When MLB players sat out, Black kids noticed

Five summers since his mother was murdered in that South Carolina church, when hate came in through the side door, killed and reloaded five times, Chris Singleton was tending to his 2-year-old son’s knee, putting him back together with a Band-Aid and a hug.

CJ would heal and go looking for the plastic baseball bat he’s always swinging in the backyard and the plastic baseballs his dad chases in every direction, and with his eyes ever asking for more.

Chris would return to a conversation about hate. Also, about love.

“You’re talking to a guy who’s trying to end racism,” Chris said. “So I’m hopeful. That’s a big job. So, yeah, I’m hopeful.”

His voice trailed off with the sound of CJ’s little feet, then returned: “I’m an optimistic guy. At 20, I was taking care of my brother and sister. I had to be optimistic.”

Back then he was the young man — an outfielder on the college baseball team, a future draft pick and minor leaguer — who had a mother, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, to bury and two siblings to put back together while tending to his own abraded heart. He was the young man who forgave the hate that came in through the side door, who called it by its name and freed it, because he would not be able to carry hate and end hate in every same heartbeat.

Chris Singleton is today an inspirational speaker, the director of community outreach for the Charleston RiverDogs, a husband, a father, a brother, a baseball fan and a guy who’s trying to end racism. He’s 24 years old and believes he can change the world, or help, or try. If not for the rest of us, then for 2-year-old CJ, for anyone who’s got next.

In that context, Chris watched when over a few late-August days 11 MLB games involving 21 teams were called off. The players refused to play. Police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, had shot a Black man in the back multiple times, and his name was Jacob Blake, and it may as well have been George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or Ahmaud Arbery or anonymous, and three days later men in the sport Chris Singleton once played and always loved took out their outrage on their games.

Chris Singleton — pictured here at a 2015 Yankees game with his sister, Camryn, left, and his brother, Caleb, right — was drafted by the Chicago Cubs and now works for the Charleston RiverDogs. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun, File)

He’d seen pictures of Mookie Betts on a knee in Los Angeles, white teammates’ hands on his shoulders. He’d seen Dom Smith weep in New York, and a game softening beside his honesty.

Then he’d sat with his younger brother, Caleb, a senior in high school and a talented shortstop, and said aloud, half to himself and half to Caleb, “They’re not just talking the talk.”

Over those three late-August days, some baseball games were postponed for a day or two or longer, these a protest against racism, against police brutality, against systems of economics, politics and justice that at best seem willing to live with it, that at worst encourage hate to come in through the side door. Those dolorous pleas and fleeting protests were, perhaps, aimed long and high, into the realms of power and authority and centuries-long status quo.

Among others, it was Ron Roenicke, manager of the Boston Red Sox, who, drawn and red-eyed one night, reminded us about the children. They are watching. They are learning how to lead. How to follow. What to stand for. Who to believe in. Tomorrow they will be in charge. They will live in the world that’s left. They surely have questions.

It is difficult to determine what, if any, permanent influence those suddenly and temporarily darkened stadiums might have had in the national discourse about racial inequities. But they almost certainly reached one dinner table. Or a hundred of them. A thousand.

Those baseball players had protested up. They’d spoken to authority and to the national conscience. At the same time, maybe, they’d spoken to, educated, even inspired, down, to the coming generation. 

Why aren’t the Brewers playing tonight? The Dodgers? The Mets? Well, let’s talk about that.

“My answer is, it definitely didn’t hurt by any means,” Chris Singleton said. “Doing nothing definitely would hurt. So, did it help? Yes. Is that the answer? Not even close.

“Some people are going to move on to the next thing. That’s going to happen. The thing that I know is, this has sparked something in some people’s minds. They’ll be, ‘You know what, I can’t turn a blind eye.’ I’m not scared of that happening. It’s happened in the past. But some people will stay in and those people will continue to do things.”

(Albert Corona / Yahoo Sports)

Showing the kids of Milwaukee that they matter

James Beckum stayed in. Fifty-six years ago, on Milwaukee’s north side, he co-founded a youth baseball league in a park that today bears his name. Along the way, during opening day parades, special events or just some random Saturday afternoons down at the park, Beckum met plenty of the old Milwaukee Braves and Brewers players, among them Henry Aaron.

Most spring and summer mornings Beckum himself could be found combing those fields with a rake and coaxing the green from grass dormant for long winter months. His son played on those fields. So did two grandsons and a granddaughter. And 20 or 30 thousand other boys and girls.

“I don’t believe in them playing on a lousy field,” he said. “And I didn’t like to disappoint them. Kids playing baseball, they shouldn’t have to play on a bad field because they’re kids. Then the kids think you don’t care about them. I don’t feel that way.”

At that he chuckled. He’d been a shortstop, third baseman, second baseman and catcher for the East St. Louis Giants in what he called “a second grade of the Negro Leagues, not at the same level,” and he’d played on plenty of lousy fields, stayed in plenty of lousy hotels and was refused service in plenty of lousy diners.

Asked when he quit bringing the rake to the field, he said, “When I was 90.”

He is 91.

Beckum Stapleton Little League, played on a handful of fields at James W. Beckum Park, is about a half hour’s drive from Kenosha, where Jacob Blake was shot, and about 10 minutes from Miller Park, where the Brewers play. Or, for that night in late August, where they did not play.

His league’s players are today mostly Black, Beckum said, reflecting the neighborhood.

From his first day getting those fields just right in the midst of a Civil Rights movement, he said, there has only been good at baseball or not, sportsmanship or not, laughter or not. That was his vision of baseball then, when Henry Aaron was the star in town, and it is now, when Christian Yelich is the star in town. The events in Kenosha or the reaction in Miller Park (or Fiserv Forum, where the Bucks normally play) would not alter that, he said, because in his park the game would always be encouraging and inclusive.

“Young people, what they want and deserve is equal opportunity,” Beckum said.

The league’s board this week was drafting a statement of support for the Brewers and their protest. The coronavirus brought the cancellation of the summer season at Beckum Park, so there has been no organized baseball there, nobody cheering in the bleachers or cooling themselves in the shade of the trees and no runs registering on the scoreboard. But, when the news came that the Bucks and then the Brewers would sit out a game for the man in Kenosha, for all the men and women like him, league president Jim Brey said, “That sent shock waves. A lot of us knew it was not business as usual.”

One day soon they hope to fill the rosters and the dugouts and the bleachers again. The little boys and girls will return. They’ll play ball again on James Beckum’s fields. For going on 60 years they have been about the finest in town, not because he’d hoped they’d be or assumed they’d one day be, but because he’d always shown up with a rake and always went home with dirt on his pants cuffs.

Those kids, as he saw it, they needed to know he cared. That some of the hops would be true. That their lives mattered. That sort of intention, that sort of trust, does not come from one less night of baseball or the three weeks that follow.

“Just like you’re in baseball, you’re in the batting cage, and you’re trusting the process,” Oakland A’s second baseman Tony Kemp said. “You won’t necessarily see the results today. But you have to believe in that process every day.”

A's second baseman Tony Kemp, right, donned a Black Lives Matter shirt before a late August game against the Rangers. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

What’s at stake for Black players

Kemp’s A’s sat out a game in Texas on Aug. 27. They sat out the next night, in Houston. He reflected, as he often does, on the night more than a decade ago when he rolled a stop sign near home in Franklin, Tennessee, and found himself surrounded by police. They searched his car. After what seemed like forever, they let him go.

All that was at stake was a college scholarship, a career in baseball, a life unmarked by the tragedy of a single misread word or gesture. Then, as now, it seemed that fragile, and so too do the inches of progress. 

Some of baseball said it had seen enough. In St. Louis, Dexter Fowler and Jack Flaherty refused to play. Jason Heyward made the same choice in Chicago. Matt Kemp in Colorado.

Do the boys and girls at Beckum Park know? Do they see it? Hear it? Do they feel seen and heard? Do they feel important? MLB is not quite 8 percent Black. Is that important?

Singleton, raised in Atlanta, where most of his teammates were Black, and Charleston, where few were Black, grew to admire Andrew McCutchen, a Pittsburgh Pirate, and Adam Jones, a Baltimore Oriole.

“I automatically thought of those guys,” he said. “Players that look like you. For me, it was Black and skinny and fast.”

So, perhaps, it would be fair for one of Beckum’s kids to wonder if MLB had a place for him or her. Caleb Singleton might wonder. Little CJ has a few more years of innocent swings in him. MLB has committed itself to programs such as its urban youth academies and the Play Ball initiative. It seeks lost traction and the effort seems honest enough.

An afternoon at the academy in Compton, California, and Garrett Riley spent plenty afternoons there, still might seem a long way from being noticed. He is, as far as he could tell, the only Black player ever to spend four years in his high school program. So when he was assumed to be playing baseball to kill time between football seasons, he said, no, baseball was his first love. And when, he said, “I was always classified as a raw athlete or with raw talent,” he wondered what that meant exactly. He rather thought of himself as a pitcher, a first baseman and an outfielder. And when a family friend overheard a racial slur directed toward Garrett, that friend soothed Garrett’s mother: “I wouldn’t worry about him because he knows how to assimilate into whatever environment he’s in,” as though these moments would be Garrett’s to navigate forever, inevitably.

Years later, Garrett, now 18, admitted, “I read who I’m with.”

He played on a lot of those teams in Southern California, where he stood out based on his father being Black and his mother Mexican, what Riley calls, “The best of both worlds.” He graduated high school in May, endured the virus shutdown, and late this summer entered Grambling State on a partial baseball scholarship, a partial academic scholarship and a grant. Amid that transition, MLB games were postponed. Players who looked like him, some of whom had played on the same fields he had, including fellow Compton academy alum Dom Smith, kneeled, sat out and spoke up.

“It hit me,” Riley said, “on a personal level.”

He’d been the Black kid, the standalone, for much of his life. He looked to the big leagues and on many nights saw the same. There’d be 25 players on a team, including the Black player.

“I’ve been going through that stuff my whole life,” he said. “Really, it made me stronger, and this is part of the reason I’m at a HBCU now, why I chose to come here, to grow and excel as a community, one I didn’t have growing up.

“The whole entire movement, like, maybe things will change and hopefully for the better. It’s definitely not something that will change overnight … It definitely felt like people are finally and somewhat getting it and maybe things will start going in the right direction.”

Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen, a former NL MVP, is looked up to by many Black baseball players, and started The Players Alliance to address racial inequality. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)

Garrett Riley, left-handed pitcher, Grambling Tiger, room reader, saw them. He heard them. Those three late-August days, what came of them, left him … encouraged. Before the conversation would change again, before there was time to get back to the work of understanding and surviving and feeling seen and heard himself, 21 baseball teams had spoken to him. The Players Alliance, more than 100 strong, had risen. On the very same day of the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, baseball honored the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first meeting with Branch Rickey, and on one of those late-August days.

It reached one dinner table, for sure.

“I saw,” Riley said. “I definitely did.”

What comes next

Kemp calls it the Plus-1 Effect, by which one conversation leads to two. One mind changed leads to two. One instance of compassion, of empathy, of kindness, leads to two. Then, maybe, to three.

“It’s hard to be patient,” he said. 

Still, he invites people into private conversations on social media. Those go well or they don’t. Then he starts over. He sits out two baseball games and hopes people ask why. That goes well or it doesn’t. Then he starts over, for all the names everyone knows, the ones that are shouted on the streets of America, and for the names hardly anyone knows, the ones who might have turned on a television one night and wondered why the A’s weren’t playing.

“The stuff we’re doing, those tough conversations we’re having, they’re not easy,” he said. “They’re uncomfortable. We’re not going to fix racism in one day. And you’re not going to see the impact you’re having on people the next day.

“But our stance in not taking the field against the Rangers and Astros, it speaks volumes. They’re going to be playing those clips forever. It’s a monumental time in sports history, bigger than sports … I’m still happy to be in this fight. I have no regrets, because before we’re athletes, we’re Black men in America.”

So in a room in Charleston, South Carolina, where baseball runs deep but not nearly so deep as being Black in America, Chris Singleton and his younger brother and his toddler son watched it all go by. Chris is not a boy anymore. Any chance of that went out the side door five summers ago. Instead he thinks about what could fix this, what might cover the next couple inches, and then what awaits for him, what awaits for them all. It was just baseball. Just some baseball games that, for a few nights, were gone. But their meaning reached his dinner table too.

“If I’m a little kid, I’m like, ‘Mom, they’re talking to me’,” he said. “‘Man, mom, they’re talking to me.’”

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