Nicholas Ibarra | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Leon Lee walks through the mechanics of staying through the ball and not rolling your wrists over at the point of contact. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER. 

Major League Baseball once again recently memorialized and reflected on all the powerful things that Jackie Robinson did throughout his life and career. On April 15, everywhere you looked throughout the league, you could find a tribute to his bravery and success, whether it was through broadcast or visuals on and off the field. 

Robinson did so much more than just play baseball. He paved the way for generations to come, sacrificing himself to belittlement and abuse, just to give others a chance to play the game he loved. He was a husband; a father; a role model; a hero. He inspired people all over the world to pursue their dreams and fight for what they believed in. 

Baseball players, past and present, continue to fight for his mission: to give more representation and opportunity to Black players and coaches trying to make it in Major League Baseball (MLB). As of 2020, according to Infogram, MLB is made up of 57.5% white players, 31.9% Latino players, 7.7% Black players and 2.9% Asian/other players. In comparison, as of 2020, the U.S. is made up of 57.8% white people, 18.7% Latino people, 12.4% Black people and 6% Asian people, according to USA Today. 

Players and coaches around the league realize that these numbers need to change — more representation is needed — and the players and coaches, past and present, are implementing different strategies to get more Black youth interested in baseball. 

In 2020, MLB partnered with the Players Alliance and agreed to donate $10 million in an attempt to raise representation of Black Americans from pee wee leagues to the front office. Any and all African American players in the league are invited to be a part of the Players Alliance. The organization strives to create new opportunities for the Black community in all areas of baseball and society. They plan to do this through the implementation of programs and campaigns, such as: 

  • Baseball Mentorship Program – A player-led initiative to build and nurture mentoring relationships within the Black community. The inaugural class includes the Black players selected in the 2020 MLB Draft, as well as a dynamic group of Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars.
  • Gear For Good: A national player-led equipment drive and implementation program in which players donate baseball equipment to Black community groups in-need across the country.
  • Alliance Access Program: A scholarship, paid internship, and student employment initiative providing resources, education and advancement opportunities for the Black community.
 Jaylin Davis is an outfielder for the Giants organization and member of the Players Alliance. Nicholas Ibarra, OBSERVER.

Jaylin Davis, 27, outfielder for the Sacramento River Cats and member of the Players Alliance, spoke about a “Gear for Good” event that he attended in his home town of Charlotte, NC.

“It was a great experience to see other players, scouts and kids and letting them see someone that looks like them play at the professional level,” he said. “What the Players Alliance is doing is unbelievable. I’ve never been a part of anything like this.”

Davis recalled the Players Alliance meeting in Arizona this past year where they had a chance to meet all the other Black players in the league and brainstorm ideas on how to get more African American kids into the game of baseball. 

“People say that there aren’t a lot of African American players playing baseball, but there are. They just don’t get seen,” Davis said. “So that’s our thing, trying to help these guys get seen and showcase their talent.”

Sacramento’s own Leon Lee, 69, who had a 10-year career in the Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league and became the first Black manager in Japanese baseball history, is also creating opportunities for Black youth in baseball.  

He and others around the country, including Jason Heyward, Willie Harris, Delino DeShields, Jerry Mumphrey and Larry Herndon, have teamed up to create programs that allow African American kids to play baseball without having to pay the fees. 

“Travel baseball has become so exclusionary that kids can’t afford to play, which is why they’re playing other sports,” Lee said. “We want to get more money to these underserved communities to create economic balance and get more young African Americans playing baseball for free.”

Racism Is Still Prevalent 

Although MLB is making strides to become more representative and inclusive, it still has a long way to go. 

Garvin Alston, 50, an ex-player and veteran pitching coach now guiding the pitchers on the Sacramento River Cats, touched on some of the experiences that he has had over his 30-year career since joining MLB in 1992.

Garvin Alston, first African American Major League pitching coach of the Minnesota Twins and current pitching coach of the Sacramento River Cats. Nicholas Ibarra, OBSERVER.

Alston has had numerous encounters with undertones of racism. One time, when pitching for the Atlanta Braves, a fan tossed a racial slur his way. His white teammates stuck up for him and made sure the person was escorted out of the ballpark. 

Another time — when he became the first Black pitching coach for the Minnesota Twins — people from the stands made sure to let him know what they thought about the move. 

He remembers one person saying, “‘How’s a Black man going to lead a pitching staff?’” 

This resonated with Alston. 

“Just hearing those words, knowing that people still look at me as not capable or smart enough to lead men or process analytics; not just because someone gave me the job, but because I earned it,” Alston said. “Racism is prevalent, but it’s also quiet. A lot of people kind of look the other way.”

Lee faced his own bouts with racism, first playing with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1971 and then later playing overseas in Japan from 1980-1987. While Lee was coming up through the league, he could still feel the “remnants of Jackie Robinson” and the impact he had on the league. 

Lee had two coaches when he came up with St. Louis, Harry Walker and Joe Douglas, two “old school guys” who were very much opposed to Robinson coming into the League and integration in general. 

“You could feel the different perceptions they had of me as a Black player,” Lee said.

When he got to Japan, things were a little different.

“We were more accepted, but there was still so much propaganda that was being sold to the Japanese about the perception of Black people,” Lee said. 

He remembered an instance when a young Japanese girl came up to him and rubbed her fingers on his arm to see if the color would rub off. 

“It was a racist situation, but it was positive because it allowed us to change the narrative of Black players in baseball,” Lee said.

Baseball cards of Leon Lee when he played for the Lotte Orions of the NPB in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Leon Lee.)

Emulating JR42

Alston idolizes Robinson and tries hard to emulate his “never give up” attitude and work ethic. 

“You had to be twice as good as the next guy to get the same opportunity,” he said. “I identified with the ‘inner stuff’ — mentalities —  that made Jackie so great.”

Lee said he emulated Robinson’s daring, excitement and fearlessness that he brought to the game. 

“I was always trying to take the extra base and hit the ball in the gaps to try and turn a double into a triple,” Lee said.  

Following Your Dreams 

Alston had this advice for young players of color wanting to pursue baseball: “Follow your dreams regardless of what you see or what you’re being told,” he said. “Keep working hard, keep a narrow focus, understand who you are as a person and don’t be afraid to get help from others who have walked the path.” 

Lee believes that kids need to be put onto the sport at a young age, 6-8 years old, so that they can form a true passion and love, while also developing skills and an understanding of the game.

But until we start to see more Black people holding more prominent positions in the game of baseball, we may continue to have this conversation year after year.

“Ownership runs everything,” Alston said. “Until we start seeing more Black owners, Black general managers or Black presidents of baseball clubs, everything’s gonna stay the same.” 

Leon Lee previews the website spoker.com, where people can test their luck while contributing to the community of Sacramento. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER. 

If you would like to help support The Dream Fulfillers, Lee’s 501(c)(3) that will help African American youth of Sacramento along with other community outreach programs, then go to spoker.com, which is a platform that allows players to test their skills in a combination of fantasy sports and poker. Lee said that a large percentage of the proceeds generated from the website will go toward serving underserved communities around the country.