It is far from a secret that the glory days of there being a deep African-American population on Major League Baseball rosters have passed. Whether a renaissance is possible in a game that hit its lowest percentage of African-American players since the integration of the game in the late ’40s last year is tied to a number of factors, but as the decline has regularly continued in recent years, the signs are not particularly encouraging right now.
However, the minority presence is far from devoid in the game. If anything, it is more diverse than ever, with Americans of all shades, a heavy Latin influence from all over the world and a growing Japanese presence as well. But while the MLB’s original diversity point is struggling, it is far from dead. Turning on the World Series, there were the presences of Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson. The All-Star Game was littered with high-caliber talent of color, such as Derek Jeter, David Price, Adam Jones, Josh Harrison and the 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen. There are emergent stars like Michael Brantley, Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton as well. At times the Philadelphia Phillies started as many as five black players at once, while the Atlanta Braves featured an all-black outfield.
Yet in St. Louis, there has been a void of regularly seen, impact African-American players for over a decade. Historically, the Cardinals have featured a strong lineage of African-American players. Bob Gibson, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith line the walls of the Baseball Hall of Fame with Cardinal caps attached to their images. Each carried the torch in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as the faces of the franchise and continues to be synonymous with the team to this day.
Outside of the 1% of greatness in Cardinal history, there are many other past players who stood as greats of their eras. Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Curt Flood, Ray Lankford, Brian Jordan and Lee Smith all were as standouts of their time and vital contributors to Cardinal history. But gradually that presence has dissipated to the point where over the past three years, only five African-American players (Adron Chambers, Sam Freeman, Xavier Scruggs, Jermaine Curtis and Tommy Pham) have made it to the Majors in St. Louis, and all had a bit part in the big picture at best.
While the Cardinals as a team have thrived over the past decade, there has been an undercurrent of disenchantment from a large portion of the Cardinal faithful: its African-American fanbase. While approving of the success of the team, in spite of it all, there has been a genuine desire to see more African-American faces on the field as a part of it, as there has been in generations past.
The deficiency has even sparked notions of there being intentionally exclusionary politics within the organization, which while unsubstantiated have picked up steam in the African-American community. And while most have not abandoned the team, there are some whose rooting interest is pointed in the direction of individual players such as McCutchen, Jeter, CC Sabathia, Matt Kemp or St. Louisan Ryan Howard, all of whom are high-impact African-American presences of the same ilk of players that they grew up rooting for in St. Louis.
Yet on Monday, there were two different types of excitement when the team’s trade to acquire outfielder Jason Heyward was announced. There were the baseball fans who had the natural excitement of adding a new wrinkle to the team’s everyday offering. But there was also the relieved enthusiasm of the slightly disenfranchised black following that breathed out a resounding “finally” in what the trade added to their home team: a long ,lost African-American presence to get behind every day.
Sure, his production potential was obviously an exciting element, but having “one of our own” to get behind is an unparalleled excitement that has been lost for so long. It brings on elements of an exciting nostalgia to the contemporary delight of such a historically good run for the city’s most beloved franchise. There is no caveat to the Cardinals now, because they are now for the any and every man once again.
Heyward is a young, talented and needed property on the field, which is an undeniable boost in the potential of the Cardinal baseball result. But perhaps of equal importance, he becomes a representative presence for a portion of the fan base that simply wanted to have a seat at the table—and feel that they belonged at it.
Those days are over for the time being, and something tells me there will be a wildly popular Cardinal in right field come Opening Day, for many a reason.