There is a heritage passed down among what is now a small but proud subset of baseball players — a history, living and breathing, that says as much about our revered “national pastime” as it does about the Black people who play it.
Within the long arc of that history — from segregation through Jackie Robinson’s debut, the 1970s heyday of the Black ballplayer and his disappearance from the game in recent decades — we have arrived at what feels like a nadir, with Black players, who once made up a fifth of all major league rosters, now making up less than 8 percent.
Last year, Major League Baseball announced the “elevation” of the Negro Leagues to major league status and the integration of those players’ stats into MLB’s. It was celebrated in some circles, but it was a cosmetic change that did nothing to improve the lives of the thousands of players locked out of MLB’s gates.
The history remains the history. The heritage needs no whitewashing or “elevation.” And it demands to be heard.
The Washington Post spent this baseball season examining the experiences of nine African American ballplayers, from a 90-year-old icon to an 18-year-old prospect. Each can claim a special place within that heritage. Collectively, they tell us something more — about this game and this country.
‘He never succumbed to the weight of carrying his race.’
He is baseball’s greatest living ballplayer, yet he is something more: In the living history of the Black ballplayer, Willie Mays is the Alpha, the headwaters of a river that bends in some places, swells in others and sometimes seems in danger of drying up. — Dave Sheinin
‘You were always aware that you were Black.’
The slurs from fans, the indignities from his own team. One hot night in Cleveland, it all became too much for Mudcat Grant. So he sang, tweaking the words of the national anthem to better reflect his America. Then he decked his pitching coach. — Kevin B. Blackistone
‘I know for a fact this drug thing impeded my road.’
He knows the old song by heart: Seaver, Garvey, Schmidt and Vida Blue/If Cooperstown is calling, it’s no fluke. But Cooperstown never called, thanks in part to a bitter labor fight and a drug scandal. Now Blue wants to know: Will baseball ever forgive him? — Candace Buckner
‘He could do things that other baseball athletes couldn’t do.’
The 1989 All-Star Game was full of Black stars. But the biggest star that night was Bo Jackson, who did what today’s Black super athletes rarely do: He chose baseball. — Glynn A. Hill
‘These kids don’t feel ... that they can be seen’
He was, and will always be, “The Kid” — the backward-hat-wearing superstar who brought joy, and young Black fans, to baseball. Now Ken Griffey Jr.’s task is to do what his dad did for him: bring those kids into the baseball family. — Chelsea Janes
‘This sport is not for us, and we know that.’
He still carries the isolation of being one of one or two Black players on a team and the sport’s casual clubhouse racism. But there was that one trade deadline that landed him in Milwaukee, where for at least one summer CC Sabathia didn’t feel so alone. — Jerry Brewer
‘It’s still broken. Still broken.’
Long before “BLM” was stenciled on the pitcher’s mound, Bruce Maxwell took a knee. His sport, like much of his country, was slow to embrace that form of protest. Maxwell felt alone and cast out. He’s still trying to find his way back. — Jesse Dougherty
‘I’m Black as Black get.’
Tim Anderson grew up playing basketball. When he overcame the odds and started barreling major league fastballs, he did what came naturally: He celebrated. Baseball quickly made him aware that his way is not the “right way.” But it’s the only way he knows. — Michael Lee
‘I’m a catcher.’
The jewelry stays home; the hair stays tame. But the one thing 18-year-old prospect Ian Moller won’t do to appease the baseball men is change positions — even if baseball never seems to want someone who looks like him behind the plate. — Kent Babb