The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At this World Series, the national pastime doesn’t look like the nation

Dusty Baker leads the Houston Astros in the World Series, where neither team has a U.S.-born Black player. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
7 min

PHILADELPHIA — The World Series finally shifted Tuesday night to a town where it hadn’t been staged in 13 years, and there’s a freshness around the Philadelphia Phillies that is invigorating for the sport. The Houston Astros are the been there done that (by any means) crew. The Phillies boast a collection of stars — Bryce Harper, Rhys Hopkins, J.T. Realmuto, Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola — who have never been here. What a treat.

Look at that list of prominent Phillies. The new team here highlights an old issue: Baseball might be quintessentially American. It is also increasingly White. That’s not breaking news, and we’ll get into the reasons and — more importantly — the potential solutions. But when there are two World Series teams that boast not a single U.S.-born Black player, it’s striking.

“To say we’re challenged in our game with attracting many of the top athletes to play our great game is an understatement,” Tony Clark, the head of the MLB Players Association and himself a 15-year big leaguer, said earlier in the season.

Clark knows, because he didn’t choose baseball. Baseball chose him. He played basketball at the University of Arizona, but his hardwood career was slowed when he suffered a back injury as a freshman. Even after the Detroit Tigers took him with the second pick in the 1990 MLB draft, “I really looked at it, and even joked, that I was a basketball player in a baseball uniform,” Clark told me several years ago.

That’s not unique to Clark. When Tim Anderson was growing up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., he had a choice of what to watch and whom to idolize.

“I liked Ken Griffey Jr.,” the Chicago White Sox shortstop said at this summer’s All-Star Game. “Other than that, I didn’t really watch. I had some guys I watched, but I was more a basketball guy. I wasn’t really sold on baseball.”

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There’s something to that. Black kids born in the United States can’t flip on this World Series and see a single face like theirs contributing on the field. That’s a first since 1950, and it’s why the issue is gaining new attention this fall.

But even if, say, the New York Yankees had beaten the Astros and the San Diego Padres had beaten the Phillies in the league championship series, the difference would be only nominal. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton would have given the World Series some Black star power; both Yankees sluggers are of mixed race. Josh Bell is a prominent Black face in the Padres’ lineup.

That’s it, though. The playoffs featured some U.S.-born Black players — Mookie Betts of the Dodgers, Michael Harris II of Atlanta, Triston McKenzie of Cleveland. They were dots on the tapestry, not brushstrokes that colored it. There aren’t similar players who fill out a bench or a bullpen, a rotation or an infield. NBA and NFL teams have U.S.-born Black players up and down the roster. MLB teams don’t.

What’s lost is the opportunity for kids to see people who look like them and grew up like them working together for the betterment of a big league team. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport has been charting racial participation in baseball and other sports since 1991. Its annual report said that 7.2 percent of players on this year’s Opening Day rosters were Black — the lowest percentage in the report’s history.

So this isn’t a 2022 problem. It is a problem ingrained and exacerbated over decades. It is cultural. It is economic. It is logistical.

Major League Baseball has explored a variety of ways to make its rosters look more like the populations of the cities they represent. In 1989, the league established the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, which includes in its mission statement the goal to “promote greater inclusion of youth with diverse backgrounds into the mainstream of the game.”

That’s great in intent. In reality, it hasn’t worked. So why keep plugging away with a well-intentioned strategy that has yielded no results? It’s time for MLB to have a comprehensive plan across not only its major league markets, but in minor league towns big and small.

In Washington, D.C., there is a living, breathing, still-developing attempt to do something different. It may be working. And if it is, it should be replicated. The Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy started its YBA Play program for would-be baseball players as young as 6 in 2016, two years after the facility east of the Anacostia River opened.

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“By offering access to an opportunity for children to play baseball in a fun, engaging, fast-paced environment, we’ve found that previous access to the game, previous exposure to the game, is not necessary for kids to enjoy playing the game,” said Tal Alter, the CEO of Washington Nationals Philanthropies. “When you get kids who enjoy the experience — no matter who they are or where they’re from — they stick with it.”

The YBA Play program hasn’t produced big leaguers — which isn’t the point, anyway. But there is increasing evidence that it’s building a love of the game by teaching skills with drills that might not even feel like a baseball game — quick bursts rather than slow slogs. The academy’s more competitive, next-level program — Hustle — includes more than 100 players annually. They are provided with facilities, equipment and coaching, all free of charge — which removes the financial and logistical challenges that prevent so many kids from underserved communities from participating in travel baseball.

The first cohort of kids in the Hustle programs are near the end of their high school careers — many playing varsity baseball, with some on track to play in college.

“I think it’s fair to say that representation matters and that our kids absolutely pay attention to who is on big league rosters,” Alter said. “We hear them talking about it all the time.”

There are people working on these issues at all levels of the MLB offices — and Commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday addressed the failure of clubs to install diverse faces in front offices and in manager’s jobs. The league has a list of programs and events — a Hank Aaron Invitational, the Dream Series on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, diversity development camps, on and on — that are meant to provide more opportunities and identify more potential big leaguers. Indeed, baseball considered it something of a victory when four of the top five picks in the July draft were American-born Black players, and all four had participated in some of the league-sponsored development programs.

Still, Astros Manager Dusty Baker is the most prominent Black character — really, the only U.S.-born Black character — in this Series. And he absorbed the notion that there were no Black players by saying: “I don’t think that that’s something that baseball should really be proud of. It looks bad.”

It’s not just that it looks bad. It is bad. What was once the national pastime no longer looks like the nation. The World Series, back in Philadelphia, has a fresh feel to it. The hope would be that rosters such as those competing here become a thing of the past. Baseball needs to identify and develop ways to expose its sport to young athletes from all means and communities and to get them to choose baseball rather than the other way around. Without that, something is lost.