On one hand, the contrast in the images of Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts on Wednesday proved stark. In Buffalo, on a night when the sports world was upended by protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., Bradley Jr. sat alone in a Zoom session following the Red Sox loss to the Blue Jays, explaining how he felt a “responsibility” to address the media about questions of systemic racism, police brutality, and social justice as the only Black player on the Red Sox.
Across the country, Betts stood shoulder to shoulder with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, and teammates Clayton Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, to discuss his team’s decision to join NBA and WNBA players in not playing.
The optics of the moment suggested a drastic contrast — one player part of a united protest, the other left to stand alone. But the longtime former lockermates also had a common trait: Both Bradley and Betts were the only active Black players on their respective big league rosters.
That’s not an aberration. At the start of play on Wednesday night, 14 of the 30 clubs (47 percent) had no more than one active Black player on its roster. Six had none.
As Major League Baseball prepares to celebrate the legacy of Jackie Robinson on Friday — the 75th anniversary of Robinson’s meeting with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, which set the stage for the eventual end of baseball’s segregation — the absence of Black representation on the field remains startling.
According to MLB, Black players comprised 7.8 percent of players (active as well as those on injured, restricted, or bereavement lists) in the big leagues on Opening Day. In 2019, Census data estimated the Black population as 14.7 percent of the United States, meaning that on big league rosters, Black players are underrepresented relative to the country’s population by about 47 percent.
It’s a far cry from the 1970s and 1980s, when Black players regularly comprised roughly one-quarter of the league.
“It was different then,” said Red Sox manager Ron Roenicke, who came up with the Dodgers in 1981.
While there are exceptions — most notably, the Mariners, who had more Black players (9) than any team in years on Opening Day — the fact remains that in 2020, there are games being played with one or even no Black players. That’s jarring on the field, and potentially isolating off of it, something that the Red Sox recognized in making their decision not to play on Thursday.
“A lot’s been placed on [Bradley]. That’s important to all of us. It’s important to these players, realizing that Jackie is our lone Black player on the team. They want to support him in any way that they can,” said Roenicke. “What we did today is us basically telling him, ‘Jack, we’re hearing what you’re saying. We’re hearing what the rest of the guys are saying. We want to make a difference. We want to support you in any way we can.’ "
Yet while the Red Sox and Blue Jays united in common cause on Thursday, baseball continues to endure a diversity problem, with the cause likely rooted in a lack of opportunities at the amateur level.
Robert Lewis Jr., founder of The Base — a Boston-based program with four national locations that provides inner-city youths with both athletic and educational instruction — views the proliferation of travel ball and amateur showcase events as having cut off opportunities.
“It’s a myth that Black kids don’t play. They play,” said Lewis. “When I look at our team, pre-COVID, we’re traveling the country playing competition and we’re, like, the only one. Part of it was not talent. It was cost. . . . It’s become a pay-to-play sport.”
In the US, both development opportunities (such as those afforded by private instruction) and the chance to be scouted at major showcase events require money. Lewis believes that players with a chance to make an impact go overlooked, which impacts every part of the MLB pipeline, from players to coaches to executives.
MLB funds programs such as its Youth Academy (eight US locations providing development and educational opportunities), as well as the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. Such efforts have made an impact, with Black players — including many who have come through MLB programs — 18 percent of first-round picks since 2012.
Even so, Lewis believes that much of the work of connecting the sport to a broader, more diverse community has been left to take place at a grassroots level, without the backing of larger national organizations.
“We all know the talent is there. The talent is there to be nurtured,” said Lewis. “And there are all these people around the country doing extraordinary work. The problem is no one knows it. They don’t have the resources to do anything more than to do good local work in the neighborhood.”
As a number of MLB players and teams paused to reflect on issues of social inequities, in the days immediately preceding the sport’s celebration of its foremost social pioneer, it’s possible that the sport will have a chance to look anew at how it can address its own issues of representation. The Players Alliance — comprised of 100 current and former Black players dedicated to social change and diversifying the sport — announced its members would donate their salaries from Aug. 27-28 to combat racial inequality.
“We cannot stand idly by and wait for change — in our game or in our country,” the group wrote in a statement.
Whether such commitments result in a more inclusive sport remains to be seen. But at the least, the professed determination to achieve change represents a starting point.
“The players paused, and now mass media is writing about it for the fan bases,” said Lewis. “It allows people to pause and ask questions. I think this is honestly having a very forceful effect.”