Tanzina Vega: Hey everyone. It's the takeaway with Tanzina Vega and it's great to be with you. Major League Baseball playoffs begin today and the league and its players' union are doing a little introspection with regards to who's actually out on the field. This month, the two organizations donated $10 million to the Players Alliance, a non-profit group made up of over 100 current and former Black players, which formed in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That money will be used to help recruit young Black players to the sport. That's important to note because Major League Baseball has a deficit of African American players right now. Only 8% of the league is African-American compared to nearly 19% back in the 1980s and the front office situation isn't much better. Bradford William Davis is a sports columnist covering Major League Baseball for the New York Daily News and he joins me now. Bradford, welcome to the show.
Bradford William Davis: Hey, thank you for having me.
Tanzina: Let's start with a complicated question. Why is it that Major League Baseball has such a lack of Black players right now?
Bradford: The distill it as quickly as possible. There is a significant barrier entry to playing baseball on the youth level, travel ball which ends up being a significant showcase for amateur adolescent teenager, high school talent that costs a lot of money to play. Given the gross economic disparity between Black Americans and white Americans, of course, there's going to be a disparity reflected in who gets to actually be at those things. Major League Baseball does do some things on that end and this $10 million donation between the league and the Players Association, meaning the baseball union, is supposed to address some of that but it is not sufficient as you could see by the utter lack of Black participation.
That flows upwards. These colleges do not give out scholarships to the same degree as they do for basketball or football, which makes it harder again for a historically and presently disadvantaged group to justify going to college, even an elite D1 program. If they had to pay for most or all of it, when they may have athletic talent elsewhere that could actually pay their way through. Those are significant reasons. That leads to a culture that is perceived, and rightfully so, as very white-dominant, which makes it very uncomfortable to be a Black player on any level from the youth level to professional, minor league, or Major League Baseball,
Tanzina: One trend, however, that has changed the literal face of baseball has been the increase of Latino players. Many of them coming from out of the country. Some of these players are themselves Black, they are Afro-Latino. Where do they fit into this?
Bradford: First of all, it is wonderful to see the explosion of Latin talent in baseball. Their obvious loving gifting at the sport is extremely good and welcoming and adds so much to what makes MLB fun when it is fun. At the same time even though many of these players actually do hail from the African diaspora, they aren't at least in the front-facing way, embracing anything from the disproportionate amount of Black people in the game of baseball, whether, again, roster as a front office is a whatever, to the current civil rights causes that affects Black people. Regardless of your country of origin, they're just not present for that. They aren't really at the forefront of this. They're not speaking out with the same regularity that you're starting to see Black players speak out on issues that affect the game and affects the political world outside of it.
Tanzina: I should just reiterate that some of those players are themselves Black, but I guess the bigger issue that all those players, a lot of them are also sourced from outside of the United States. I don't know if that might have anything to do with what you're describing.
Bradford: I think it does. I don't say that with lack of an empathy because there is a privilege that comes with being a United States citizen that I think gives you a little bit more freedom with which to speak out about things that matter to you without feeling any retribution may come. I think that's a very understandable fear and concern. However, there's also a lot of anti-blackness across the Latin diaspora, not which, again, is not unique to any place in the world, I guess, but it's certainly true among many Latin countries that have Black folks in it. I think that that is a real part of it as well of just not identifying in a social way with the African-American players.
Tanzina: Bradford, who are the Players Alliance?
Bradford: Well, it's a coalition of Black current and former players that banded together this year, really to address issues primarily inside, but sometimes outside of the game as well. I think they are seeking a pathway to make sure that there is a future for Black people in this game. One where they do not feel pushed out, where they don't have to be the only person on their roster, the only person in their minor league team. That's very hard. It's very isolating. Also because they believed that baseball brings joy, it brings opportunities that even if you don't make it to the league it's a good and beautiful thing be a part of. They want to bring that to communities that have had baseball or largely due to cultural and economic reasons, dovetailing together, taken away from them, especially when it becomes a more competitive thing as you get older, but you're still child. That is the Players Alliances. It's Black current, and former players seeking to change the game from within.
Tanzina: The Players Union and Major League Baseball donated $10 million to the Players Alliance, is that enough?
Bradford: Always take the money. I'm very happy that they have this investment from both their union and the league to do some of the things that matter to them including, again, diversifying the game on a youth level. I think that is extremely important work and can really benefit a lot of kids. Do I think that in of itself it will change the game to a place where it is, in a positive sense, reflective of the country and that many people will make it up? I don't think so. I think there's a lot more time and money that needs to be spent in that. Not just a recruitment in a branding sense, but in creating huge large pathways that address every single impediment that a young talented Black athlete, might face when they're deciding between baseball or basketball, or baseball and football. 10 million won't fix 400 years of disparity.
Tanzina: I'm a baseball fan. I enjoy the pace of the game. I think it's a very soothing game to watch and frank, but I think there are lots of people who say it's just boring and it doesn't really elicit the same type of excitement as the ones that you just mentioned, football and basketball, for example. Could that be another reason why folks are just not as attracted to the sport right now?
Bradford: I can understand why some might argue that baseball is boring. Maybe it's a worse product. I'd say, I have two points to that though. One is football is slow as hell.
Tanzina: I agree with you.
Bradford: I think that is wildly overblown. I'm a Jets fan, so I know football can be very boring if you have the right or wrong amount of talent involved in it. There's a lot of schools [unintelligible 00:07:28] in that. I also think that the way that Black and Latino players as well played the game, they play with a lot more joy and freedom. You see a guy like Tim Anderson, he plays a game like baseball is fun to be played. Unfortunately, a lot of the game has been so stoic in its nature, but that doesn't necessarily make the most entertaining products.
That stoicism is enforced where if you celebrate your wins too much, you pump your fist too much, you do a bad flip, you hit a grand slam while already up like Fernando Tatis Jr did a couple of months ago, you could see yourself getting retaliated. It ends with a ball to your butt or your head or whatever. That discourages the beauty of competition of being great at what you do, of celebrating your wins, that the stuff that makes for great photos and great videos and great sports and eclipse. That is so often in baseball, more than basketball or football, especially basketball discourage, and that's a shame.
Again, you have more of us. I think you would begin to see a change in the culture over what gets celebrated, what gets penalized, hopefully. a lot less, different people being their whole full authentic selves whenever they step to the plate or on the mountain or in the field. That is, I think, what helps baseball sell itself a lot more. It makes it a cool thing that kids might enjoy a little bit more. Pay is the problem. I'm not saying it's not, but it isn't football, but there are many other intersecting issues that leads to baseball being less popular or declining in popularity.
Tanzina: Bradford William Davis is a sports columnist covering Major League Baseball for the New York Daily News. Bradford, thanks so much for talking with us.
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