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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.”