‘If not now, when?’: Black MLB players past and present on what needs to change


Freddie Freeman approached his minor league teammate Jason Heyward as they ran off the field after a game in 2008. Freeman had tears in his eyes. “Jay, did you hear the stuff people were saying to you?” he asked.

“Yeah, I heard it, bro,” Heyward said.

Freeman replied: “I’ve never seen that before.”

What Freeman was seeing and hearing were racist taunts directed at his friend and teammate. And not only were those taunts directed at his teammate, this was being done in Savannah, Georgia. Heyward was a local star, drafted by the Atlanta Braves, his hometown team, and even he couldn’t escape racist abuse from fans. As the country grapples with racial prejudice and social injustice on many levels right now, baseball is, as well. Recently, the Boston Red Sox admitted they are aware of racist abuse that has been hurled at players. As this conversation continues, we spoke with a number of Black players, current and former, about what they’ve experienced and where baseball needs to go.

When you can hear the hate, even at home

LaTroy Hawkins, MLB pitcher 1995 to 2015, special assistant in baseball operations with the Minnesota Twins: “We’ve never had a lot of African American pitchers in baseball. Just from that standpoint, whenever I was able to pitch with another African American, it was special for me. In 21 years in baseball, very rarely were there more than two others who looked like me.

“As an African American ballplayer in Minnesota, I never had any issues. But as soon as I stepped out of Minnesota, when I signed with the Cubs [in 2004], that’s when all the racial issues were brought to light. I would get letters in the mail, overnight express, just to call me a n—–. Overnight-express hate mail. Somebody paid back then, I think it was $11.45, $11.15, to send me hate mail. After I got so many, the clubhouse guy started opening up mail for me.

“I kept one letter, calling me ‘c–n.’ That’s just the one I picked that I read. I said to myself, ‘I’m going keep this.’ This person talked about my mother, my grandma, called us ‘c–ns.’ … I could not believe how someone would dislike somebody to that extent, someone you don’t even freaking know. Racists don’t care what position you play.”

Jason Heyward, MLB outfielder 2010 to present: “Recently, I’ve had to dig into my [minor league] experiences and share them with people. I played for the Atlanta Braves. I was drafted by my hometown team. Long story short, hometown team, drafted in the first round, and playing for the Rome Braves in Savannah, Georgia — against the Mets, that was their minor league affiliate at the time — and I was talking to Freddie Freeman after the game, and he had tears in his eyes. [He said], ‘Jay, did you hear the stuff people were saying to you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I heard it, bro.’ And he replied, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’

“And I’m talking about that I was playing for my hometown team in my own home state of Georgia, and we still have people yelling racial slurs, saying all the things that you can think of out there. It was definitely worse in the minors, but it still happened when I got to Atlanta. It happened at my home ballpark. And, obviously, it happened in other ballparks, as well.”

Tony Gwynn Jr., MLB outfielder 2006 to 2014, Padres TV and radio broadcaster: “For me, personally, it was different. I had a dad that by most accounts was considered baseball royalty, right? And I had an uncle [Chris Gwynn] that was very well respected in the game. So the last name came with a little bit of an advantage.

“But in the minor leagues, it doesn’t matter what your last name is. That was really my first experience dealing with race issues in baseball, when I got to the minor leagues. When I would go to Huntsville, Alabama; in Nashville, Tennessee; in Wisconsin. I mean, you’re prepared for it, by my uncle, my father. They all sit you down, they have that conversation with you. But once you have that in your face, it shakes you.

“I remember going out with a teammate of mine — him and his girlfriend at the time — and my girlfriend at time, who later became my wife. We went out to have a drink in Huntsville, we were a Black couple and a white couple, and the moment we walked in you could just feel the eyes on us. As we got ready to have a drink and sit down and enjoy ourselves, one of the girls in the club called my wife the N-word. We had to leave because it was about to get physical, and at that point you start realizing that this is real, like I’ve been told. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

“There were countless times that happened playing minor league ball.”

Dusty Baker, MLB outfielder, 1968 to 1986, current Astros manager: “I was accused of making up stories about Chicago, about the hate mail that I got, the anthrax [threat], the letters that I got. The FBI coming into my office from the hate crimes division. I was accused of making that up to try to get sympathy. I was making nothing up. I was never afraid to speak up, but I always chose my words carefully. And while I was never afraid to speak up, a lot of guys were. If you spoke up, you knew you better be in a pretty good position where they can’t get rid of you. You can’t really blame players for not wanting to speak out because they’re not in a secure situation.

“There were a lot of times I wanted to say a whole lot more, and not only tell the truth, but tell the whole truth. I always told the truth, but sometimes you have to monitor how much truth.”

“I would get letters in the mail, overnight express, just to call me a n—–. Overnight-express hate mail. Somebody paid back then, I think it was $11.45, $11.15, to send me hate mail.”

LaTroy Hawkins

Bruce Maxwell, MLB catcher 2016 to 2018, currently in the Mexican League, only MLB player to kneel during the national anthem: “It seems like I was limited in what I could say, what I could do. To be honest with you, I couldn’t speak out or do anything. I feel like Black players have a sense of fear of being who they truly are because they are afraid to lose their job, because somebody might not honestly like their perception.”

The disappearing Black major leaguer

Ken Singleton, MLB outfielder 1970 to 1984, Yankees TV announcer: “The environment for African American players during my playing days was good due to the fact the percentage of African American players in MLB was much higher than it is now. It seemed that every team had star Black players. Black players made up almost 20% of the players in MLB. That’s an average of five players per team. Now it’s less than 10%, and some teams don’t have any Black players. Fans were used to seeing Black players being among the best players in the game.”

Dave Winfield, Hall of Fame outfielder 1973 to 1995: “I felt very comfortable playing because African American players comprised somewhere between 15 and 18% of the total rosters when I played. Plus, I felt we were the next generation of the best players in the game, and baseball was the No. 1 sport in America. I felt it was somewhat like taking a handoff from the older generation to the younger one. How could we not feel that way when guys like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Billy Williams, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargell were still on the scene? Guys like me, Dave Parker, Jim Rice, [Ken] Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson and others were waiting on deck.”

Dave Roberts, MLB outfielder 1999 to 2008, current Dodgers manager: “When I was playing, first off, there were considerably more Black players in baseball. I felt that baseball was moving in the direction of being more diverse. Unfortunately, we’ve gone backwards. I think Black players have always felt that they had to conform.

“Socially, I had a much easier time because I’m lighter-skinned. That’s just the facts. I experienced discrimination, but in different ways. My dad, who grew up in Houston, talked about the issues he faced. It was very tough for him being the only Black man in his [Marine] battalion, the only Black man at his high school. And I was raised to not really see color. Now, it’s almost as if you have to flip the script and recognize color in order to understand that people have different experiences. We have to give that power, because the world looks at people of color differently. To say that you don’t and everyone’s the same isn’t a reality.

“In a way, I am disappointed in myself, because I should have been more vocal about being Black. I should have been more vocal about being a Japanese American. But I think that I have always done the best I could at [trying] to do right by people. And I guess I didn’t want to come off as ‘the angry Black man’ or ‘the angry biracial man.'”

Baker: “Back then, we had a lot more African American players, a lot more African American stars; a lot of African Americans played baseball, a lot more African American fathers were involved with baseball. When I was coming up, I got a picture on my wall; we had eight African Americans on the Braves, along with Paul Casanova [of Cuba] and Rico Carty [of the Dominican Republic]. I remember every year, my dad used to get Ebony and CPI and Jet Magazine, and they had all the pictures of the African American and Latin guys on each team.

“Back in the day, African American and Latin players, that’s who you hung out with, that’s who you roomed with; the only way you got your own room is if there was an odd number of African American and Latin players. They would never room a white player with a black player. Before, there were only two jobs that you could get, really: batting coach or first-base coach. Manager, pitching coach, third-base coach, bench coach, those were jobs that the black players didn’t get.

“But it was better for us than it was on the generation before. That’s when it was really tough. They had segregated housing. If you listen to stories by Jim Gilliam and Hank Aaron and Roy Campanella, that was really tough.

“I prayed that I wouldn’t go to the Atlanta Braves because of racism and lynchings and the dogs and fire hoses, but [going there] was the best thing that happened to me. It was a great awakening to what it was all about. And I was fortunate enough to be around Hank Aaron at 19, 20 years old, when Hank was the most sought-after dude in the country. I met all the civic leaders of that time — Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Herman Russell — all because of Hank.

“And the best advice Hank gave me was to channel that energy and anger, channel it into excellence. It really helped me a lot as a young person — to be around Hank, seeing how he handled it. I would see him get all these letters, and he wouldn’t show them me. He would just throw them on the floor. I’d pick them up and read them, and some letters would say that somebody was going to shoot him today. To see how Hank never feared, how he focused everything into excellence, was the best lesson for me.”

Why MLB is different from the NFL and the NBA

Singleton: “Strength in numbers has something to do with Black players being more outspoken in the NFL and the NBA. Those leagues would not exist without Black players.”

Gwynn: “In order to become professionals, baseball players have to go through a long process before they can get where you could be that type of player that can speak out. But numbers are one of the most important factors, because there are so many more African American players in both of those leagues. Those leagues absolutely couldn’t exist without them. That gives them leverage to be able to do it, to be able to do some of the things we’ve seen them do.

“We’re far beyond sticking to sports now.”

Tony Gwynn Jr.

“Ultimately, in the game of baseball, it takes more time to get to a level to where you get to feel you can speak out. Players only feel empowered to speak out once they are established ballplayers at the big league level. Because it takes a long time to get there, you don’t have the numbers that you have in basketball or in football. It’s gonna take me, what, six years at the big league level for the most part, before I have a platform where I feel comfortable to speak my mind. Think about Adam Jones — Adam has been outspoken, but he really became outspoken after he was an established big leaguer.

“You’re weighing the importance of being able to provide for your family and being able to speak out without there being major repercussions. I think there’s not a Black man that plays the game of baseball that at one time hasn’t felt like that.”

Maxwell: “It’s a numbers game. It really is. Power and numbers, honestly. I personally think, people in baseball, they don’t give a s— what happens to players off the field, white or Black, especially Black. They don’t give a s— what your home life is like, where you have to travel back to, unless you’re Mike Trout or something. The number of African American players in the NBA and the NFL are a lot, a lot larger. If they band together, they have to listen. In baseball? There’s nobody that can speak out against what baseball is doing or how they conduct themselves, because they’ll be gone the next day.”

Hawkins: “African American players in baseball don’t feel empowered to speak out. I always had a voice, and I always thought that when I walked in a room, I commanded that type of respect from my teammates. Whether they liked me or not, I commanded that type of respect, but only because I gave that type of respect.

“If I were playing now, I would definitely kneel. No matter the consequences.”

Explaining taking a knee to your white teammates

Hawkins: “I would explain it just like Colin Kaepernick, and the way Bruce Maxwell explained it. This is not about the flag. It has nothing to do with the flag or being unpatriotic. Everybody wants to hijack the narrative, but at the end of the day [former Green Beret] Nate Boyer told Kaepernick to kneel because that’s a sign of respect. And once again, the flag doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody. It doesn’t. That flag does not stand for liberty and justice for all. For all. We know that’s not true because of the injustices practiced all over the country every day.”

Roberts: “I definitely think that people can change their views with more information. Initially, when Kaepernick was taking a knee, I focused [in 2017] on my father and I equated it to what he did for our country. As I have learned more, I have come to understand that it was a peaceful protest. Black people have tried different means and haven’t been heard. We can’t have it both ways, wanting people to protest peacefully, but then when they do it, that’s wrong, too. This country is built on freedom of speech. I’ve certainly softened on [my] stance.

“For me, personally, I would still stand in front of the flag. But I do understand that there is social inequality and we still have a long way to go. And to be quite honest, if that’s what it takes to keep momentum and keep it front of mind, then it’s a good thing.”

Heyward: “For me, it’s about all of us coming together and saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ Whether it’s kneeling, whether it’s locking arms, whatever it is, then I am going to do that. We all know what the flag stands for. My family is military. My mom’s father was in Vietnam. I have Marines in my family, West Point grads, other military — and they share the same views as Colin Kaepernick and Bruce Maxwell. We have now seen the NFL apologizing to Kaepernick for shaming him the way they did. Like Dave Roberts said, even someone who is African American, he has changed his stance once he got more educated.

“People in this country are asked to stand for the flag and the anthem. I understand that. OK. But we’re not being respected back. We’re part of this country, too. If you want us to be proud of that, then we need to treat everyone in this country equally. That’s the unfortunate truth. That’s what peacefully taking a knee, not making a sound, was all about. And not only that, imagine it from this aspect, like in my family, people are out there fighting for their country and that flag, and then come home to be treated worse. That’s a tough pill to swallow, even for some of those that are in armed forces right now.”

The cost of taking a stand

Maxwell: “Yes, I think I was blackballed out. I feel like I was pushed out of the game of baseball by everybody, not just by the A’s. I definitely had a target on my back for kneeling.”

Heyward: “Once it happened, our reaction was, ‘Well, that’s why we don’t do that, because that’s what’s gonna happen to us.’ But then again, for me, I could have reached out to him, listened to what he had going on. Then maybe we could have gotten something done.

“But in the end, as it happened with Kaepernick and his whole situation, he started a movement but was still shunned. And that’s in the NFL, which has predominantly Black and African American players. Then you look baseball … and we’re like, ‘Hell, no!’ We don’t stand a chance. That’s not a battle we couldn’t win, that’s a battle we couldn’t even start.

“I hear [Maxwell] on feeling that way, but we were not empowered to speak up. We didn’t know any better. Now we realize we can and we should do better. Having athletes like LeBron [James] and brands like Nike and important corporations speaking up, that speaks volumes. Now we know we have to do it because there is no other choice. That’s what hits home. We have to act now.”

“Yes, I think I was blackballed out. I feel like I was pushed out of the game of baseball by everybody, not just by the A’s.”

Bruce Maxwell

Baker: “I spoke to Bruce [Maxwell] when it happened. It felt like nobody wanted to touch Bruce at the time. Now, Bruce is doing his best to go somewhere else to reestablish his value and be as good of a citizen as he can be.

“Sometimes it takes a moment like this for people to feel that they can finally stand up. At some point in time, many players have had to choose whether they could jeopardize their livelihood, their family, everything. How many guys have the strength to do what Kaepernick did? It could have been another 10 years before it was recognized, if George Floyd and all of the deaths didn’t bring it to the forefront.”

The role of athletes in America

Gwynn: “We’re far beyond sticking to sports now. I think athletes don’t necessarily care about people who have that opinion anymore. We’re beyond that. That doesn’t necessarily mean a player should have to speak out if they don’t want to, but if they decide to, if that’s something that they want to do, they should be able to.”

Roberts: “I think that if you have a platform, and believe that Black lives matter, then you should use that platform. If not now, when?”

Singleton: “Every athlete will make his or her own decision to get involved, and should do so if they feel strongly about issues. That is what is happening now with tragic death of George Floyd. My wife and I were part of a peaceful demonstration a few days ago.”

Maxwell: “I think that if you’re going to do that, then you need to speak about what is real. You need to put everything out on the table, especially like in this situation we’re talking about people of color. You need to be vulnerable. You need to be real about it. We need to make sure that we’re not doing it for us, but for the people who can’t speak and can’t be heard. We need to use that podium as positive and in a powerful moment for the people and not ourselves.”

Heyward: “Absolutely, you should use [your platform] — starting with just having more resources. We have a lot more resources when it comes to platforms and networking. I’ve been very busy the last couple of weeks doing a lot networking. I joined up with the group LeBron is putting together of athletes and entertainers, ‘More Than a Vote.’ I, personally, know I need to do better in being educated on voting and where to vote and who to vote for, and be aware of how they’re making it hard for certain votes to count.”

Beyond the ballpark

Winfield: “It’s been the confluence of a potpourri of issues regarding race and unequal justice under the law. It came to a head with the murder of a Black man, in broad daylight, by police who treated the unarmed man in a less-than-human fashion. That was the flashpoint. The slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ had never been shown such blatant, obvious disdain, that it shocked America’s collective sensibilities. The people of Minneapolis, then the country, then the entire world stood up, marched, protested and said, ‘Enough is enough.’ We’ll do what we have to do, for as long as it takes, to bring change and get as close to ‘all people’s lives matter.’ To make changes to police departments and the justice system so everyone has equal treatment under the law. Most people did not grow up in segregation or Jim Crow, so people of all ages and colors are now standing together. At least they are saying, ‘What is done to one of us is done to all of us.'”

“I think that if you have a platform, and believe that Black lives matter, then you should use that platform. If not now, when?”

Dave Roberts

Singleton: “The movement we are seeing today is encouraging because more people are tired of racism bringing down our country. It’s not only Black and brown people who have taken to the streets. I’ve seen plenty of white people protesting, as well.”

Hawkins: “When the world saw a man choked on national TV, it was eye-opening. There’s no problem until the majority sees it as a problem. Now our Caucasian brothers and sisters are walking right beside us, and that’s going to push the needle. Now people that look like them, who make the decisions and make the laws, are going to see that their people are passionate about this, as well.”

Baker: “I am proud of America, I’m proud of these young kids. I have a son, 21 years old; I have a daughter, 40. My son helped raise money on his Instagram. I was really proud of him. He did that on his own to help raise money for some businesses that were looted.

“My generation had a bunch of idealists that swallowed their ideas and cut their hair and went to work for their daddy. I’m hoping that these young people never change their ideals. When I see people of all colors — Native Americans, Latin people, black people, white people, parents with their kids — this is their generation, and this is going to be their world. And I’m hoping that they bring about some change for the better.”

Talking to teammates about the issues

Hawkins: “What I would want my teammates to do is ask questions, educate themselves, so we can have those tough conversations they’re not used to having. People don’t have enough conversations to understand that our experiences are completely different in this world. I don’t think that some of our teammates get that because we’re all in a major league clubhouse, and I never experienced that in a clubhouse, but they don’t understand that once we leave the ballpark, it all changes for us. It completely changes.

“I would tell my teammates that it’s not OK just to not be racist, at this time I need you to be anti-racism. When you’re at the table with your family and you’ve got that one uncle, or your mama or your daddy is talking crazy, you need to correct them and tell them that’s not what we’re trying to achieve in this world that we all got to share together.”

Gwynn: “You have to talk about where the pain comes from. If you don’t understand that part, then you’re not going to be able to understand the protests. The mere fact that we are very much protesting the same things people were protesting in the ’60s, that’s why there is so much pain. African Americans and other minorities are just tired, tired of not being treated as equals, and, especially in baseball, a lot of Black players feel like they have to put on a front.”

Maxwell: “I would just tell them to educate themselves, educate their fellow men and women, understanding it is going to take every single one of us to fix this and this injustice and prejudice we have against people of color in America right now. They don’t have to support me specifically, but supporting the movement and supporting the fact that there is a problem in America and the fact that our Constitution and our national anthem is ‘justice for all’ and it’s not being practiced in our own country. They need to sit back and realize that the same national anthem and flag they stare at is not being held accountable by our own people.”

Where we go from here

Hawkins: “I know it’s going to get better. I don’t want to say use the word ‘wait’ because Martin Luther King said, ‘Wait means never.’ But there are younger GMs now in the game who are more diverse-minded in their hiring practices. What Theo Epstein said was eye-opening for his brothers and his fraternity. Holding people accountable, adding diversity to the front office. Diversity is good for the game, it brings different perspectives, different thought processes and makes a better workplace.”

Gwynn: “I think [my dad] would have two emotions: I think he’d be disappointed that we’re still talking about the same thing now that he was talking about or his parents were talking about. He’d be really sad. But I think he’d be excited about some of the positive things we’re starting to see. There are a lot of people whose eyes and ears are open for first time. He would be encouraged by that. I’m seeing things that I have never seen in my life, in terms of people that don’t look like me asking questions, willing to get into some of the more uncomfortable conversations that for a long time a lot of people weren’t willing to do. That’s something we can at least have hope in.”

Heyward: “I’m proud of our group, how we have stood up together. Guys have gotten together in group texts, group chats, had multiple conversations about getting that video we put out, together. We didn’t come out saying we’re here to start a war or we’re angry or pissed off at the world. We said, ‘Look, it’s been too long, and we’ve been held down too long. We’ve been afraid to speak up for too long. Now we have to speak up,’ and with so many guys getting behind that message, if not now, when?”

Roberts: “I was on a Zoom call with our team that was initiated by Clayton [Kershaw] and David [Price]. It was about voicing their thoughts and listening to how Black players feel. One thing that people just don’t understand or think about is that a Black player, once he leaves the clubhouse, they have to have a certain different mindset of how they’re going to be looked at by society.

“The players were the ones who initiated the call and then asked me as a manager to be a part of it. That speaks volumes of our players; it wasn’t the organization initiating it or requiring players to be on it. It was their idea.

“It was the first time where you really saw people peeling back a few layers. In baseball, a lot of players and teammates share a lot and are open with one another. But to do that collectively, as a team, it’s a bit unrealistic. So [the call] served to get to the core of some issues. What transpired with George Floyd encouraged our guys to want to do that. Our players that are not of color didn’t take offense to it or felt anyone was blaming them. Clayton was one of the leaders of this call. He took what has happened to heart, and he wants to listen and really understand.

“It’s very disappointing to see people trying to focus on a different narrative as far as how protests are handled or how white privilege isn’t real. People that claim ‘we’re all the same; we’ve all had the same opportunities.’ They’re missing the point. But for our guys to listen and receive the message from their coaches and teammates, it was very powerful. It really was.”

Heyward: “We’re beginning that process in a new light. Beforehand, when players spoke up, they received a lot of backlash. Now is the time when we have to speak up and continue those conversations. On the other hand, MLB is beginning to reach out, they’re beginning to ask questions, and they made a solid statement posting ‘Black Lives Matter.’ I know Theo Epstein, my team president, reached out to me even before all of this kind of even got started. He was a big advocate for that to happen.

“Since I got to Chicago, Theo and Jed [Hoyer] have taken ownership. Of course, on the field they want to have success, they want to hoist championships, and they lose a lot of sleep trying to make that happen. But on the personal side, they want us to show up every day and be ourselves. I’ve had numerous conversations with Theo. Before I got to Chicago, I hadn’t had any conversations with a GM or [team] president quite like I’ve had with Theo and Jed. They have pushed for me to speak up, they say, ‘Be yourself. We want everyone to be themselves.’ They have empowered us, as long as it’s something positive, they truly try to get the best out of people. I can honestly say I wasn’t surprised by Theo reaching out and speaking the way he did.”

Maxwell: “I wish we had more Black players in MLB when I did what I did. I wish that instead of me getting basically shunned and put an X on my back for the coming year, they would have reached out to me and tried to help do some things or reach out in the community and get in touch with other people, whatever — take a stance. Everybody is just worried about their own performance and their own paycheck. I didn’t really expect anybody to follow suit then, I really don’t expect anybody to take a knee now because of how I got treated. Until the population [in MLB] differs a little bit, there’s not going to be any change.”

Gwynn: “I think one of the things you can learn from the African American experience is that it’s just a different experience. The outspoken white player is treated differently than the Black player that’s outspoken. That is something we’ve been conditioned to, for a long time. That’s just the way it is. That expression right there — ‘that’s just the way it is’ — has been said for decades now. Now this younger generation, because of what’s going on, may have a chance to change that.”

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