How Black MLB players are confined by baseball's conservative culture


Programming note: Watch "Race in America: A Candid Conversation" on NBC Sports Bay Area on Friday, July 3 at 8 p.m.

Limited to 750 highly skilled men, it’s one of the best jobs in the world. There is no 8-to-5 grind, no heavy lifting and the setting is mostly outdoors. The paycheck is plush, the lifestyle splendid.

A small percentage of those within the Major League Baseball labor force, however, operate under a strict code of conduct and, therefore, must be precise with every step, ruminate over every word and, perhaps above all, conceal joy.

The Black ballplayer exists in a constricted box. And the man who dares to step outside that box risks being upbraided, downgraded and maybe even lacerated.

“I’ve felt like that ever since I’ve stepped into the game,” Giants outfielder Jaylin Davis said. “You look around and don’t see anyone that looks like you. You automatically feel like that. I feel like we have to work harder. For sure.

“Yeah, sometimes you can’t really be yourself, you have to be this model that they set, and you have to go by it.”

[RACE IN AMERICA: Listen to the latest episode]

Davis was a member of a panel featuring four-time 20-game winner Dave Stewart and free-agent pitcher Edwin Jackson in the latest episode of NBC Sports Bay Area’s “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” scheduled for Friday at 8 p.m. As African Americans, all three have experienced life in the box.

Davis realizes his career sits on a thin line. At 26, he hopes to someday achieve the status that might grant him the right of expression. Meanwhile, he feels marginalized by his skin color.

Dr. Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, first took on the task of being a watchdog on race and gender in MLB in 1991. In the three decades since his first annual report card, which revealed MLB rosters were 19 percent Black, the ranks have diminished. In his last Racial and Gender Report Card, the percentage was 8.4 -- and that was an increase over the 7.7 percent posted in the previous report.

For every 16 white players and seven Latino players, there are two Black players -- 40 percent of what there once were. Being a member of a vanishing breed brings a psychological burden.

Whenever someone, in any profession, realizes they represent a rare demographic, many of their emotions are internalized.

“It’s frustrating to sit back and not be able to speak your mind, about a fact of being Black and American,” Jackson said. “Because of how it might affect our job, when everyone else has the freedom of speech to go ahead and speak their mind however they want to. How when we say it, it’s coming from a bad place and is frowned upon. That’s the part of the game that makes you pissed off that you can’t speak your mind when it’s coming from the heart.”

Rickey Henderson, the gold-standard leadoff hitter and surely among the top 10 players in history, was criticized for a number of things, most of which fall under the category of vanity. He entered the Hall of Fame on the first ballot despite 28 voters thinking him unworthy. Chipper Jones, a great player but hardly at Rickey’s level, went in with a higher percentage of votes.

Henderson’s career paralleled the tail end of the golden era of Black players, when most teams had four or five or more; the Pittsburgh Pirates became the first team to start nine players of color in 1971. Rickey played beyond the box. So did Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr., to name three.

The lone current Black player who crosses the line, Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson, already has picked up a “reputation” for self-promotion one that might be inhibiting if not for the fact that he led both leagues in batting last season.

Everybody else? Pretty much staying in that box, concerned that not doing so might jeopardize his career. A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell strayed far from the box in 2017, dropping to one knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. He’s now playing in Mexico. And still getting threats from “fans.”

“I just think that the condition that the Black players play under today, we always have something in the back of our minds that if I do something, that is out of the system. If I say something, that is out of the system,” Stewart said. “I’m going to lose my job and going to lose the ability to play this game, and I’m going to lose the ability to have the earnings to take care of my family and my family’s family.

“Because we’re at a point now in this game where, two or three good contracts and you make a legacy for your whole family. So, I think that’s what took place with Bruce. This sport has not been tolerant of change. It has not been tolerant of militancy, or freedom of speech or a Black man saying what he thinks.”

[RELATED: Desmond 'stepped up big' by stepping away, Stewart says]

Might this change with the sudden racial awakening in previously unaware or unconcerned corners of America? Perhaps.

But baseball is the most conservative of our three major sports. It’s difficult to imagine dramatic progress when 100 percent of the CEOs and 87 percent of the general managers are white.

Put another way, seven decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, the Black ballplayer does not feel fully emancipated. Indeed, he heads to the ballpark each day acutely aware of the diminishing numbers, believing repression is a requirement of survival.

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