East-West Classic celebrates Negro Leagues, reminds former players what's missing today (2024)

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Willie Ross shifted his spot in the wooden grandstand for a clear view of his son, Tyson, on the mound at Doubleday Field. He’d seen Tyson, a 10-year major leaguer, pitch many times in grander settings. But now his son wore the jersey of the Homestead Grays, the hallowed Negro League team, in the shadow of the Hall of Fame. The exhibition game felt profoundly important.

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Willie paused his filming to show his seat companion the website for Tyson’s new passion, a non-profit in the Bay Area that holds free baseball camps for kids. Willie had grown up in Los Angeles, when Lonnie Smith was the star at Compton High, and raised two major-league sons, Tyson and Joe, in the Bay Area. When Tyson spent a summer at home during the 2020 Covid shutdown, he found that the line had been severed.

“Baseball was dying out in the area,” Tyson Ross said. “I was trying to figure out a way to make a change. It started with my brother and I giving out, like, 50 gloves to a local team. That made an impact, but it wasn’t lasting. I wanted to get in the dirt, show them how to play the game.”

On Saturday, dozens of recently retired major leaguers got dirty again to recreate the East-West All-Star Game, a staple of the Negro Leagues for decades. Adam Jones won the home run derby and made a twirling grab at shortstop for the final out. Ryan Howard earned MVP honors with a blistering two-run homer. Seven pitchers were preparing to be very sore.

“No bueno tomorrow,” said Jose Contreras, now a 52-year-old grandfather, smiling after the East’s 5-4 victory.

“Pain,” Jones said. “Every person here is in pain.”

There were so many stars — Prince Fielder and Curtis Granderson, David Price and CC Sabathia, Justin and B.J. Upton — that the day was both thrilling and sobering, a celebration of the past and a reminder of what’s missing today.

A new Hall exhibit, “The Souls of the Game,” traces the ongoing triumphs and challenges of the Black experience in baseball. It noted that in the 1970s and 80s, nearly one in five big leaguers were African-American. Now, it said, it’s less than one in 10.

According to Major League Baseball, Black players accounted for just 6 percent of Opening Day rosters this season — 57 players, total, across the 30 teams. Ken Griffey Jr., one of 14 Hall of Famers in Cooperstown for the weekend, called it a “crisis” and said MLB must highlight the few Black stars it still has.

“Showcase them in a way that other young kids can see that there are people that look like us out there,” said Griffey, who acknowledged that he was a marketer’s dream in his prime.

East-West Classic celebrates Negro Leagues, reminds former players what's missing today (1)

Ken Griffey Jr. takes a photo of Eddie Murray. (Tyler Kepner / The Athletic)

“But that was with a double-digit population playing baseball. Not a single digit. Not six percent. The big thing now is that travel ball’s expensive, and they’re not being seen. I was fortunate because my dad played, so I was able to be seen. These kids are not being seen at all if they’re not in that herd, playing in those showcase games. They can’t find a diamond in the rough, and that’s what they were used to back in the day.”

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The pervasiveness of travel ball was a common lament among players in Cooperstown, especially those who were raised before its rise. The Hall of Famer Harold Baines, a No. 1 overall pick out of high school, like Griffey, said his family would not have been able to afford a travel league. And he worries that the trend is starting far too early.

“The best player on the team usually helps the other players, but now the best players are on the travel teams,” Baines said. “They just skip Little League altogether. That hurts big-time, in my eyes.”

As a boy in Vallejo, Calif., Sabathia idolized Dave Stewart, the Black ace of the A’s who had grown up in Oakland rooting for another Black star, Reggie Jackson. The Bay Area was deep in Black talent — Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan, Rickey Henderson and Lloyd Moseby, Jimmy Rollins and Dontrelle Willis.

Without that legacy, Sabathia said, he would not have played baseball.

“Dontrelle, Jimmy, all those guys, that was our sport where we grew up,” Sabathia said. “Baseball was the number one sport in the Bay Area. Had it not been and had I had to go travel — I’m good in my area but then I have to go somewhere else to play with other white kids — I would have quit, a thousand percent. I played baseball because my friends played baseball. That’s why I played the game.”

To Sabathia, engagement with Black fans is critical; he lauded the Atlanta Braves, who have a Black-owned vegan burger stand at Truist Park, as an example of a team that does this well. But demographics in the seats often mirror those on the field.

“We would always try to see how many black fans we could count that weren’t working — because sometimes you’d say, ‘Oh, wait, that’s a vendor,’” said Granderson, who played from 2004 to 2019. “In Detroit we’d get a lot of black fans, but in some places we didn’t get that many. It was something we noticed.”

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A decade ago, Granderson donated $5 million to help fund the ballpark at his alma mater, the University of Illinois-Chicago. College programs are more essential than ever, he said, in reversing the downward trend of Black participation in MLB.

In 2011, the last draft before a 40-round cap, teams used 53 percent of their choices on college players. By 2023, with the current limit of 20 rounds, that figure had soared to more than 79 percent. With restrictions on bonuses and fewer minor-league affiliates, there’s less time to develop in the minors.

“I was talking to a buddy who’s scouting, and he was saying that before, you could get a guy into the system and give him three or four years to let him figure it out,” Granderson said. “But he said after a year or two now, if you’re not getting it, we’ve gotta move on. You better be ready to go right now, so for the raw kid, you’ve gotta polish up in college. That’s our feeder system, because that’s where they’re drafting from.”

Last week’s multi-billion-dollar settlement in the House v. NCAA class-action lawsuit could, in time, have a major impact on access to baseball for lower-income families. NCAA baseball programs have long had just 11.7 scholarships to divide among up to 40 roster spots, an arrangement that obviously favors wealthier families.

“Say you’ve got a family that doesn’t have a lot of money and a kid who’s good at basketball, football and baseball,” said Scott Hairston, who played 11 years in the majors.

“If you’ve got a school saying, ‘OK, we’ll give you a scholarship for football so mom and dad don’t have to pay for school,’ and then the same school says, ‘Well, you can play baseball for us, but mom and dad have to pay for half,’ what is the kid gonna do? If the NCAA bumps up the scholarships to 30, I think that will bring in more African-Americans to play. That’s going to be a huge game-changer.”

East-West Classic celebrates Negro Leagues, reminds former players what's missing today (2)

Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins signs autographs at the East-West All-Star Game on Saturday. (Tyler Kepner / The Athletic)

In the meantime, Major League Baseball said it is seeing progress from initiatives it sponsors: MLB Youth Academy, Breakthrough Series, DREAM Series, Nike RBI and the Hank Aaron Invitational. More than 25 percent of the Black players on Opening Day rosters took part in at least one of those programs, and 10 of the top 50 players in last year’s draft were Black.

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Commissioner Rob Manfred has a diverse coterie of assistants and advisors: Griffey, Sabathia, Nelson Cruz, Albert Pujols, Cal Ripken, Joe Torre and more. The league also has a 13-man ambassador team including, among others, Howard, Rollins, Ichiro Suzuki and Nick Swisher. Also on that list: LaTroy Hawkins, a notable turn for a 21-year major leaguer who was once deeply skeptical of MLB’s sincerity on race issues.

Since his retirement in 2015, Hawkins has been active in MLB’s programs, partly because they attract not just scouts and coaches, but recruiters for front office, umpiring, data analysis and human resources jobs.

“Not everybody’s going to make the big leagues, so there are other opportunities in the game that they’re being exposed to,” Hawkins said.

For Hawkins, the power of connection played a part in his longevity. Early in his career, after giving up a towering homer to Griffey on a changeup, Hawkins learned that Griffey wanted to see him in the Metrodome laundry room. When they met, Griffey admonished Hawkins for using the changeup. Your fastball is better than you think, he said.

The message might have resonated from, say, Jay Buhner or Edgar Martinez. But from Griffey, Hawkins said, it meant more. He understood the history, the implied invitation to join the lineage of impactful Black players.

“He poured into my cup, I poured into somebody else’s cup, and then they poured into other people’s cups,” Hawkins said. “That’s how you get it going. That’s how it starts.”

The cup has been leaking for decades. But it’s worth patching, and important to fix the faucet.

“It’s all about getting the best players, from every walk of life,” Howard said. “That’s what you want. You want the best competition on the field.”

(Top photo of Ryan Howard scoring after hitting the game-winning two-run home run at the East-West All-Star Game: Mary DeCicco / MLB Photos)

East-West Classic celebrates Negro Leagues, reminds former players what's missing today (2024)

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