“I said: ‘I know it’s little bit different for us to be in a meeting and someone wants to pray for you. I love baseball, but I’m a pastor, too,’ ” he said. The MLB staffers assented. Husband prayed.
Not long after that 2020 phone call, Husband got another one. Reagins had an idea, and he and his staff had been texting back and forth about it since. They were always hunting for ways to ingrain baseball in Black communities around the country. Maybe churches could help.
With the help of Husband’s extensive Rolodex, Reagins and his team reached out to leaders from historically Black churches around the country to set up drive-through events at which local baseball dignitaries would hand out equipment and gear to any kid who wanted them. Over the next several months, MLB sponsored events in Philadelphia, Richmond, Oklahoma City and Charleston, S.C.
On Saturday, the Nationals helped sponsor an event at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. A dozen or so volunteers handed plastic bats, balls and Nationals gear through car windows as Screech, the team’s mascot, directed traffic. Not even an hour into the event, a volunteer had to call for more supplies.
Husband is the vice president of player development and recruitment for the Richmond chapter of an MLB outreach initiative designed to promote inclusion and diversity. He said his experience as one of the only Black kids on his high school baseball team ended his playing days early. He became determined not to let his son see his passion undermined the same way.
“You’ve heard of NBA players … who started playing basketball when they were seniors in high school, freshmen in college, and became Hall of Famers. You’ve heard of football players who’ve done that — started playing in college and gone on to the Hall of Fame,” Husband said. “But you never heard of a baseball player starting that late in the game because it is so difficult in different areas. So many nuances to it. If you don’t get that foundation early, you can’t catch up.”
According to research done by the Society for American Baseball Research, Black players made up at least 10 percent of MLB rosters for more than four decades, in every year from 1962 to 2004. In the early and mid-1980s, the percentage hovered closer to 20 percent as Reggie Jackson, Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn, Dave Winfield, Rod Carew and others populated all-star teams year in and year out.
But starting in the late 1990s, the percentage started to fall. By the expected start of last season, Black players accounted for just 7.5 percent of Opening Day rosters, according to MLB. One of just two Black managers in the majors, Dusty Baker, has called the dropping number of Black players “frustrating.” Last year, the other Black manager, Dave Roberts, acknowledged similar frustration as he became just the second Black manager to win the World Series.
“People in the game, like any industry, like people of like mind and that look like them. And the people that are running the game is White America,” Roberts told The Washington Post in November. “So I think that as a result you’re getting hires across the spectrum of people that look the same.”
MLB is slowly coming to terms with its exclusionary history. In December, it announced that it would elevate the 1920-48 Negro Leagues to major league status, a public refutation of the assumptions on which MLB’s push for integration were built. When plucking stars from the Negro Leagues, many MLB owners did so on the premise that they were giving them an opportunity to play at a higher level than they could otherwise, suggesting that only in the big leagues against White players could a Black player prove his worth.
Black big leaguers have taken it upon themselves to push for change, too. After George Floyd died in police custody in May, current and former players recorded a video urging action and formed the Players Alliance, a group that organized a trailer that brought coronavirus safety supplies, baseball equipment and the history of the game to children and families across the country.
Meanwhile, MLB has continued efforts to reach those it has left behind. Earlier this year, it announced the hiring of Ken Griffey Jr., who will work as a senior adviser to Commissioner Rob Manfred. As one of the most beloved players of the past three decades, the one-of-a-kind star who inspired thousands of kids to wear their hats backward like him during his Hall of Fame career is now among those MLB hopes can help restore enthusiasm in groups that may have lost it in recent years.
“It’s really tapping in, being intentional in doing so, making phone calls, reaching out to organizations that have been on the ground floor for a long time and just didn’t have the resources to grow or just didn’t know how to get connected,” Reagins said of those efforts. And churches have long been at the center of Black communities.
“In a lot of historically Black churches, AME churches, Grandma and Grandpa and your parents went there. You’re doing what they say,” said Chris Singleton, a former Cubs minor leaguer who has since left the game to offer coaching about unity to organizations around the country. “If you go there and they want you to go out to Little League and give it a shot, you do what Grandma and Grandpa tell you to.”
When he was a kid, Singleton moved from Atlanta to Charleston — a culture shock, he said, because in Atlanta, there were plenty of Black kids on his baseball teams. In Charleston, he was one of few. He played at Goose Creek High, then Charleston Southern University before reaching high Class A in the Cubs’ system.
In the spring of 2019, he joined the Charleston RiverDogs, now a low Class A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, as director of community outreach. But even as he moved back to his hometown, joined the RiverDogs and re-immersed himself in the Charleston community, he rarely stopped by his childhood church anymore.
Emanuel AME Church, the church his parents took him to when he was growing up, became something different for Singleton in June 2015, when a white supremacist murdered nine people during Bible study. Singleton’s mother was one of them.
“I never wanted to be a speaker or involved in anything like that before my mom was killed. I just wanted to play sports, just wanted to play baseball. After she was killed, my perspective kind of changed,” he said. “That’s kind of how I got started and doing what I do now with my mission.”
But late last month, baseball brought Singleton back to Emanuel. He helped run one of three MLB-sponsored drive-through events at Black churches around the country that day, handing baseball equipment to the nearly 200 kids he said stopped by.
“For me to be able to do that to Mother Emanuel was super cool just because I don’t really go back there too much,” said Singleton, who rounded up the leftover gear and headed to hand the rest out at housing projects near the RiverDogs’ stadium, where kids often play on a baseball field out front.
“We want to let them know, ‘Hey, this is a place for you guys.’ ”