Quickly, name another African-American pitcher in Major League Baseball (MLB) right now besides the Yankees’ C.C. Sabathia. Exactly. There was a time where a lot of the elite flame throwers were Black. Dwight “Doc” Gooden (New York Mets), Dave Stewart (Oakland Athletics), Dennis “Oilcan” Boyd (Boston Redsox), Lee Smith (the Mariano Rivera of his time for the St. Louis Cardinals and other teams). If you are too young to recognize any of the aforementioned hurlers (who pitched in the mid 80s and early 90s) then you understand the issue here.
Black pitchers have a long, storied history. Dan Bankhead was the first Black pitcher to ever pitch in a major league game in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Leroy “Satchel” Paige, one of the more recognized African American baseball players, was the first to pitch in an American League game in 1948 and also the first Black man to pitch in a World Series game. Don Newcombe was the first Black pitcher to win the Cy Young award the first year it was issued in 1956. He was also the first to win Rookie of the Year.
There was a time when there were just as many Black baseball players as there were White ballplayers (baseball was usually considered a Caucasian sport). Now those numbers are dwindling as well. Hispanic players have stepped in to represent for the minority. The decline of Black representation in baseball is so glaring that Philadelphia Phillies slugger Ryan Howard started a program called R.B.I. (Revitalizing Baseball in Inner cities) to promote the game to urban youth.
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So are all of our Black athletes running to play basketball and football? Think about this; have you ever seen the MLB draft live on prime time television? Has ESPN ever set aside an entire weekend to cover it? The NBA and NFL get all of the glory and prestige of being televised, top prospects are interviewed and pampered for days, sometimes months, before the actual draft. Then you get to walk to the stage after getting your name called in front of a nationally televised audience. The anonymity of baseball can’t come close to that. Especially once you get drafted to a major league baseball team you have to start out in the minor leagues. Some athletes don’t have the patience. At least if you’re riding the bench in the NBA or NFL you still get to rub shoulders with the superstars you watched on TV. In the minors you are out of sight and out of mind publicly until you are called up to the big club.
If you follow baseball like I do you only heard about who got picked first overall. Recently retired Atlanta Braves legend Chipper Jones was the number one overall pick in 1990. Derek Jeter was drafted in 1992, but never made a meaningful appearance for the Yankees until 1995. Pitching is also a thankless job. Unless you are perenially in the running for pitching’s highest honor, the Cy Young Award (like Sabathia) it is not as rewarding as the first baseman who is hitting all of the homeruns. For Black athletes who began to believe that “chicks dig the long ball” they would rather swing for the fences than toe the rubber.
It is a shame how the mentality has changed because for all the trouble he got into Dwight Gooden is still best known for his outstanding 24-4 record in his rookie year of 1984 and being the ace of the Mets staff that won the 1986 World Series. Dave Stewart was the ace of the powerful Oakland Athletics teams of the late 80s and early 90s who made three straight World Series appearances from 1988-1990. Lee Smith held the record for career saves for years until Mariano Rivera came along.
There is plenty of love to go around for a Black athlete who decides to pitch, but in the age of immediate glorification by the media for LeBron and RGIII (men who have worked extremely hard to get where they are today) if you’re not C.C. Sabathia and you don’t play for the Yankees or Redsox the question in the title of this piece will continue to be asked.