February is Black History Month, and the following is a guest post from longtime reader Randy Wilkins. Among many other things, Randy is co-editor of “She’s Gotta Have It” on Netflix, and he directed the ESPN 30-for-30 Short “86-32.” Here is his IMDB page. You can follow Randy on Twitter at @pamsson.
I’m a filmmaker by trade, so naturally my inclination is to start a baseball related post with a film reference. Black Panther is a cultural phenomenon. Beyond being a fantastic piece of art, the true beauty of the film is the daring attitude to challenge what a superhero looks like. What makes it beautiful is that it doesn’t blatantly beat the audience over the head with its perspective. It simply exists. When RAB first asked me to write a guest post focusing on my experiences as a Black Yankees fan, I initially thought it would be a straightforward task. Yes, I’m a Black-American, but I didn’t think my fandom was different than anyone else’s. We all share an intense passion for our team and the game of baseball. It is safe to say that we all live a Yankees Only lifestyle. But in collecting my thoughts and exploring the context in which they exist, there is a concession that my fan engagement with the Yankees and Major League Baseball are in fact different. And in similar fashion to Black Panther, the reasons for this difference aren’t heavy handed. They simply exist and this piece explores the emotional resonance of this reality.
Many of us are aware of the declining number of American-born Black players at all levels of professional baseball. What isn’t explored when these numbers are mentioned is the emotional impact this has on the Black fan base. Since 1995 (I chose ‘95 because this is when the insane team success began), there have been 44 American-born Black players on the Yankees 25 man roster. This includes Derek Jeter, Russell Martin and Aaron Judge who are of mixed heritage. This list includes legends like Donzell McDonald, Willie Banks and Darnell McDonald. Even if we look at Mike’s 2018 Top 30 Prospects List, there are three Black players. These are disappointing numbers. There are conflicting feelings when you invest money, time and your emotional sanity into a team and industry that doesn’t have many reflections of yourself on the field. It is especially hard as a Yankee fan because the team has been so successful over the last two decades that you often excuse the lack of representation in exchange for all of the great team moments. On the one hand, you’re incredibly proud that the team represents the city so well, but you’re also frustrated the same team doesn’t properly represent the full range of supporters.
The lack of diversity within the Yankees beat also plays a big part in the fan experience. Let’s just say the demographic of the Yankee beat reporters is very specific. The media wields such a strong influence because they create the narratives for the public to consume. Much like filmmakers, journalists are storytellers. The stories we choose to tell are influenced by our values, our experiences, our judgements and our personal interactions with others. When the majority of the journalists are from the same background, there are perspectives that are often times ignored or not deemed important enough to discuss. Many times, we get the same story with a different name attached. There aren’t any current members of the Yankees media on the print or TV side that represent my perspective. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve yelled at my TV or computer screen reacting to an opinion that doesn’t even attempt to include another culture’s perspective. There are times when a player’s cultural background influences the way they play or behave in a game. These factors should be taken into account when evaluating or criticizing. Often times they are not and it leads to perceptions of a player that just aren’t the case. Do we remember the absurd controversy involving Ken Griffey Jr.’s backwards hat? The establishment couldn’t understand why the best player in the game looked like a thug on the field. These types of stories are incredibly frustrating and again leads to that conflicted experience.
Taking this point one step further, we are rarely treated to stories that explore the uniqueness of a Black player’s cultural background or stories that honestly jump into the racial complexities that currently exist in baseball. The best we’ll get is a bunch of Jackie Robinson pieces around April 15th. It is 2018. It would be great if we could honor Jackie’s legacy by addressing where the game is at various points throughout the year including the offseason. It feels that baseball not only has a problem on the field when it comes to Black representation, but off the field as well with the people who are charged to bring the game to the public. Improving in this area could do wonders for the game.
This is a complex topic for baseball. Quite frankly, it is a complex topic for our country. I do not believe the lack of Black ball players, coaches, media members and executives is based in maliciousness. I do not believe this is a coordinated effort to shut anyone out. I believe the game is rigid in its tradition and has an issue with change and innovation. The game doesn’t have a forward thinking vision. This is a reflection of the game’s fierce commitment to its past and hesitance to embrace the future. We can see this in baseball’s reluctance to aggressively market their great young stars of all backgrounds to both their core fans and casual ones. In all honesty, I don’t believe this is an issue the league cares a great deal about as long as they continue to generate record revenue. They don’t have to confront it because people love the product. I’m thrilled the game is thriving, but I would be really thrilled if I was able to see more people that look liked me in all aspects of the industry.
I want to thank Jay, Mike, Ben and Joe for giving me the opportunity to speak about this topic. I appreciate it a great deal.