Press "Enter" to skip to content

As MLB celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, Josh Harrison, Taijuan Walker reflect on declining number of Black players

CINCINNATI — Josh Harrison made his major league debut in 2011. Every year since then, usually April 15, he has worn No. 42 as part of an MLB-wide celebration to mark the anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s becoming the first Black player to appear in a game.
And every year, the percentage of Black players in the league has decreased.
When the season began two weeks ago, only 58 of the 945 players on active rosters or injured/restricted lists identified as Black Americans, based on USA Today data. At 6.1%, it was the lowest percentage of Black players in MLB since 1955, according to the Society for American Baseball Research. That was the year before Robinson retired.
“Am I surprised? No,” said Harrison, a 35-year-old utility player in his first season with the Phillies and 13th year overall in the majors. “I live it — and lived it, growing up being the only one or one of two, one of maybe three. We’ve always had this conversation, and we continue to have it. There’s a clear-cut disparity of not enough representation. What’s the solution? I don’t know. But I do know that it doesn’t surprise me.”
The Phillies’ roster includes two Black American-born players: Harrison and veteran pitcher Taijuan Walker. But neither the Phillies nor the Astros had any on their active rosters in the World Series last year.
Harrison, who grew up in Cincinnati, where the Phillies played this weekend, comes from a baseball family. His uncle, John Shelby, was an 11-year major leaguer and two-time World Series winner. Harrison’s oldest brother, Vince, played in the Pirates farm system. Harrison played other sports in high school, but there wasn’t much doubt which he preferred, right up until he became the shortstop at the University of Cincinnati.
It was different for Walker. Not only did he consider basketball to be his “first sport” — “I just happened to get drafted in the first round in baseball,” he said — but as one of only about a dozen Black students at his high school in Southern California, he didn’t play with anyone else who looked like him, regardless of the sport.
Walker and Harrison agreed that socioeconomic factors are working against baseball reestablishing itself as a desirable youth sport in the Black community. For one thing, it’s expensive to play, especially relative to basketball.
Phillies pitcher Taijuan Walker is one of just two Black players on the Phillies’ roster. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)Philadelphia Phillies’ Josh Harrison throws during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati, Saturday, April 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Aaron Doster)Josh Harrison #2 of the Philadelphia Phillies reacts after hitting a single during the second inning against the Miami Marlins at Citizens Bank Park on April 11, 2023 in Philadelphia. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) Josh Harrison #2 of the Philadelphia Phillies bats against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on April 13, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)Josh Harrison #2 of the Philadelphia Phillies bats against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on April 13, 2023 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)Show Caption of Expand
“I’ve heard stories of kids under the age of 13, their parents having to fork out $10,000 or $15,000 just for a summer,” Harrison said. “If we had to pay that kind of money for me to play summer ball, I wouldn’t be where I am right now. Not because I can’t play. Because my family didn’t have the resources to pay $10,000 or $15,000. It wasn’t like that back then.”
Baseball provides less instant gratification, too. Harrison cited Russell Wilson and Kyler Murray, who chose the NFL, where the average career is shorter, because the route to potential generational wealth was quicker and more direct than in baseball.
“You’ve got to go through the steps, go through all the levels, and if you’re not a top prospect, it might be five, six, seven, eight years,” Walker said. “whereas basketball, now you can go straight to the G League, to the NBA. You can go play overseas now. The talent’s really good over there. It’s easier paths than baseball is.”
And so, despite decades of acknowledgment and outreach — Jackie Robinson Day has been celebrated in MLB since 2004, while the Dream Series, Hank Aaron Invitational and other development programs have been created in recent years — the numbers continue to decline.
There may be reason for encouragement. Four of the top five picks in last year’s draft are Black. There were nine Black players selected overall in the first round, including center fielder Justin Crawford by the Phillies.
“It’s definitely encouraging,” Harrison said. “Because you can see the effort being put by those that have played in the past. But I think it’s going to keep taking more. As I said, I don’t have the answer.”
Maybe just time.
“There’s still a long way to go,” Walker said. “In the ‘90s, the percentage of Black players in the league was, what, 10%, at least double digits? The numbers are going down, not up. But maybe this will be the last year and it starts going up. Hopefully.”
Source: Morningcall

Call Now Button