Yesterday, the Rookie of the Year awards were announced. As you all know, Kyle Lewis won for the American League, while Milwaukee’s Devin Williams edged out promising Phillies prospect Alec Bohm and seeming shoo-in Jake Cronenworth from the Padres. While Lewis’s win was expected, the NL award wasn’t nearly as clear-cut. All other things being equal, the recent trend in end-of-season awards tend to reward players who play every day. The last time a reliever won the ROY was almost a decade ago, when Craig Kimbrel won for Atlanta in 2011; fellow reliever Neftali Feliz had won the AL award the year before, and Andrew Bailey the year before that. Huston Street won in 2005 and the Mariners’ own Kazuhiro Sasaki took home the honor in 2000, but since that spate of reliever awards in the 00s, the past decade has heavily favored position players, or at least starting pitchers.
But that’s not the only way in which Williams’s win bucks recent trends. Yesterday, Lewis and Williams became the first Black players to sweep the Rookie of the Year awards in over thirty-five years.
Funnily enough, the last time two Black players swept the Rookie of the Year, a Mariner was also involved: Mr. Mariner, in fact. Alvin Davis took home the prize in 1984, along with pitcher Dwight Gooden. Gooden’s win was sandwiched between two other Black players in fellow Met Darryl Strawberry and future Mariner Vince Coleman; Jerome Walton and David Justice went back-to-back in ‘89 and ‘90 to bring the total up to five for the NL for the years 1980-1990. The AL only had Davis as a winner during that stretch, and if you’re thinking right now but wait what about Junior in ‘89, Gregg Olson actually won the ROY for Baltimore that year, for which the baseball gods have well and thoroughly punished the Orioles over the past five years.
The golden era for Black players winning Rookie of the Year awards was the 1970s, when eight players won, four in each league: Earl Williams (‘71), Gary Matthews (‘73), Bake McBride (‘74), and Andre Dawson in 1977 for the NL; Chris Chambliss (‘71), Al Bumbry (‘73), Eddie Murray (‘77), and Lou Whitaker in 1978. That makes three all-Black ROY sweeps in the 70s alone, a feat that wouldn’t be repeated again until Davis/Gooden in ‘84, and then an even longer stretch between that and Kyle Lewis and Devin Williams winning yesterday. There were no Black players who won in the NL in the ‘90s, although Dontrelle Willis and Ryan Howard took home the awards in 2003 and 2005, respectively. The ‘90s had just two Black ROYs in the AL, future Tacoma Rainiers manager Pat Listach (‘92) and Jeter in ‘96; after that it was a long wait until Aaron Judge in 2017.
It’s unsurprising that these trends reflect overall trends in baseball, which has been steadily hemorrhaging Black talent for the past two decades. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, Black talent infused MLB slowly but steadily, jumping from under 2% of the sport in 1950 to over 7% by 1958, hitting double-digits for the first time in 1962, and then leveling off somewhere between 17% and just under 19% between 1973 and 1986.
In the late ‘80s, however, the numbers begin to decline somewhat, and then in the late ‘90s begin to dip precipitously, falling back to single digits in 2005 before bottoming out in the early to mid-2010s to levels not seen since the early 1950s, years before the Civil Rights Act, at a time when Jim Crow laws ruled the country.
Baseball in general has dipped in popularity among the major American sports, its languorous pace and quieter moments at odds with the nonstop action of a modern American childhood fomented on video games and instant gratification. Specifically among the Black community, however, the rising cost of playing baseball at an elite level has closed doors that were once, if not wide open, wider than they are today. The prohibitive cost of playing baseball has often been cited as a barrier to recruiting talent from diverse backgrounds; at the college level, baseball programs suffer in comparison to more popular and better-funded basketball and football programs, both of which offer a quicker route to making your sport your job than the interminable bus rides and long, poorly-compensated grind through the minors that baseball players must endure.
And then there’s the coolness factor. MLB can crow all it wants about letting the kids play, but when the people the sport itself hires make comments that undercut all those flashy, in-your-face graphics, it all rings hollow. MLB social might want us to believe baseball is a pair of Air Jordans, but as long as this fussy insistence on observing the unwritten rules is part of the day-to-day on-field operations, baseball will remain socks with sandals.
To its credit, MLB has worked on outreach to diverse communities at both the corporate level, with their Diversity and Inclusion Pipeline, and with programs like their Urban Academies, which seek to cut down some of those prohibitive barriers that keep youth of color out of baseball. The current data from the TIDES report—an annual report on diversity practices in MLB and other sports—indicates that the African-American population in baseball remains disproportionately low, at about 7.5%. However, change is slow by design in baseball, and Richard Lapchick, president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice, noted in writing about the annual TIDES report for ESPN that:
The league’s efforts to increase Black and African American participation have shown some positive results through the first-year player draft between the years 2012 and 2020. During that time frame, most of the 17.6% of players drafted in the first round have been Black. I am hopeful that this will translate to a positive shift at the major league level.
Lapchick’s statement tentatively bears out this year. Of the 2020 ROY winners, both came from the top two rounds of the draft; Lewis was 11th overall in 2016 and Williams went 54th overall in 2013. And the Urban Academies and other player outreach programs are beginning to produce their own first-round talents, like 2020 first-round picks Ed Howard (CHC), Jordan Walker (STL), and Carson Tucker (CLE), among others, with another group of exciting, diverse prospects behind them for 2021.
The gap between 1984 and 2020 is long. That’s a longer gap than a world in which Pictionary (1985) or Nintendo (1986) existed. 1984 brought Def Jam records, the Cosby Show, and the first male African-American to run for president in Jesse Jackson (Shirley Chisholm had done it over ten years earlier), along with the first Black Rookie of the Year sweep in seven years—a gap that must have seemed longer then, after the years of hardware handed out to Black baseball players in the 70s. Here’s hoping the next gap won’t be even as long as that.