Baseball’s nod to the old Negro Leagues is just a token gesture
Every year, Major League Baseball pays homage to Jackie Robinson, the famed first player to break the colour line and play in the Major Leagues. On Jackie Robinson day every player, coach and official in the league wears the No 42 on their jersey in honour of the Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman’s debut in 1947.
But 27 years before that the National Negro League was formed as a way for the talented baseball players of African American and other ethnicities to compete in the first nationally established eight-team league.
The idea had been around in many forms before former pitcher Rube Foster formally established the league in 1920, with a steadfast rule that teams had to be black-owned.
While the National Negro League grew exponentially over the next five years, it only lasted until 1932, a year after founder Foster passed away, and players were forced to return to regional leagues as playing in the MLB was not yet allowed.
This past weekend has seen a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the league that started baseball on a path to integration with a series of events, throwback jerseys and Negro League patches.
So here we are 100 years later and all is well, integration has happened, Jackie Robinson was the right choice due to his demeanour and changed the face of baseball forever. Great, right?
No. Not at all.
A quick look around the Major Leagues and you’ll see that, while the big brass pay lip service to the Negro Leagues and it’s impact on baseball they are still failing at getting people of African American descent into positions of power.
Of the 30 teams, there are two black minority owners. That’s former Yankee Derek Jeter who owns a whopping 4 per cent of the Miami Marlins and NFL star Patrick Mahomes who recently purchased a small part of the Royals. OK, so owning a baseball team, like almost all other American sports teams, is a license to print money, and as such has a relatively high buy-in.
An example would be Jeter’s business partners when they bought the Marlin’s in 2017, widely considered the worst team in baseball – the deal came a little shy of £1 billion.
But the problem runs deeper still.
As of the start of the season, MLB had just two general managers of minority descent, Al Avila of the Detroit Tigers and Faran Zaidi of the San Francisco Giants. Furthermore, there are only two other minorities who have control of their departments within the league, Ken Williams and Michael Hill.
Major League Baseball has a problem at the top, an issue that shows the hypocrisy of celebrating the Negro League a hundred years later.
Surely on the diamond, the numbers must get better? Well, they do, but not much.
As of the active rosters, this weekend in MLB, only 7.7 per cent of the players are from African American descent. That’s a shockingly low number, putting it ahead of only the NHL of America’s major sports.
Even that could worsen as that number has been in steady decline since the 1980s, when 21 per cent of the league were of African American descent.
One hundred years on from packed stadia and players whom legends such as Babe Ruth made a point of scheduling games against during his barnstorming days, Major League baseball is close to celebrating the Negro Leagues with rosters free of any black players.
It’s no shock to see that in that same period baseball has slipped down the TV ratings, falling behind college football and basketball and now on an almost equal footing as the NHL.
With each year that passes, and each percentage the number slips, baseball is becoming more segregated from African Americans.
Ironically the time has never been better for them to promote the superstars they have. A look at the stats will tell you that Aaron Judge of the Yankees is on track for an MVP season, while in LA Lorenzo Cain could be the poster child – both are of African American descent.
If MLB really wants to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues, then they need to start making a more concerted effort to get African Americans into high-level positions.
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