(Feb. 2) – Toronto owes John (Buck) O’Neil a great debt of gratitude.
O’Neil was a first baseman and manager in the Negro Leagues and the first African-American coach in Major League Baseball, whose name became synonymous with Black baseball after he helped found, and presided over, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. He was instrumental in signing Joe Carter with the Chicago Cubs in the 1980s.
Carter — well, you know what he did for baseball in this city.
From the 1993 World Series hero to former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston and more, Toronto has a rich history when it comes to African-American game-changers in the sport, the museum’s current president, Bob Kendrick, reminisced this week.
“You think about the legacy of great black stars who played here like Joe Carter, my dear friend Dave Stewart, Lloyd Moseby, all the guys that were great Blue Jays,” he said. “And then you think about the role of the African-American ballplayer, and we’ve started to see these numbers just dwindle.”
Kendrick, in town for speaking engagements in a series run by Homestand Sports, was dismayed to learn African Americans made up just seven per cent of MLB’s opening day rosters in 2017 — 62 players in all and the lowest percentage since 1958, according to a study by USA Today Sports.
But he wasn’t surprised.
According to a study by the Society for American Baseball Research, dwindling numbers in the big leagues are not new, despite the sport’s overall diversity. The peak was 1981, when 18.7 per cent of the total number who appeared in the majors were African American.
Baseball, Kendrick said, used to be a blue-collar sport. Now he calls it a country-club sport, with organized leagues and travelling teams that have priced a lot of people out of the game.
Unlike football and basketball, full-ride scholarships to play college baseball — even with a Division I program — are rare, Kendrick said. Parents, particularly in single-family homes, steer their kids toward the games where they have the best chance to get a college education paid for.
“We’ve got to figure out some things along those lines,” Kendrick said. “The thing that you love about baseball is its tradition. The thing that has hindered baseball is its tradition. The other sports have just simply out-marketed baseball, because baseball didn’t want anybody to be bigger than the team . . . the Negro Leagues marketed its stars. It was Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs: ‘Come see the great Satchel Paige. Oh, and by the way you can see the Monarchs, too.’ ”
In Kansas City, the Royals are trying to help change those numbers, with full support for the museum. In the famed 18th and Vine District, right down the street from the shrine, now sits a state-of-the-art 40,000-square-foot training facility as well as four baseball fields — dubbed the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy. Set to officially open this summer, it provides free year-round baseball and softball training, as well as a host of off-field programs and tutoring.
“What we’ve been able to effectively do now is take away that economic barrier that might have prevented some kids from having an opportunity to play this game,” Kendrick said.
He’s optimistic the needle will shift for American-born Black players, but preaches patience. It takes time for draft picks such as last year’s No. 1 and 2 selections, Royce Lewis and Hunter Greene, to crack the big leagues.
“It’s going to happen, but it’s going to take time,” Kendrick said. “(Breaking the colour barrier in baseball) didn’t happen overnight and the remedy’s not going to occur overnight.”
Having the museum just up the street from the facility is important, Kendrick added before discussing what he calls the “jaw-dropping” hate that is damaging the United States — something the native of Georgia thought the country was moving past. And baseball is no exception.
This past May, days before he made a donation to the Negro Leagues museum, Baltimore Orioles centre fielder Adam Jones was the target of racist chants during a game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Jones called it one of the worst cases of fan abuse he had ever heard.
“The incident that occurred with Adam Jones there in Boston, in black and white, that’s Jackie Robinson all over again,” Kendrick said. “We thought we had moved beyond that. It seems as if this was lying dormant and waiting to come back out.”
The abuse Jones was subjected to gave Kendrick a platform for what he calls a much broader, necessary discussion, as he works to draw parallels between what the history within the museum represents and how it’s relevant today. He believes the shrine, which details Robinson breaking into the big leagues before Brown vs. The Board of Education (the landmark Supreme Court case that declared segregated schools unconstitutional, before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus), is the perfect place to have those conversations. It showcases the impact a sport can have on society.
“They’re not easy conversations to have, but they are necessary conversations if we are going to move beyond some of those social ills that have so greatly impacted the United States.”
Source: Toronto Star