By Jack Golub
“Let’s make a black baseball team.” William C. Rhoden, author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, shared this idea, speaking on behalf of former MLB manager Jerry Manuel. It would reinvigorate interest in the game from black players, he said. It would make baseball more exciting. Most importantly, it would connect the game to black culture and bring along more all-time greats like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. It’s a fun idea.
It made me think of W. E. B. Du Bois’ Talented Tenth plan. Quick refresher: Du Bois believed the future success of African Americans hinged on a talented, highly educated tenth of the population to serve as leaders. It is the idea of a group achieving success on its own and then riding that success into a merge into mainstream. “The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men,” Du Bois wrote in his essay Talented Tenth. Examining the idea of an all-black baseball team under the framework of Du Bois’ thinking might be useful to figuring out if it’s worth it. Do we really need an all-black baseball team?
The past World Series (f*** the Red Sox) was billed as landmark because it, in a first for the Fall Classic, pitted two managers of color against each other. Less visible were the black players; the two World Series rosters combined to field four (and the Dodgers had one more on their team who didn’t make the WS roster). It seems the proliferation of black managers hasn’t trickled down. It’s a weird issue for baseball to face. In previous columns I’ve looked at the racial makeup of the NBA and NFL, noting how those majority-black sports leagues struggled to hire front office executives and include owners who looked like their players. The MLB has taken steps since last year, when it had the fewest black players on Opening Day Rosters since the 1950s, to include more black players. They now have each team fill out a detailed survey, including the race of the their players, coaches, scouts and front office throughout their farm systems. This Diversity and Inclusion Annual Report is supposed to boost baseball’s Black player population.
Growing concern over football could suggest an opening for baseball to reach more black players. The MLB appears intent on capitalizing on that opening. Maybe an all-black team could spark interest. Why does the MLB need to spark interest though? Is it simply because they want to maintain their position in the sports hierarchy — the money and status that come with it? Why is it unacceptable for baseball to have such few black players? This question, I think, gets at the root of the issue.
Du Bois believed in the Talented Tenth plan as a means for bringing equality to African Americans. He was fighting for civil rights. Would the proposed all-black baseball team be a leading force to give black people the rights they are lacking on the baseball field? I’m not too sure. There’s racism in baseball, sure. Ask Adam Jones about the despicable Fenway Park bigots. (Like I said, f*** the Red Sox.) But I don’t think the MLB is worried about black players on the field. I think they’re worried about black fans in the stands. The reason it’s “unacceptable” for there to be such few black players in the MLB is because of the future. The largest MLB fan demographic by far are white men over the age of 55. What happens when they die? Who is going to fill the 50,000 seats for 81 days a year that stadiums offer? Who is going to watch on TV or YouTube, or stream games directly onto their VR contact lens headsets controlled by AI? The MLB needs to reach more, younger fans in order to sustain its status. If it can reach black fans, or use black players to reach all younger fans by employing an all-black team, why not do it?
However, this idea didn’t come from the MLB. It came from a black manager and an outspoken advocate for black athletes. Maybe there is an intrinsic value to black culture and baseball culture overlapping. Perhaps it could tie black people into the social fabric of America. Better yet, perhaps it could tie 55-year-old white men into the social fabric of black culture. That would be something cool to see.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu