Cost, racism and football are draining Black American talent in baseball


This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Let’s examine some ways baseball loses African-American talent.

Former Blue Jay and current Pittsburgh Pirate Anthony Alford once told me fellow residents of Pearl, Miss., used to hold fundraisers to help cover the steep cost of the summer baseball circuit where teenagers develop into pro prospects. If those efforts had fallen short, Alford would probably have become a full-time football player, and Major League Baseball’s already tiny community of African-American players would be even smaller.

Another former Jay, Curtis Granderson, told me about a Black teammate released from their low-level minor league club after a simmering dispute that started because their conservative white manager didn’t like his cornrows. Granderson pointed out that white guys with mullets didn’t have their hairstyles scrutinized, but noted that a culture clash derailed a promising Black player’s career before he could sniff the majors.

Two years ago, Kyler Murray collected part of a $4.66 million US signing bonus after the Oakland Athletics picked him ninth overall in the 2018 draft. Murray promised to join the club for spring training 2019, after one final season as the starting quarterback at the University of Oklahoma. Then came 4,361 passing yards, 54 total touchdowns and the Heisman Trophy, and mock drafts casting Murray as a first-round pick.

Then came the reversal. Murray returned the Athletics’ signing bonus, went to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2019 NFL draft, and was last seen passing for 286 yards and rushing for 67 more in Arizona’s 30-15 Week 2 win over Washington.

So, if you’re wondering how Black players born, raised and developed in the U.S., who once composed nearly 20 per cent of MLB, accounted for just 67 (or 7.4 per cent of) opening-day roster spots this season, the three factors we just outlined – cost, racism, and football – explain a lot of it.

In the reckoning on race that followed the late May slaying of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a group of current and former African-American MLB players formed The Players Alliance, aimed at dismantling the barriers between Black Americans and all levels of baseball. On Monday MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association announced a $10 million donation to the Alliance, the group’s first major cash infusion and an important symbolic gesture from two of the sport’s biggest stakeholders.

The money alone won’t solve the deep-rooted problems The Players Alliance has targeted, but it’s a concrete step toward helping the group stem a decades-long slow leak in Black American talent, and create a pipeline to deliver qualified Black candidates to front office jobs.

Why does any of this matter?

Because after Floyd’s death, and the international protests it spawned, pro sports and the news media joined a long list of industries re-examining their own relationships with racism, and vowing to do better by people of colour. Washington D.C.’s NFL franchise dropped its racist nickname, while the league emblazoned the words “End Racism” across its end zones.

The NHL splashed the slogan #WeSkateForBLACKLIVES across video screens inside its two postseason venues, and handed Matt Dumba a mic so the Minnesota Wild defenceman could make a heartfelt speech to rally the hockey community against racism.

WATCH | Wild’s Dumba delivers speech before anthem kneel:

After delivering a powerful anti-racism speech, Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba took a knee during the American national anthem prior to Edmonton taking on Chicago. 1:32

And in the month immediately after Chauvin killed Floyd, my inbox filled with requests for interviews, panel discussions, and training on how to make newsrooms less racist.

But I’ve seen this cycle too many times to be surprised if the late-springtime interest in Black voices and issues disappears with the warm weather. The question isn’t whether decision-makers in these industries will make time for Black folks in the wake of the latest racial crisis. They always do.

The bigger unknown is whether they’ll follow up when the topic’s not hot anymore. It’s one thing to celebrate the idea of Black people after a police officer slaying an unarmed Black person makes worldwide headlines. It’s something else to accept the reality of Black people as co-workers, bosses or power brokers.

The Players Alliance emerged in late spring, when members of a close-knit network of Black American players, both active and retired, formed a group dedicated to using “our voice and platform to create change and equality in our game.”

Awareness helps, and so does money.

When the cost of a season of elite amateur baseball spirals into the thousands of dollars, talented kids from working-class families can find themselves priced out. Alford would have, too, except his community found creative ways to keep his baseball fees paid.

MLB heeds calls for action

According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, white American families have a median net worth of $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for Black families. While that wealth disparity has always operated in the background, MLB said in a statement announcing the donation that 2020’s racial reckoning spurred the organization to action.

“Recent events … have crystallized the need for prescriptive programs and additional education designed to enhance Black participation at all levels of baseball for the betterment of our game,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said.

Racism entrenched at lower levels of the sport might prove tougher to uproot.

In July 2018, Twitter users unearthed old, racist posts from Milwaukee’s Josh Hader, and republished them as he pitched in the All-Star Game. Less than two weeks later, Trea Turner and Sean Newcomb of the Washington Nationals apologized after bigoted social media posts they authored as teenagers were discovered and reposted.

And in late June, when veteran outfielder Ian Desmond published an Instagram post explaining his opting out of the 2020 season, he also described playing alongside high school teammates who routinely chanted “White Power” before games.

“Two black kids on the team sitting in a stunned silence the white players didn’t seem to notice,” he wrote.

Would you have blamed Desmond for opting out of baseball sooner, and pursuing a sport that offered more scholarship money and less bigotry? Factor in the cost, and the surprise isn’t that so many talented Black athletes decide against paying for the privilege of spending summers with white teammates who might be racist. It’s that Black athletes with options would stick with baseball long enough to make it a career.

If MLB’s $10-million donation helps The Players Alliance remove the financial barriers facing future generations of Black baseball players, then the money will have helped solve one part of a multifaceted problem. In baseball terms, it’s pocket change. It’s about $500,000 less than Cleveland pays Francisco Lindor, and it’s $5 million less than what the Blue Jays paid relief pitcher B.J. Ryan not to play after dumping him midway through the 2009 season.

But if the money enables the Alliance to keep more African-American kids in the game, then it’s not a donation.

It’s an investment.



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