What Baseball Means to Me

One in a series honoring Spring, and with it, the opening of baseball season.

The author at his keyboard backed by Willie Mays, his favorite player.

The most meaningful impact that baseball has had in my life resides in its role in the integration of our beloved but imperfect country. In spearheading efforts to lead our country past the disgraceful legacy of discrimination, baseball inspired me to adopt an egalitarian ethos in my personal interactions and to strive to pass this philosophy along to my students.  

 My earliest baseball memories date back to 1955, when I turned five years old. In that year a New York journalist named Charles Einstein published a biography, Born To Play Ball, about Willie Mays, the wondrous African-American centerfielder who had led the New York Giants to a World Series title in 1954 at the age of twenty-three. It’s the first book I remember ever reading. In the first game of that series Mays made the over-the-shoulders running catch of Vic Wertz’s blast that remains, nearly seven decades later, the most iconic defensive play in the long history of the game. My family did not yet own a television, so I did not see that catch when it happened; my first live World Series memory came the following year when southpaw Johnny Podres pitched the Brooklyn Dodgers to their first-ever championship, shutting out the mighty New York Yankees in game seven. That Dodgers’ team was led by Jackie Robinson, rightfully famous for his role as the first African-American player of baseball’s modern era, although historians seldom note that Mays led his team to a title before Robinson did—or that African-American Larry Doby preceded both of them in leading the Cleveland Indians to triumph in the 1948 World Series. 

In recent years Major League Baseball has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of African-American players, the percentage on rosters falling from a high of 27% in the 1970s, when Mays, Henry Aaron, and Frank Robinson finished their Hall of Fame careers, to less than 8% now. The percentage of African Americans in MLB management or coaching positions remains dismally low. In colleges and universities these numbers are even more discouraging. While the recent arrival of scores of scintillating five-tool* stars of Latino descent has given baseball an undeniable boost, I hope soon to see more African Americans extending a glorious legacy in the ranks of players, managers, and coaches.  

–Phil Hutcheon

  • *Five-tool players rate above average in hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding, and throwing. A rare breed of player at the major league level.  

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