Celebrating Juneteenth by championing African American baseball players

Only 6 percent of MLB players on opening day were Black.
A copy of a photo from the Braves Museum at Turner Field of Jackie Robinson, left, with Sam "Jet" Jethro, the first African American to play for the Braves, joining the team in 1950. (Taimy Alvarez/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)



A copy of a photo from the Braves Museum at Turner Field of Jackie Robinson, left, with Sam "Jet" Jethro, the first African American to play for the Braves, joining the team in 1950. (Taimy Alvarez/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

On June 19, 1865, Union troops rode into Galveston, Tex., and announced the end of the Civil War and informed the enslaved African Americans there of their freedom, a message delayed by Texas enslavers ignoring the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

This day, commemorated as Juneteenth, marks liberation and new beginnings. Signed into law as a federal holiday by President Biden in 2021, Juneteenth is a time to reflect on our nation’s history, celebrate emancipation and honor the impact of Black culture, particularly through Southern food traditions that have become central to American cuisine.

Juneteenth is my Fourth of July.

Credit: handout

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Credit: handout

This year, African Americans can also celebrate baseball, a significant part of Black culture. Just last month, Major League Baseball officially incorporated Negro leagues statistics from 1920 to 1948 into its historical records. This recognition not only honors the exceptional talent of Negro leagues players but also serves as a powerful reminder of the rich heritage and enduring legacy of Black American athletes in baseball.

In 1976, the year I was born, 18% of Major League Baseball players were African American. A year earlier, in 1975, the representation was at its peak at 18.5%. Fast forward to 2024, and MLB reports that only 57 Black players were on opening-day rosters, reflecting that 6% of MLB players are African American, a decrease from the previous year.

These statistics highlight a continuous, troubling trend: the decline in African American representation in baseball.

As a co-founder and the chief visionary officer of the L.E.A.D. Center For Youth, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, I am deeply invested in reversing this trend. Our mission at L.E.A.D. is to empower an at-risk generation to lead and transform Atlanta by using the sports of baseball and tennis to teach Black youth how to overcome three curveballs that threaten their success: crime, poverty, and racism. Our vision is to develop Black youth into ambassadors who will lead their city of Atlanta and the world.

What sets us apart in increasing the number of African Americans in MLB is our commitment to cultivating the talent of African American boys to become major league players and major league citizens through our influence, affluence and advocacy.

For me, advocating for Black boys is about providing empathy and championing them because, unfortunately, they, as a group, are often a counted out in American society. I understand their struggles firsthand, having been a teenage Black boy in Atlanta myself. Racism was a constant presence, but I was fortunate to have three men in my life who combined influence and advocacy to help me succeed. They protected me from the harsh realities through their advocacy efforts, as openly fighting racism was a risky endeavor for Black people at the time. They loved me and taught me that combating racism must be done openly, strategically and immediately.

For African American boys to become major leaguers, they need empathy and a champion. Good coaching is essential, but many of these young men already possess the skills to play baseball at a high level, just like their white peers. They need an empathetic champion who understands that dark skin, dreadlocks, tattoos and the lack of a smile do not equate to a poor work ethic, a bad attitude, being uncoachable or being unsignable.

Baseball has been the Black man’s sport since the mid-1800s, when it was invented. However, the current state of the game demands that we go beyond coaching to ensure that African American boys are given the opportunity to excel both on and off the field.

We must advocate openly and strategically against racism; demonstrate empathy and understanding of their unique challenges; validate their experiences and struggles; open doors to opportunities and resources; cultivate their talents and strengths in culturally relevant and responsive environments; actively mentor and sponsor them; transform perceptions and challenge stereotypes; and empower them to become leaders in their communities.

By championing Black boys and rebuilding their numbers in Major League Baseball, we can honor the intent of Juneteenth: Celebrating the freedom of Black Americans and opening the doors of opportunity.

C.J. Stewart is the transformative coach, chief visionary officer and co-founder of L.E.A.D. Center For Youth.