The chapter of MLB history that can save its future
It’s not fair to judge a sport at its lowest moments, but I couldn’t help but have this thought when I spoke to Bob Kendrick: This guy is exactly what baseball needs right now.
Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, is one of those people who will have you smiling within thirty seconds of meeting him. Not just a polite smile – a genuine response to being in the presence of someone who sees the world as it is, yet approaches it with joy and optimism.
“This story [of the Negro Leagues] is a powerful tool that goes number one, creates value for the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion, and then shows how it can be used as a bridge to tolerance and respect,” he said. “And it’s all being seen through the lens of baseball — something we find common ground in.”
Kendrick believes the Negro Leagues hold many lessons for a sport where blacks once sat behind chicken wire in a separate section of the stands if they wanted to enjoy a game.
Status of the Labor talks
It’s clear that baseball needs a course correction right now. For checking:
- The core economic issues at the heart of negotiations between the MLB and MLBPA have been known and understood for years, but no serious negotiations took place prior to this offseason.
- After a back-and-forth exchange of offers with some but nowhere near sufficient progress toward an agreement, the league suspended its players on December 2, halting all transactions except for minor league coaches, staff and players, and banning all contact between them them players and staff, including coaches and medical staff.
- Despite the suspension being seen as a necessary accelerator to negotiations, the league didn’t make an offer to the players for six weeks.
- After meeting daily for nine days, the league presented a climactic bid that made no significant concessions, although the MLBPA backed down on some of its key requests.
- The players quickly and unanimously rejected the offer, and commissioner Rob Manfred said he would cancel a week’s games, still four weeks before the scheduled March 31 opening day.
Meanwhile, player salaries have fallen every year since 2017 (not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020), and MLB has sought to ax hundreds of minor league player jobs, arguing in court that minor league players continue should not be paid for spring training.
The acrimony is disheartening and the cancellations of matches depressing, but what’s really annoying is that even after months of semi-public back-and-forth, it’s far from clear that either side is negotiating in good faith.
Blue Jays pitcher Ross Stripling made some eye-opening claims about Monday night’s negotiations.
“It must be around 12:30 [in the morning] and the fine print of theirs [collective bargaining agreement] Proposal was something we had never seen before,” Stripling said. “They were trying to sneak things through us, it was like they think we’re stupid baseball players and we get sleepy after midnight or something.”
Kendrick is optimistic a deal can be struck soon and the sport can celebrate the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier on April 15.
“We here at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum have always maintained that Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier was actually the beginning of the civil rights movement in this country,” Kendrick said, noting that this was before the integration of the armed forces. Brown v. Board of Education, and Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus.
Though Robinson dealt with vicious harassment and threats, the powerful symbolism and resulting domino effects of him taking the field as the Brooklyn Dodger are stark reminders of just how far-reaching baseball’s influence can be.
Even after a 40-team cut, MLB still has 120 minor-league teams scattered across the United States in small to medium-sized cities. It has a strong presence in Latin America and there are plenty of opportunities to expand MLB’s connections to Japan and Korea, where baseball is incredibly popular.
The first task, however, should be to inspire a new generation and lower the average age of fans, which according to a 2017 survey is 57 years. That starts with supporting a players’ union that fully understands how previous CBAs have worked to lower payrolls every year since 2017, and a fanbase that could watch football or play “Fortnite.”
“As a fan of the game,” Kendrick said, “I’d like to see the style of play resemble Negro Leagues. They were bold and cheeky. When [Negro Leagues legend] Cool Papa Bell went for a walk, well, Cool Papa Bell will land on third base.
Satchel Paige telling his infielders to sit while he serves would dominate entire news cycles in 2022. With that in mind, Kendrick wants to see more stolen bases, balls in play, flashy defensive moves and marketing of the league’s big stars.
He’s not alone. The league has considered rule changes to encourage steals, such as: B. larger bases, and other ideas to create more action, but it lags far behind the NBA and NFL in promoting their top players. Mike Trout – a generational talent – has 1.9 million Instagram followers, the most among active MLB players. LeBron James has 113 million.
What baseball team owners need to understand is that baseball does its best business when it’s more than just a business. Not only are they owners of assets that have increased in value by 564% over the past 20 years (compared to 308% for the S&P 500), they are custodians of a rich culture.
Look back to go forward
This year, the Negro League Baseball Museum is selling commemorative coins and a bobble-head puzzle set from the museum’s main exhibit, the Field of Legends, celebrating Buck O’Neal’s long-overdue posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame.
Kendrick hopes these celebrations can draw attention to the Negro Leagues and their importance, not just to baseball but to America.
“We want to make sure we preserve, celebrate and educate the public about a piece of baseball and Americana that you won’t find in American history books,” said Kendrick. “The secondary aspect of what we do connects it to what is happening in this world right now. And with a view to the future.”
What’s happening in baseball right now is greed and short-sightedness that are keeping fans away, embittering players and threatening the long-term health of the sport. However, baseball can be one of America’s great connecting points.
If the game’s keepers need a reminder, they should go to the museum in Kansas City — or call Mr. Kendrick.