Celebrate Juneteenth by Standing Up for African-American Baseball Players

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This year, African Americans can also celebrate baseball, an important part of black culture. Last month, Major League Baseball officially incorporated Negro League statistics from 1920 to 1948 into its historical archives. This recognition not only honors the exceptional talent of Negro Leagues players, but also serves as a powerful reminder of the rich heritage and enduring legacy of Black American athletes in baseball.

In 1976, the year I was born, 18 percent of Major League Baseball players were African-American. A year earlier, in 1975, representation peaked at 18.5%. Fast forward to 2024, and MLB reports that only 57 Black players were on Opening Day rosters, reflecting that 6% of MLB players are African American, a decrease from the previous year.

These statistics highlight a continuing and worrying trend: the decline of African-American representation in baseball.

As the co-founder and visionary director of LEAD Center For Youth, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, I am deeply invested in reversing this trend. Our mission at LEAD is to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform Atlanta by using the sports of baseball and tennis to teach black youth how to overcome three obstacles that threaten their success: crime, poverty and racism. Our vision is to develop young black people into ambassadors who will lead their city of Atlanta and the world.

What sets us apart in increasing the number of African Americans in MLB is our commitment to cultivating the talent of African American boys to become major league players and citizens through our influence, our wealth and our advocacy.

To me, standing up for black boys means showing empathy and standing up for them because, unfortunately, as a group, they are often excluded in American society. I personally understand their struggles, having been a black teenager in Atlanta myself. Racism was a constant presence, but I was fortunate to have three men in my life who combined influence and advocacy to help me succeed. They protected me from harsh realities through their advocacy efforts, because openly fighting racism was a risky business for black people at the time. They loved me and taught me that the fight against racism must be fought openly, strategically and immediately.

For African American boys to become major players, they need empathy and a champion. Good coaching is essential, but many of these young men already have the skills to play baseball at a high level, just like their white peers. They need an empathetic champion who understands that dark skin, dreadlocks, tattoos and no smile do not equate to a bad work ethic, a bad attitude, not being coachable ​​or to sign.

Baseball has been a black men’s sport since the mid-1800s when it was invented. However, the current state of the game demands that we go beyond coaching to ensure that African American boys have the opportunity to excel on and off the field.

We must advocate openly and strategically against racism; demonstrate empathy and understanding of their unique challenges; validate their experiences and struggles; open doors to opportunities and resources; cultivate their talents and strengths in culturally relevant and adapted environments; actively supervise and sponsor them; transform perceptions and challenge stereotypes; and empower them to become leaders in their communities.

By standing up for black boys and rebuilding their numbers in Major League Baseball, we can honor the intent of Juneteenth: to celebrate the freedom of black Americans and open the doors of opportunity.

CJ Stewart is the transformative coach, visionary director and co-founder of LEAD Center for Youth.

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