African American Representation in Major League Baseball

Every year, Spring Training kicks off the Major League Baseball (MLB) season in February, coinciding with Black History Month. Entering 2024, African American representation across the league remains precariously low. Although the data has not been released yet, it is estimated to be similar to last year when Black players took up only 6.1% of opening-day rosters, the lowest since 1955.

Past Great Black Players

Jackie Robinson, the most pivotal Black player in the sport’s history, broke the color barrier in 1947 after starring in the Negro League when Black players were not allowed to compete in MLB. Fellow Negro League standouts Willie Mays and Satchel Paige followed the history-maker, bringing their Hall of Fame abilities to MLB.

Frank Robinson, the only player to win a Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in each league, became the first Black manager in the sport’s history. In addition, the league’s all-time home run (Barry Bonds) and stolen base (Rickey Henderson) leaders are of African American descent. Yet, according to Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt’s study, the percentage of Black players in MLB has steadily declined since peaking in the 1980s.

Problem and Solutions

Currently, most MLB players are White, but teams have also tapped into international markets to find talent from Central America (Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba), South America (Columbia, Venezuela), and Asia (Japan, South Korea).

The fact that there has not been a Black starting catcher in MLB since Charles Johnson in 2004 shows how much the demographics of the league have changed. Although it is challenging for all aspiring baseball players to reach the sport’s biggest stage, there are different thoughts regarding the reasons for these shifts.

Some believe that African American youth athletes nowadays shift their focus away from baseball because of the high costs of youth travel baseball and its lack of diversity.

MLB leaders have worked to rectify this issue over the past few years, putting together diversity programs like the seventh DREAM Series, an annual event that brought 80 aspiring African American baseball players to Arizona over January’s Martin Luther King Jr. weekend to receive on- and off-field coaching from former players, coaches, and MLB diversity officials.

Their efforts seem to be paying dividends. Four African American prospects, all DREAM alums, were chosen in the first five picks of 2022’s MLB draft. Arizona Diamondbacks center fielder Druw Jones, the son of former player Andruw Jones, and Pittsburgh Pirates’ second baseman Termarr Johnson are two future names to know as both minor leaguers find themselves on multiple preseason top prospect rankings.

Additionally, MLB honored the Field of Dreams movie by playing a regular-season game in 2021 and 2022 at a stadium near where they made the movie. This year, MLB is doing something different. On June 20, the San Francisco Giants will play the St. Louis Cardinals at Rickwood Field (Birmingham, Alabama), the oldest ballpark in the country. The special occasion between two historically successful teams will honor the Negro Leagues, especially the one and only Mays, who played at Rickwood with the Birmingham Black Barons before rocketing to superstardom with the Giants.

Five Modern-day African-American stars

In the meantime, while they may be few and far between in today’s MLB, many Black players are poised to shine throughout this upcoming campaign. The following five wow with their exploits on and off the field.

1) Mookie Betts

Mookie Betts, one of the most exciting players in the league, is expected to set the tone for the loaded Los Angeles Dodgers lineup this season. The socially conscious phenom debuted with the Boston Red Sox in 2014, three years after they drafted him out of high school in the fifth round of the 2011 draft.

Originally a second baseman, Betts eventually became a full-time right fielder because Dustin Pedroia played the keystone in Boston. Since his first full-length season (2015), Betts has racked up impressive yearly stats and numerous accolades. He was named the American League’s (AL) MVP and won his first World Series with the Red Sox in 2018.

In 2020, he was traded to the Dodgers, helping them win the title for the pandemic-shortened season. Fresh off a runner-up MVP finish, the seven-time All-Star and six-time Gold Glove award-winning second baseman could have another MVP-caliber season, hitting in front of left-handed sluggers Shohei Ohtani and Freddie Freeman.

2) Hunter Greene

The Cincinnati Reds are building their starting rotation around Hunter Greene, the flamethrowing 24-year-old pitcher the club selected second overall in the 2017 draft.

Greene was a standout pitcher and shortstop at Notre Dame High School (Sherman Oaks, CA), joining Bryce Harper as the only two amateur baseball players ever to be featured on the front page of Sports Illustrated. He learned to pitch at the MLB Academy in Compton, California. He has given back to what got him here, earning the club’s 2023 Roberto Clemente Award nomination for setting up a camp at the MLB Academy and creating a scholarship at his high school.

Greene, who finished last year with a 4-7 record and 4.82 ERA in 22 starts, has the talent to take his game up a notch and emerge as one of the best pitchers in the league. He should have a bright spotlight on a Reds team that wants to contend for the playoffs.

3) Michael Harris II

Atlanta native Michael Harris II rose through the Atlanta Braves farm system, seizing his hometown team’s center field position in 2022. He has not looked back since, beating teammate Spencer Strider to win that year’s Rookie of the Year award.

Last year, he avoided the sophomore slump, hitting .293, bashing 18 home runs, and recording 57 RBIs as part of one of the best offensive teams in the league. Braves fans should expect more excellent defense and timely offensive production from Harris this year, as he is one component of what looks to be a talented all-around squad.

4) Cedric Mullens

Cedric Mullens, the Baltimore Orioles’ center fielder, was a big part of their 101-win season and AL East division title last year. The 2021 All-Star has worked hard to become a solid player following early-career struggles. He will be counted on for another strong season as the Orioles look to defend their division title and go deeper in the playoffs.

5) Devin Williams

Milwaukee Brewers’ closer Devin Williams has evolved into one of the best relief pitchers in the league, largely thanks to his unique changeup, which often sends opposing batters back to their dugouts shaking their heads.

He began his MLB career as a setup reliever, winning the NL Rookie of the Year award in 2020, and then took over the closer role in 2022. The two-time All-Star will be busy earning saves for the Brewers as one of the most dependable late-game weapons.

Change Needed Beyond the Field

The lack of Black representation is not just confined to the players. White men own and are in charge of player transactions for all 30 MLB franchises, and only the two Los Angeles squads have Black managers, with Dave Roberts in charge of the Dodgers and Ron Washington set to begin his first year as the Los Angeles Angels skipper.

If MLB wants to attract and retain the interest of Black players and fans, they need to continue implementing programs like the DREAM series, attempt to diversify leadership, and help to address problems at the youth level.

Main Image:  Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports

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