Even before Jackie Robinson landed with the Dodgers in 1947, baseball was once a staple of Black culture, largely because of the popularity of the Negro Leagues and players like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson.
Some experts and studies suggest that the decline of Black baseball players is because fame and fortune come slower in baseball. While NFL and NBA stars can come right out of college to earn big bucks, it can take years in baseball’s minor leagues to make it to the majors.
There is also the issue of affordability. The best youth players join year-round travel teams and are afforded quality equipment and private coaches. Travel costs alone make it impossible for kids from underserved communities to participate, making it harder to get exposure, scholarships and a shot at getting drafted.
It is something that Stewart knows firsthand.
Born when his mother was 16 and raised in Atlanta public housing, Stewart learned the game from his grandfather, who watched Chicago Cubs and Braves games every day on cable. Stewart became a star at Atlanta’s Westlake High School and was drafted by the Cubs in 1994. He instead went to college and was drafted again by the Cubs in 1996.
He lasted two years in pro ball, before quitting to coach and mentor.
“If you are a Black boy and don’t want to submit to white culture, the last thing you wanna do is play baseball. I struggled with that,” Stewart said.
In an effort to address the problem, MLB has created programs like Hank Aaron Invitational, where the best Black players in the country work with coaches and former players like Dave Winfield and Marquis Grissom for elite-level training. In 2021, the Atlanta Braves and MLB announced a $3 million partnership to increase access to youth baseball and softball programs in Georgia with a focus on promoting diversity. The Braves also have launched fellowships to boost diversity off the playing field.
Edwin Jackson, a former Braves pitcher who played for a major league-record 14 teams, said Black kids often are not afforded opportunities to play and struggle to find role models who look like them.
“They don’t see us a lot on television, so we are not being marketed,” Jackson said. “We need Mookie and Tim Anderson on TV. You can’t be who you don’t see.”
This week, the Players’ Alliance, an organization of current and former ballplayers who are Black and co-founded by Jackson, donated $150,000 to L.E.A.D. It will fund 42 players — in honor of Robinson — for L.E.A.D.’s summer programs here in Atlanta.
“This is the most vital age group, where we can either lose them or pull them in,” Jackson said. “The only way to make a change is for us to do it personally. If we don’t go out and enlighten these kids, who else will?”
Stewart was surprised by the donation and rendered to tears. Proving that there is crying in baseball.
“This solves so many problems that we have,” Stewart said. “We now have a solution to make sure that we can actually protect boys from the idle time that can lead to crime, that can lead to death. We will be able to provide.”
For Callahan and her son, Jahliel, it will be money well spent. Callahan is already planning to have him in the summer program.
“He never got into sports. He was always a kid who hid in his room reading a book or solving something on the computer,” Callahan said. “With baseball, he has grown to have more of a personality, without being afraid of being himself.”