The World Series that starts Friday night between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies will be less diverse than the 1951 series between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants. As The Associated Press has noted, neither the Astros’ roster nor the Phillies’ roster is expected to include any U.S.-born Black players, the first time there's been such an absence in 72 years. In fact, after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, 1950 was the only World Series without any U.S.-born Black players — until today.
After Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in 1947, 1950 was the only World Series without Black Americans — until today.
Both the top-dog Astros and the surging Phillies can boast of their Afro Latino talent. Think of Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez or Phillies shortstop Edmundo Sosa. And yes, one of the great figures in the series will be Astros manager Dusty Baker, who grew up idolizing Robinson, played with Henry Aaron and was an All-Star during perhaps the greatest generation of Black American talent the game has ever seen. (After 55 years in “the show,” Baker imparts this history to players and reporters alike.) But that the tradition of what was once called “Black Baseball” now rests with a 73-year-old man tells its own story.
There is no modern-day baseball without the baseball that Black Americans forged. Black athletes transformed the game from a pastoral pastime into something that hummed. The Negro Leagues incubated talent that produced showstoppers like pitcher Satchel Paige and slugger Josh Gibson. This tradition defined baseball throughout the second half of the 20th century through legends including Robinson, Aaron, Willie Mays, Bob Gibson, Reggie Jackson, Dwight Gooden, Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds. These are the icons who inspired (and at times polarized) fans and made the game what it is.
Or what it was.
This season Black Americans made up only 7.2% of players on opening day rosters, the lowest percentage since the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport started charting the numbers in 1991.
This is a calamity for the sport. The state of the national pastime makes a sad statement about the nation itself. We are a divided country, mired in racial segregation and an ever-widening gap between the rich and the rest. Baseball now reflects this reality. Decades ago, children in urban communities played stickball and learned the sport with whatever equipment they could find or create. They had the freedom to develop their skills without adults charting their every move.
Then youth leagues and high schools became the place where the talent of Black Americans was able to flourish. Think of famed early 1980s Crenshaw and Fremont High School teams out of South Central Los Angeles led by future major league stars Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis. But now just playing in a youth league can be cost prohibitive for many families. And it’s not just the cost that’s the problem. Time-consuming travel teams are just about the only path to a college scholarship or the major leagues.
It has been less expensive for Major League Baseball to enroll Dominican teens in baseball academies than to make the kinds of investments in our own cities to find and develop talent.
Meanwhile baseball, which is now more a reflection of corporate globalization than anything resembling a national pastime, has invested millions in baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and invested in scouts who comb places such as Cuba, Japan and South Korea looking for talent. The Dominican Republic, an impoverished country of 11 million people, was the birthplace of at least 10% of Major League Baseball players at the start of the 2022 season. It has, in recent decades, been far less expensive and far more profitable for MLB to enroll Dominican teens in baseball academies than to try to make the kinds of investments in our own cities to find and develop talent.
Sports has a stronger appeal when we see ourselves on the field. In my family, any Jewish athlete who made it to Major League Baseball was immediately imagined to be the next Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg. Similarly, one of the reasons that baseball historically appealed to Black Americans was the presence of star players of galactic talent who looked like them. From Moses Fleetwood Walker in the 19th century and over the next hundred years, Black American stardom meant that kids grew up wanting to be a Reggie Jackson or a Dave Winfield.
But now that Black Americans are mostly gone from the sport, there’s a decreasing desire for Black American kids to step into the batter’s box. Or as Dusty Baker said this week, "What hurts is that I don't know how much hope that it gives some of the young African-American kids. Because when I was their age, I had a bunch of guys, Mays, Aaron, Frank Robinson, Tommy Davis — my hero — Maury Wills, all these guys. We need to do something before we lose them."
Jesse Hagopian, who coaches a multiracial Little League team in Seattle and is co-editor of the book “Black Lives Matter at School,” told me he saw the report about Black Americans being absent from this World Series. “I was reflecting on why this was the other day when I took my kids to a baseball field near our house,” he said. “It was overgrown with weeds — a field that is located directly across the street from a glittering police precinct in a city where the mayor has just proposed adding $20 million to the police budget.”
He added: “It’s clear to me that the lack of Black kids joining baseball teams isn’t because Black people don’t like baseball — it’s directly linked to a lack of investment in facilities and equipment that Black kids need to play the game. If Black communities saw beautiful new baseball diamonds in their neighborhoods along with equipment that I'm sure Major League Baseball could donate, it would be a whole new ballgame."
Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox is the only Black general manager in Major League Baseball.
Major League Baseball, to its credit, is finally throwing serious money at the problem. The league already has the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities). Last year, MLB committed to investing $150 million over the next decade in an organization called the Players Alliance, which seeks to not only turn the tide on these trends on the field, but also provide training for front office jobs. Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox is the only Black general manager in Major League Baseball. The Players Alliance wants to see that change.
There is also what could be a remarkable generation of talent on the horizon. At this summer’s MLB draft, for the first time, four of the first five players selected were Black Americans. This is great for the sport, because the national pastime needs to be for everyone. If it isn’t, then it has failed in its mission to bring us together and instead would become another tool aimed at keeping us apart.
CORRECTION (Oct. 29, 2022, 5:53 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the title of a book that Jesse Hagopian co-edited. It is "Black Lives Matter at School," not "Black Lives Matter at Schools."