As they took the field against the Twins Thursday afternoon, the Red Sox joined the other 29 major league teams in honoring Jackie Robinson. For a day, everyone wore Robinson’s No. 42 — retired across baseball in 1997 — to honor the pioneer who broke baseball’s color barrier and devoted his life to confronting racism and social injustice.
Yet the organization acknowledged an uncomfortable reality surrounding that celebration. The Red Sox are one of three teams in baseball this year (along with the Diamondbacks and Giants) that did not have a single Black player on its Opening Day roster.
“It’s something that I think about almost every day if not every day,” said Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom. “It’s not something I’m proud of and it’s not something I’m happy about.”
The Red Sox aren’t alone in their concern about the lack of representation on their roster. Black players comprised 7.6 percent of major league rosters to open the year, down slightly from the 7.8 percent in 2020.
Still, such lack of representation is particularly uncomfortable for the Red Sox, who have in recent years confronted the franchise’s racist legacy as the last MLB team to integrate in 1959.
The Red Sox roster does feature 12 players from six countries or territories outside the United States, and the team is overseen by a Puerto Rican manager (Alex Cora) and a Black bench coach (Wil Venable). Yet while he expressed pride about the international diversity of his team, Cora — who noted the debt he owed as a player and manager to Robinson — acknowledged concern about the absence of Black players on his roster and throughout the sport.
“Obviously, it’s not a great look,” said Cora. “At the end, roster-wise, it’s not about white, Asian, Puerto Rican, Dominican. This is the roster we have. We are very multicultural. I’m very proud of that. Obviously, I don’t want to say as an organization but as an industry, we have to do better, of course, to be more multiracial … We know that.”
Last season, after the trade of Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers, Sox officials acknowledged their discomfort with the fact that they had just one Black player, Jackie Bradley Jr. Yet Bradley’s presence prompted a powerful conversation among members of the team Aug. 27, days after the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Then-manager Ron Roenicke suggested that Bradley’s openness about his experience of racism was life-changing. In a show of solidarity, the team refused to play against the Blue Jays that day. The Jays, who did not have any Black players, joined the protest.
By contrast, the current absence of Black representation on the roster was felt as the Red Sox spent this week in the geographical epicenter of a national reckoning on race. The games at Target Field in Minneapolis took place near the ongoing trial of former officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, and where Daunte Wright was shot and killed by a police officer on Sunday — an event that led to the postponement of Monday’s game between the Red Sox and Twins.
On Tuesday night, Celtics star Jaylen Brown declined to talk about basketball after his team’s win in Portland, instead speaking out against the injustice and indignity he felt in the wake of Wright’s death. Yet despite the Red Sox’ greater geographical proximity to the event, by multiple accounts little conversation took place inside the clubhouse about them.
“It’s just a fact that you are probably less likely to have pointed conversations about this in the clubhouse when you don’t have any African-American players on your team,” said Bloom.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been attention given to issues of diversity as well as racial and social justice inside the organization, or for that matter their clubhouse, particularly since the killing of Floyd.
More than 25 Red Sox players and coaches donated their game-day salaries on Jackie Robinson Day to The Players Alliance, a nonprofit founded by current and former players to increase participation of Black Americans in baseball. (Bloom is on the executive advisory committee.)
More broadly, the organization has been reexamining its practices and mission over several years, a process catalyzed when Adam Jones brought to light racist epithets to which he’d been subjected at Fenway Park in 2017. The organization took several steps after that episode not only to establish a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech at Fenway but also to challenge its own practices, introducing measures such as mandatory training about implicit bias, harassment, and discrimination.
The killing of Floyd prompted further examination about systemic racism at all levels of society, including Major League Baseball and within the Red Sox organization. In its wake, the Sox formed the Social Justice, Equity, and Inclusion Committee — a group that initially consisted of weekly meetings of 12 employees from different departments.
Those conversations rapidly grew to include 150 members spread over 10 subcommittees covering such topics as mentorship programs, training, and educational programs for front office staff, as well as changes to hiring practices to seek more diverse backgrounds.
“The crux of the committee’s work is internal or inward-facing,” said committee chair Bekah Salwasser. “We’ve got to do a lot of work on ourselves internally as an organization before we embark upon external community programs or other initiatives. That is what we’ve been hyper-focused on since last June … [on] being intentional about moving the needle to make the Boston Red Sox a more inclusive and diverse space.”
The Red Sox feel they’ve made progress in that regard at top levels. The recent addition of LeBron James and Maverick Carter as limited partners of Fenway Sports Group, the re-hiring of Cora and hiring of Venable (initially interviewed in the managerial search last October), and the continued presence of assistant GMs Eddie Romero and Raquel Ferreira have broadened who is represented.
“We have to continue to be deliberate and intentional with respect to diversity in the front office, but we’ve taken significant strides I would say in the right direction,” said team president/CEO Sam Kennedy. “I do think things have changed for the better since last summer, but in no way would I represent or indicate to you that we’re there. We obviously have a long, long way to go.”
If that assessment is true for the masthead, it is even more so when contemplating the player pool for the team and the sport. Locally, the Red Sox have increased their investment in The BASE — the Roxbury-based academy to increase athletic and educational opportunities for city youth — as well as in the local RBI program.
Yet such grassroots efforts are part of a long-term effort to broaden interest and participation in the sport. More immediately, the Red Sox lament the issue of underrepresentation on their major league roster, a development that is at odds with the spirit of celebrating Robinson’s legacy.
“To not have an African-American player on our major league roster is not good,” said Kennedy. “That’s something we’re keenly aware of, and it’s something we do talk about. It’s something that frankly I wish were not the case.”