The beauty of retirement is that it not only affords you the opportunity to reflect on your accomplishments, but the arduous journey along the way. After 19 years of professional baseball, C.C. Sabathia, one of the most beloved players of this generation, has released a memoir that chronicles every trial and triumph that defined his fabled career.
Sadly, part of playing in a predominantly white sport like baseball means that there are a multitude of factors you will always have to contend with that have absolutely nothing to do with your ability to perform on the field. And in a series of excerpts from Till the End, the 2009 World Series champ reveals what it’s like to be Black in Major League Baseball.
In the summer of 2016, much like the rest of us, Sabathia found himself reeling from the officer-related murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling—the “the latest in a long string of Black Americans dying at the hands of police officers,” as the Yankees legend puts it. But instead of finding comfort in his teammates, he instead was met with a stereotypical response: “Why don’t they just obey?”
From Vanity Fair:
As I had learned about team culture and chemistry over the years, one of my main rules for building team peace and unity, for keeping the focus on winning games, had become, “No talking politics.” If it came up in the clubhouse, I would just say, “Shut the fuck up.” Because you don’t want to hate guys. Our views may be different, and we’d grown up different, but in the locker room and on the field, we needed to be pulling in the same direction every day.
But when I heard that about “Why don’t they just obey?” the heat rose in my chest. I couldn’t let this go. I didn’t get mad. I tried to explain. I talked about growing up in the Crest, an all-Black neighborhood in Vallejo, California. I love my hometown. But it was a place where young Black kids did not get second chances, so everything took on more intensity, higher stakes. Even when we were having fun growing up, you knew you weren’t far from slipping off an edge. One night, when I was probably sixteen, I was in a car with a group of friends. We were driving back to the neighborhood and we had just turned onto Sage Street, maybe six blocks from my house, when the cops pulled us over for no reason. Mom had talked to me for years about being very, very careful around the police, especially when you were in a car. When you’re Black in those situations you can do everything right and still be a split-second from disaster. One cop walked up and told me to roll down my window. The window mechanism was broken, and you had to stick a pen in the handle to crank it open, so I reached down toward the floor. Big mistake. Suddenly there was a gun to my head and my face was pressed into the ground.
We had no idea whether we would be arrested or shot right there on the ground. Fortunately, neither one happened that time, but the exact same situation had ended badly for hundreds of Black kids just like me.
My teammates—all of them young, white, and having grown up in the suburbs—didn’t believe me. Their response was that one of us must have done something wrong—cops didn’t act that way without a good reason.
Sounds about white.
In another excerpt published by The Undefeated, Sabathia reveals that Black players throughout the league have their own sort of fraternity:
When I first came up, there were so many Black players in the league you had the luxury of not liking some of them. The Latino guys all hung out together, because they were the real minority in the game at the time. By this point, though, that was us. We all knew one another. We all talked to one another. We had to talk to one another. I had a million white friends in the game, guys who couldn’t be more on the opposite end of the spectrum from me in how they grew up or in their political views. But if you saw another Black dude on the other team, it’s automatic: Oh, we’re going to dinner tonight. It didn’t matter that for three hours on the field I did everything I could to beat them; after games I’d hang with Mookie Betts, David Price, Adam Jones, Marcus Stroman. All the Black players were in a text group. It was self-defense, self-preservation.
He also expresses his belief that Major League Baseball isn’t for Black players.
You can play baseball a long time, have a lot of fun, and make a lot of money. But right now, this sport is not for us, and we know that. If the game doesn’t change, it’s going to be in trouble, and not just with Black people.I know there’s been a lot of debate about the “Indians” nickname, but Cleveland is taking a positive step by replacing it. Could I have said that when I was playing in Cleveland? Yes, but taking on racial issues when you’re a Black baseball player is incredibly complicated. For one thing, you are almost always in a serious minority. That’s why you’ve seen more Black NFL and NBA players speak out than MLB players — there’s strength in numbers. There were plenty of years in Cleveland when I was the only Black player on the roster; New York was better, but even with the Yankees, most seasons I was one of a maximum of four or five Black players on the 25-man roster. That’s a lonely place to be at any point in your career, but especially if you’re a younger guy trying to prove yourself in the game. You want to hold on to your job and you want to feel like you’re part of the team, not an outcast, not the “angry Black guy.”
I can’t even imagine what it must be like to endure this type of bullshit for 19 days let alone 19 years, but shout out to Sabathia for using his platform to bring light to these issues and make things easier for the next generation of Black athletes. Also, make sure you scoop up Till the End, which dropped on Tuesday.