‘The Inequities Still Are Large’: A Conversation With Reggie Jackson on Baseball and Race
Why this matters
As a player and in retirement, baseball legend Reggie Jackson long has been known for speaking his mind. As Major League Baseball grapples with diversity and inclusion within the sport and the larger movement for racial and social justice, Jackson’s perspective remains valuable on how baseball can do better in Black communities.
Like much of America, Major League Baseball is in the middle of a racial reckoning – grappling with issues of diversity and inclusion within the sport and with the larger social justice movement taking place across society.
For decades, baseball’s connection to Black fans and players has withered. In 1981, 18.7 percent of MLB players were Black, an all-time high. At the start of the 2021 season, by contrast, that number was 7.6 percent. Only one Black player, Mookie Betts of the Los Angeles Dodgers, participated in the 2022 World Series.
Similarly, a new study from Arizona State University’s Global Sport Institute has found that Black MLB managers over the past decade reached their positions through fewer pathways, were hired across a truncated age range, had reduced tenures, and were given fewer second chances as managers than their White counterparts, even though they had the same or more robust playing and coaching experiences.
Before the coronavirus pandemic and the delayed start of the 2020 season, MLB announced plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro Leagues with a series of events and programs, as well as a $1 million joint donation from the league and the Major League Players Association to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 and a subsequent nationwide social movement demanding racial justice, baseball’s efforts to reengage with Black America became more pronounced:
- On Opening Day of MLB’s abbreviated 2020 season, players knelt together and separately in protest at ballparks across the league.
- That season also saw the formation of the The Players Alliance, a nonprofit founded by more than 100 current and former MLB players focused on creating an inclusive culture within the sport and providing greater opportunities for the Black community.
- Near the end of the 2020 season, MLB and the players union pledged $10 million to the Players Alliance to fund a mentorship program for Black interns in baseball and to provide equipment and other needs to youth baseball programs in Black communities.
- In November 2020, MLB integrated baseball’s statistical history, incorporating numbers and game accounts from the various Negro Leagues from 1920 through 1948 into MLB’s historical database.
- Earlier this year, MLB moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Colorado in response to a new Georgia law that arguably restricts voting access for people of color, a decision that was directly influenced by the Players Alliance.
What will the actions listed above mean for baseball going forward? And what kind of work still needs to be done to make the sport more equitable? For perspective, Global Sport Matters spoke in February 2021 to Reggie Jackson, a Hall of Fame player and former Arizona State University star known for his candor and outspokenness about baseball and race.
Something of an elder statesman within the Black baseball community, Jackson, 75, had at the time of the interview recently left his longtime role as a special advisor for the New York Yankees. He has since moved into a new position with the Houston Astros, focusing on the team’s charitable work and diversity and inclusion efforts. Jackson’s own Mr. October Foundation supports STEM education for underserved children.
The following interview responses have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and context. During the conversation, Jackson emphasized that he didn’t want to come across as angry, bitter, or negative, but rather positive. He also declined a request for a follow-up interview.
Global Sport Matters: What was your experience like as a Black baseball player in the 1960s?
Reggie Jackson: In 1966, I was on the [ASU] baseball team, and there was a Southerner that was the baseball coach named Bobby Winkles, from Arkansas. He was a great guy. But they never had a colored player on the team. They had a guy named Sterling Slaughter who was mix[ed], but he passed for White, and he didn’t really go for Black. I was the first Black player that they had.
When we were going to go on a road trip to play the New Mexico Lobos, we had to travel, and when we traveled, we were going to have to share a room. [The players on the team held a meeting] and they left me outside. They went in and were going to vote for who was going to room with me. We had a captain of the team, a guy named Jan Kleinman. He was the first baseman. And he told the people, the players, the coach, and everything, “We’re not going to have a vote. Reggie's going to room with me." That was the end of that story, but I sat outside and waited for them to have a vote, and they never did vote because Jan Kleinman said, "I’ll room with Reggie, and I’ll be OK.” That was my experience. It wasn’t a good one. It wasn’t a fun one. It hurt.
Before the 1966 draft, I was told by the [ASU] baseball coach Bobby Winkles, “Reggie, you should quit playing college baseball and go get yourself the money for your family. Go sign in the minor leagues, you’re not going to be the No.1 pick because you’re dating a Mexican girl.” Her name was Jennie Campos. I said, “Really? My middle name is Martinez, and I’m part Puerto Rican,” and he said, “Well, they’ll think you’re a troublemaker because Jennie is Mexican and they call that dating out of your race.” So that’s the first time I knew we Blacks were lower than the Mexicans.
GSM: So what happened?
Jackson: I married her.
GSM: Did you meet her at ASU?
GSM: And you were getting looked at sideways because of that?
Jackson: I didn’t get looked at sideways. If you’d have looked at me sideways and said something, I was big enough to slap you into tomorrow. So not too many guys looked at me sideways when we were together.
GSM: When you were with the Oakland A's shortly thereafter in the late 1960s, did you face any kind of prejudice and discrimination in Mesa, Arizona, during your early years of spring training?
Jackson: No, I did not. I had a house in Tempe, and I didn't need to look for lodging. I lived there and knew a lot of people.
But Arizona was always a far-right state. You know, they had prejudice and racism there. I knew that. I was very fortunate I played football for [former ASU coach] Frank Kush, and he didn't have any tolerance at all for racism. Neither did Bobby Winkles.
GSM: The guys that came before you weren't as lucky. Billy Williams had to live in a doctor's office. Willie Mays and Monte Irvin took houses in downtown Phoenix because they couldn't stay in the hotel their team was in. Did you ever talk to the previous generation about those things? What did they say to you? And what did you say to them about it?
Jackson: I ate dinner almost every night with Willie McCovey, Billy Williams, and Ernie Banks. And they never let me pay. I was only making maybe $10,000 or $20,000 a year, and those guys were always making $100,000.
It was just a great time for me because I was the kid, and they were teaching me what to do. “Don’t get hurt,” they said. “Don’t ever get hurt. Somebody might take your job; they’ll give your job away. Look around; you don’t see any Black players sitting on the bench. They don’t let Black players sit on the bench and get paid.” They were telling me about not dating White women and stuff like that they would hold against you. Don’t say too much.
But I grew up in an era – and I grew up in a family – where I spoke out and said what I felt. I didn’t hold back. When I spoke, I said something with intelligence. I didn’t run my mouth and sound stupid, but I was quick to speak out about racism. I was quick to speak out about unfairness and quick to speak out about the inequities.
GSM: Do you see racial inequities in baseball today?
Jackson: The saddest part of it all is the fact that the inequities still are large. Way more than they should be. We have less Black players. We have less [Black] people in the front office. We have a president of a team in Chicago with Ken Williams. I don’t know that we have a general manager.
I don't know any African-Americans that run the team or very many that are in the front office. [Teams] hire all the analytical people, and there aren’t any minorities in analytics. They tell me they can’t find them. They can’t find their resumes. That’s a lot of B.S. That’s bullshit. You know, they give you that story. They don’t push. They don’t give opportunities. You look around and you see the retreads that they keep putting in the front offices. It’s the same people, and they don’t give any of the young minorities opportunities—a guy like a Barry Larkin, a Joe Carter, a good, smart guy like Ozzie Smith, these people that know baseball. They should all get opportunities, but they don’t get the chance.
GSM: And when they do get a chance and they lose it, they don't get brought back, like Willie Randolph.
Jackson: Yeah, Willie Randolph. Take a look at Dave Stewart – a smart, great person, a great guy who had one chance to be a GM. It didn’t work for him because he had a lousy team, but he didn’t get another chance. And then you see guys like Sandy Alderson that come around all the time and they can’t wait to get a job.
GSM: This seems to be an ongoing issue, and it keeps coming back generation after generation.
Jackson: Look at all the issues that the New York Mets team had with their front office with guys sexting and fools like that around. You can’t give a Black man an opportunity? Crazy.
GSM: Last year during the season was the first time I ever saw baseball players take a knee and speak up about the Black Lives Matter movement. What do you think baseball can do to reach out to the Black community?
Jackson: They don’t. It’s not really on their minds. It’s not their focus. They like to run the machine now like they run the team with a computer now, and what they can do for the African-American is not top of mind. It's not their focus, and so they have to be reminded and have it brought to their attention. And we need to be resourceful and try to find solutions to the issues rather than having complaints about it. We just want to be recognized, appreciated, and given opportunities. That’s what we’d like to have.
GSM: Henry Aaron recently passed away. What was your connection to him?
Jackson: I talked to Henry about four or five months ago. I went to Henry's house on Nov. 6 and spent a couple of hours with him for my [work-in-progress] documentary. He was candid. And I'll never forget what he said: “Reggie, I wonder if the color of our skin is a curse. Is being Black a curse?” He said, “Sometimes, I sit in the backyard with my wife, Billye, and I just cry. Tears come to my eyes.”
That’s what Hank said to me when he was 86 years old. Nov. 6 in 2020. That shows you the lack of change that they have.
GSM: When someone of Aaron's magnitude passes, one opportunity that presents itself is that people get to learn about him again.
Jackson: Hank Aaron was regal. Joe DiMaggio was regal. Bob Gibson and some of these other guys were very high-class human beings. They have tremendous stature, tremendous character, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Bill Russell.
GSM: Can progress be made?
Jackson: There is some progress to be made. I don't know if it will be made in my lifetime. I'm going to try to do something about it. And I’ve got some great allies that are willing to bring attention to the things that are of need.
That’s my main goal: to remember Henry Aaron when he said to me, “I wonder whether our Black skin was a curse.” A guy’s 86 years old and an unbelievable human being. And he still wondered.
Rediscovering America's Pastime
For baseball to survive as America’s pastime, the sport known for tradition and nostalgia will need to broaden its appeal across racial, cultural, and gender lines.
For the kid who swings a bat for the first time; the front office data analyst looking for the next big star; the minor leaguer hoping to make it to the bigs; and the major league manager looking to stay on top, can a centuries-old sport become more diverse and inclusive in new ways?