Steve Blass pitched in parts of 10 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He won a World Series title in 1971, earned an All-Star selection the following season, and retired from the Diamond a few years later. In many ways, he’s representative of the average Major League Baseball player, based on his demographics.
“I am,” Blass said in a telephone interview Monday, “a former white baseball player, probably Tory, who learned things that became important to me being in the presence of Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and many. of those guys, and watch and admire Henry Aaron, who I think embodied all that is good in the game.
Case in point: After the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Blass watched his black teammates including Maury Wills, Stargell and Clemente address the team and, in the absence of a carry over to the MLB scale, lead the Pirates in unanimously deciding not to participate in an exhibition game and the first two games of the regular season. This led other teams to adopt a similar stance, which delayed the start of the MLB season by a few days.
So when MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced on Friday that he had pulled the 2021 All-Star Game from suburban Atlanta due to a new voting law in Georgia that Democrats and Groups say advocacy campaign, would disproportionately suppress the participation of people of color, Blass applauded the action from his Florida home.
“They took it, quite simply, because the voting rights of the people were being questioned and / or threatened,” said Blass, 78, later adding: “I am proud to have been a member of the Major League Baseball for taking this position because it is not the easiest. There’s probably a lot of sponsorship money at stake. But I’m happy. Roberto Clemente would have been happy too.
The MLB move was a watershed moment for a sport long known for its traditionalism and sluggish nature. Until 1947, baseball excluded black players from its teams. Most recently, Manfred’s predecessor, Bud Selig, backed down to calls, several from Latinos, to move the 2011 All-Star Game from Phoenix due to a contentious Arizona immigration law to which the players union opposed. And last year, the MLB waited nine days before tackling the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, making it the last of the four major professional sports leagues in North America to do so.
“It takes a step towards where it should be,” said Blass. “And we know that sometimes they haven’t taken those steps, but it’s a big step, and I’m proud of it.”
There are many factors that have made MLB measurement unique. Much like their counterparts in professional basketball or football, MLB club owners are largely Republican donors. The sports fan base is older and less diverse than the N.FL. and the NBA and a majority of major league players are white, many of whom tend to be conservative in their personal politics. (About 30% of MLB players are Latinos, most from outside the United States, and only 8% are black.)
So when Manfred said he was moving the All-Star Game and the accompanying amateur draft away from the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park because it was “the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport” , he took a calculated risk. Not only was it a big deal to move a flagship event three months in advance – the Colorado Rockies are the new hosts – but it also threatened to rank some club owners, players, fans and politicians.
“The position that Major League Baseball is taking, to me, is very powerful and it’s the first time they’ve really stepped up since I can remember,” said Reggie Jackson, Hall of Fame outfielder, in a phone interview this weekend.
While Jackson said this was the right message for MLB to send, he insisted the league still had work to do. He has repeatedly urged MLB to redouble its efforts to bring representation in all sport, from grandstands to conference halls, more in tune with the American people. For example: There is only one color majority owner in MLB, Arte Moreno of the Los Angeles Angels; and there are only four non-white baseball operations managers among the 30 clubs.
“There needs to be more thinking on the part of all businesses, including baseball,” said Jackson, 74, who is a black American of Puerto Rican descent. “Baseball is further behind other sports.”
Prior to Manfred’s announcement, no player had publicly called for a boycott of the All-Star Game. Jackson said part of the reason may have been the low percentage of blacks in the game.
Over the past few days, a few white players have voiced their opinion that the game should be kept in Georgia, with Braves star Freddie Freeman saying it could serve as a platform for a discussion on voting rights. , and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Collin McHugh saying so. does not want to deprive the people of Atlanta of the game despite his disappointment with his home state legislature.
One of the few people in baseball to publicly question the game before the commissioner’s announcement was Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. Roberts, who is black and Asian American, had said he would consider turning down the honor of leading the National League team, but appeared relieved when MLB announced the withdrawal.
Before making his decision, Manfred spoke privately with the Players Alliance, a nonprofit founded last year after Floyd’s murder and made up of more than 100 current and former black players. Curtis Granderson, former player and group chairman, said in TV interviews that he conveyed to Manfred the varied perspectives of black players and “our non-black brothers who played alongside us.” Manfred understood that the status quo would have put players and coaches in a position of having to answer questions about the game or decide whether or not to attend.
“It’s disappointing when people say they have to make a choice,” Jackson said, before listing famous sports figures he said were going against the grain: Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, LeBron James and Sandy Koufax. He added, “There are so many white people feeling the same way to take a stand. Please come out. I am here to support you.
Although Jackson said he understood the wrath of the Braves on the loss of the match and the impact of corporate pressure (Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola, two big sponsors of the Braves, denounced the law days before the MLB announcement), he said the league had made the right choice.
The Players Alliance said they would still travel to Atlanta, as they had planned, to do their jobs, just like the MLB separately. (The MLB and the Players Alliance, which receives funding from the league and the players’ union, are committed to continuing their charitable and outreach efforts in Atlanta.)
If baseball legend Hank Aaron was still around, said Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker and Jackson, he would have had something powerful to say about the debate surrounding the All-Star Game. Aaron, who has known racism throughout his career, died in January. During All-Star Game week in Atlanta, MLB and the Braves had planned to honor the legacy of the Hall of Famer, a former player and executive of the Braves.
“He would be calm and cool about it, but he was really outspoken about civil rights,” Baker, 71, said of his former teammate before Manfred’s announcement.
There was a time, Baker said, when black people weren’t even allowed to vote in the United States, so getting to this point in history was hard enough. He warned that what was happening was not unique to Georgia; other states are moving closer to passing new laws that would further restrict voting.
So after the MLB announcement, Baker told reporters it was “a pretty big and bold move” and that he was proud of the league.
Prior to Friday, Baker had considered heading to Atlanta during the All-Star break because his son, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley, might be recruited, and because Aaron’s widow Billye and a friend of the Aaron family had invited him. After the MLB announcement, Baker couldn’t help but think about his late friend and mentor.
“This is what Hank would have liked, even if it was his hometown,” he told reporters. “He has always had the rights of the people at the forefront of his mind and in his heart.”