During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black Stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.
Hank Aaron wasn’t just a baseball legend.
His death in January, just days before Black History Month began, was a loss for the MLB community for his contributions as a home-run king and picture of longevity.
But Aaron was also a Black star in a time when public acts of racism were all too common. His life inspired millions of young Black and brown ballplayers, and his death has led to questions about the next great Black baseball player.
Since Aaron retired in 1976 (and Willie Mays three years before then), there has been Reggie Jackson and Tony Gwynn and Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr.. Now?
Enter, Mookie Betts.
The 28-year-old outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers has the personality, attitude and, of course, game to be the sport’s leading star, his peers say. And with declining participation — from 18% in 1976 down to 7.8% in 2020 — of African Americans in the game, there’s never been a better time for a new Black icon in baseball.
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Last season, Black players made up 7.8%, or 80 players, of the league’s expanded 30-man rosters, injured lists and restricted lists on Opening Day, according to an analysis by USA TODAY Sports. In 2019, MLB had a Black population of 7.7%.
Rajai Davis, who played 14 seasons of major league ball, plans to change that as a senior director of on-field operations with the league.
“Really trying to get more Black and African Americans in the game,” Davis said, “whether it’s front office, baseball operations, transitioning players from playing to off-the-field, coaches, managers, even scouts and youth development. … I know what the minority players are going to deal with. It’s almost inevitable because of the climate right now.”
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The importance of Black voices in baseball
Davis’ struggles leading up to the 2003 season seemed insurmountable. His teammates shared their concerns. And he was slipping down the Pittsburgh Pirates’ depth chart.
A 38th-round draft pick in 2001, Davis knew he wasn’t the organization’s top priority. Entering his age 22 season, he felt on the verge of being released — the college prospects from the draft were flooding the rosters.
That’s until Tony Beasley, a Black manager for Low-A Hickory, advocated for the speedy Davis to earn an everyday role. Returning the favor, Davis snapped his spring slump and hit .305 in 125 games with 40 stolen bases for Beasley’s minor-league team in 2003.
“He was fighting for me when you have those meetings with the coaches when they’re making their teams and vouching for players,” Davis, now 40, said. “He was a Black manager vouching for a Black player. If he had not been a Black manager, would I have that job?”
Davis isn’t sure how his career would’ve turned out without Beasley. He went on to play 1,448 games from 2006-19 in the major leagues for eight teams. He swiped an American League-leading 43 bases in 2016, only a fraction of the 415 total in his career.
Earlier this month, Davis was hired by MLB as a senior director of on-field operations. His responsibilities include rule changes, amateur baseball and mentorship of minority players in high school, college and the minor leagues.
Betts, a four-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner competing in the nation’s second-biggest market, can play a big role in boosting the participation of Black children.
“He can be the face (of baseball) because he has all the attributes,” Davis said. “It’s just capitalizing on these players, especially when they’re hot. Mookie might be the hottest player as of late, so capitalizing on that and sharing that, especially with the Black community.”
‘You have to have the league promote him’
The rise of Betts could help kids from communities across the country fall in love with baseball. The Nashville native has an opportunity, with the right exposure, to introduce the next generation to the game.
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That’s what Aaron did for his generation. He also spoke out against racism during his 23-year career from 1954-76, as well as after his retirement. Fueled by swagger and unteachable instincts, Griffey grabbed the attention of young people during his 22-year career from 1989-2010. And Bonds literally smashed his way to headlines with an all-time MLB record 762 homers across his 22 seasons from 1986-07.
There’s no reason Betts can’t rival their stardom, fellow players say.
“The sky is the limit for a guy like Mookie,” Cameron Maybin, a 14-year MLB veteran, said. “I would love to see his face on more commercials, on MLB Network a lot more. I don’t feel like he gets the publicity that he deserves. But I think he’s doing an amazing job using his platform thus far.
“He’s already started to introduce another generation to the game. Whether we see it or not, it’s happening. I couldn’t be prouder to have a guy like Mookie Betts as a representation of all Black baseball players right now.”
Through seven years in the majors, Betts has a .301 batting average, 155 homers and 509 RBIs in 849 games. He secured the 2018 AL MVP, leading the Boston Red Sox to a World Series championship. He won his second World Series with the Dodgers in 2020.
Betts has four Silver Sluggers, an AL batting crown and a grade-A attitude.
“First off, he’s a humble guy,” said Davis, who played with Betts in 2017. “Second, he has all five tools. He has power, he can run, he can steal bases, he can hit for average, and he has great defense. This guy has all the tools, but not only that, he has put all the tools together.
“He’s already a star. Is MLB going to back him up? You have to have the league promote him. He has to be promoted by somebody who has the authority, and that’s the league. If (MLB) wants to make him great like LeBron James — obviously, LeBron James is something beyond measure — but Mookie Betts in this game, he’s dominant.”
Maybin, a former member of the Tigers (2007, 2016, 2020), is eager to see a greater representation of Black players in baseball. To accomplish his goal, he helped create The Players Alliance, alongside Dee Strange-Gordon and Edwin Jackson.
The group includes more than 100 Black current and former professional baseball players. They’re using their platforms to create more opportunities within the game for the Black community.
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Maybin stresses face-to-face interaction with the youth. This offseason, The Players Alliance successfully carried out its Pull Up Neighbor tour, where 150 MLB players went to 33 cities to serve 20,000 people and distribute $1 million worth of baseball equipment.
“There’s going to be guys we definitely need to count on,” Maybin said. “Use their celebrity and voice to create some attention to the cause and the movement to make the game more equal on the field and off the field.”
Sure, Betts can be the figurehead, but he can’t be the only player influencing the Black community and discovering opportunities for growth.
Even three-year MLB outfielder Christin Stewart, battling for a roster spot with the Tigers this spring, understands he has a role to play. Despite Stewart’s struggles — a .167 batting average in 36 games last season — his presence in the Black community is felt.
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A member of The Players Alliance, Stewart joined Betts in Nashville on Dec. 19 for the Pull Up Neighbor tour.
“There’s not as many African Americans in the game today as I would like to see,” Stewart told the Free Press on Feb. 3. “I mean, baseball is an expensive sport, but in the inner city, there’s not too many African Americans jumping to play baseball. That’s because they don’t see players like them too much on TV. … With that, we want to show them that there are African Americans in the game, too.”
But to get there, the entire group must continue to gather in their respective communities and push for change.
“It takes a village, honestly,” Stewart said. “It’s not just one person that’s going to do it for the whole group. It definitely takes a village, and that’s what we’re doing. One person can’t carry the load. It might never work that way.
“If we all come together, that can create something that will last a lot longer than one person.”