Mourning The Departed Era Of Black Superstars

In the wake of Dick Allen’s death yesterday, it seems worth noting that recent months have seen the passing of an undue number of his African American contemporaries. Joe Morgan, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock have all died since September, not to mention the passings this year of Horace Clark, Lou Johnson, Bob Oliver, Bob Watson and Jimmy Wynn. As these men have departed, so too has their era.

Baseball in the 1960s and ’70s is impossible to consider without those guys, plus Mays and McCovey and Robinson and Aaron and Stargell and Parker and Carew and Vida and Dusty and Reggie (J.) and Reggie (S.). We can ask ourselves where such players might fit within the current structure of baseball, and the answer is more likely than at any time since the mid-1950s that they wouldn’t. Sort of.

The above players would make a major league roster in any era that allowed it. Today, though, given the lack of infrastructure to shepherd minority kids—particularly urban American minority kids—through baseball’s ranks, they might opt to do something else instead.

More difficult for me than the luminaries are players who fell somewhere between bench guy and superstar, men who scrapped their way onto rosters and forged admirable careers. Guys like Tommy Agee, Cleon Jones, Jim Bibby, Oscar Gamble, Johnny Jeter, Dave Nelson, Thad Bosley, Willie Horton, Dave Cash, Horace Clark, Larry Hisle, Chet Lemon, Tommie Reynolds and Ken Singleton. End-of-bench roles went to white players in overwhelming numbers back then, so the Black men who seized those positions showed particular resolve.

These aren’t original thoughts. Baseball has long been reckoning with its athletes going off to the NBA or the NFL or careers outside of sports. Initiatives like MLB’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program exist, and are fantastic. In researching They Bled Blue, I met Ken Landreaux at the MLB-sponsored Compton Youth Academy—one of eight such academies across the country—which offers amazing facilities, training and opportunities for a host of kids that would not otherwise have access to that level of attention. These places are vital.

But there’s no getting around the fact that while U.S. cities were once a source of low-cost prospect acquisition—a place where unknown and underserved talent could be signed for a song—that designation has shifted to Central America and the Caribbean. Exploitation of desperate prospects is a subject for another day, but it does show just how much MLB has lagged in filling the domestic void, to its own detriment.

As of last opening day, the Diamondbacks, Royals and Rays didn’t have a Black player between them. Nearly half of major league teams had two Black players or fewer. According to SABR, in 1984, more than 18 percent of all MLB players were African American. Last year that number was around 7 percent.

This isn’t about minority representation, which has blossomed thanks to increased Latino participation. This is about the loss of Black players (especially, as pertains to recent obituaries, Black stars), and how it reflects a profound loss within the sport.

Just one more thing to grieve.

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