This all-star week, the Registry looks briefly at Blacks and major league baseball (MLB) on this date.

Black history in the MLB has been filled with many successes and a struggle for equity. The resistant wall of the 19th century separated the races in virtually all areas of American society, but there have been a number of rather remarkable parallels in the maturation of baseball for both races. The first baseball governing board was white.  It was the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) formed in 1858. Major league baseball was almost integrated in 1902 when legendary Baltimore Oriole manager John J. McGraw signed Charlie Grant. Grant had light skin, straight hair, and high cheekbones, but he was banned from the major leagues before the start of the season when Charlie Comiskey, Chicago White Sox owner, discovered that Grant was Black.

Denied the chance to play major league baseball, Blacks played in the illustrious Negro Leagues.  The first all-Black professional team, comprised of employees of the Argyle Hotel in New York, was formed in 1885, bought later by a New Jersey businessman, and officially named the Cuban Giants. It was not until 1920 that an organized African American league (the Negro National League) survived a full season.  Many great teams played in the Negro Leagues, with perhaps the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh Crawfords, and Kansas City Monarchs being the most remembered. Many superstars graced the playing field.  James "Cool Papa" Bell, Josh Gibson, and Leroy "Satchel” Paige, to mention a few.  Other former Negro League players who went on to star in the major leagues include Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, Junior Gilliam, Don Newcombe, and Joe Black.

The promotion of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 not only opened the doors for other African American players, it also signaled the end of the Negro Leagues. The Dodgers were the first to integrate, and the Boston Red Sox were the last, 12 years later. In 1970, Curt Flood, of the St. Louis Cardinals, shocked the baseball world and America by suing MLB and its “reserve clause”, the game's sacred clause that bound a player and his contract to a team for life.

The next milestone occurred in 1975 when the Cleveland Indians appointed Frank Robinson as the first African American manager in baseball history. The last piece of the integration puzzle in major league baseball was that of including African Americans in "the front office." Bill White, a 13-year veteran with a solid but not distinguished career, was appointed president of the National League, and the number of African American managers rose.

Diversification in the front office remains a muffled concern for major league baseball in the 21st century. While there are 30 major league teams, representation in the front office remains low for African Americans, even lower for Latinos, who now is the second-largest block of players in the major leagues, after whites.  Every team is owned by whites. With all of the rich Black history past and recent, there is a growing shortage of African American youth playing baseball.

According to Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, the percentage of African Americans in the major leagues dropped to 10 percent last season from 17 percent in 2003. The percentage of Latin players, 14 percent in 2003, rose to 20 percent last season.  Also African-
American representation in baseball is worlds behind that in the National Basketball Association (80 percent) and the National Football League (67 percent).

Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, the RBI program was founded in 1989, four years after Dwight Gooden was the last African American player to win the Cy Young award. The 185 RBI programs around the world are run with varying degrees of success. One of the better RBI program is in Los Angeles, which sends youths to showcase camps and out-of-state tournaments, because of the financial support of then Dodgers pitcher Kevin Brown, who is white.

African Americans account for 2 MLB managers, Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts, and for 65% of the participants in RBI two years ago; now they account for 50%. Current African American professional players on the field are Sterling Sharp, David Price, Jon Duplantier, Lorenzo Cain, Aaron Judge, Josh Bell, and Mookie Betts among others.

The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History
By Phil Dixon with Patrick J. Hannigan
Copyright 1992, Jed Clauss and Joanna Paulsen
Ameron House Publishing
ISBN 0-88488-0425-2

20th Century Baseball Chronicle
Year-By-Year History of major league Baseball
Copyright 1999, Publications International Ltd.
ISBN 0-7853-4074-2

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