Baseball’s hiring practices at highest levels fail to honor Hank Aaron

(Left to right) Vida Blue, Willie Mays, Dusty Baker, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds stand next to a #42 sign in memory of Jackie Robinson prior to the Atlanta Braves 5-2 win over the San Francisco Giants at 3Com Park in San Francisco, California, on June 7, 1997.

Credit: Todd Warshaw

Credit: Todd Warshaw

(Left to right) Vida Blue, Willie Mays, Dusty Baker, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds stand next to a #42 sign in memory of Jackie Robinson prior to the Atlanta Braves 5-2 win over the San Francisco Giants at 3Com Park in San Francisco, California, on June 7, 1997.

Before Monday’s celebration honoring the 50th anniversary of Hank Aaron’s record-breaking 715th home run, a close friend and former teammate of Aaron’s was asked about an issue that was dear to the late baseball legend – the lack of opportunities for Blacks to be managers and general managers. This season in MLB, there are two Black managers and one Black general manager.

Dusty Baker said that Aaron would be disappointed, given that Aaron was disappointed at the state of affairs in 1993 when Baker was first hired as a manager.

“We’ve been talking the same thing for as long as I can remember,” Dusty Baker said at a news conference at Truist Park. “Black History Month, it comes up. Jackie Robinson’s birthday. And then after that, we don’t talk about it or do anything about it until next year. I know you’ve got to ask the question, but we need to have some action.”

A quote from Aaron’s autobiography: “It makes no sense whatsoever that black players are still systematically excluded from key executive positions four decades after they began dominating on the playing field. How long is this going to take?”

Aaron’s book, “I Had a Hammer: The Hank Aaron Story,” was published in 1991.

Aaron might take some encouragement in the work that his club has done. Three fellowship programs have been established for underrepresented groups in the game, two in baseball operations and one on the club’s business side. Two are targeted for people of color and the third was established for female candidates.

The first graduate of the Bill Lucas Fellowship – named in honor of the Braves executive who was MLB’s first Black general manager from 1976 until his death in 1979 – now is the Marlins’ manager of baseball operations.

“Without the program and the guidance and leadership of the people who shepherded it, as well as everyone there, I would not have been able to accomplish what I have accomplished so far,” Jordan Jackson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2022.

The team also holds annually the Hank Aaron Invitational, a training camp and showcase game for elite players of high school age from diverse backgrounds. The most prominent past participant is Braves center fielder Michael Harris II.

At the top of the Braves’ ladder, the intent to provide opportunities for deserving candidates of color seems clear. In 2019, general manager Alex Anthopoulos made Dana Brown, a Black scout, his vice president of scouting. It was the highest position Brown had attained to that point. In 2023, after overseeing drafts that brought pitcher Spencer Strider, infielder Vaughn Grissom and Harris to the franchise, he left the Braves to become the Astros GM. After Brown left, Anthopoulos promoted Ronit Shah, who is Indian American, to amateur scouting director.

On the field, manager Brian Snitker assigned two of his most visible staff positions to Black coaches, Eric Young Sr. (first-base coach) and Ron Washington (third-base coach). This past offseason, when Washington was hired to manage the Angels and took Young with him, Snitker’s choices to replace them were men of color, Tom Goodwin and Matt Tuiasosopo.

Were any of them “diversity hires,” people given jobs solely because of their racial background? Anyone who knows either Snitker or Anthopoulos knows better than that. But it would point to an environment that recognizes the value of diversity and aims to provide opportunities for deserving candidates from underrepresented groups. Washington called Anthopoulos “a great man” in an appearance on the “Foul Territory” podcast in January.

“He believes in taking care of all of his people, and he did,” Washington said. “He took care of me the time I was there.”

Third base coach Ron Washington hits to players during a workout Friday, October 7, 2023 at Truist Park ahead of the Braves’ NLDS series against the Phillies. (Daniel Varnado/ For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

icon to expand image

Credit: Daniel Varnado

All that said, baseball has a lot of work to do yet in filling the game’s highest ranks with Blacks, all worthy candidates of color and women. Beyond Brown, there is one other person of color running a team, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. There are eight managers of color.

Both the manager and general manager groups fall well below the representation of minorities on the field. At the start of last season, 40.3% of major leaguers were people of color, according to Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, though the percentage of Black players was 6.2%, the lowest since the institute began collecting data in 1991.

In the institute’s report card for racial and gender hiring for 2023, MLB received a B for racial hiring and a C for gender hiring for an overall grade of C-plus. The situation is improving marginally, but baseball needs more teams with the commitment that the Braves have shown.

Baker’s frustrations are beyond understandable, and a moment in the news conference perhaps reached the heart of the matter. After Baker sounded off, his former Braves teammate Tom House, who is white, spoke of the ideals of meritocracy.

“Sports, you get what you are,” he said. “If you’re putting up numbers …”

Baker interrupted.

“If you’re getting an opportunity,” he said.

House answered back. It was a friendly back-and-forth.

“Opportunity always comes disguised as hard work,” he said.

The problem with House’s idealistic perspective is that hard work – and accompanying results – doesn’t guarantee opportunity, especially for candidates of color. According to a study by Arizona State’s Global Sports Institute, of 63 managerial hires between 2010 and 2019, 50 of the hires were white and 13 non-white. Are we to believe that the best, most hard-working candidates were white by nearly a 4-to-1 ratio?

Further, of the 50 white managerial hires, 12 had never coached at the major-league level. Of the 13 non-white hires, only one had not coached previously in the major leagues. Why was a lack of major-league coaching experience acceptable for 24% of white hires, but only 8% for non-white hires?

Perhaps – hopefully – programs like the Braves’ fellowships will make an impact at the highest end, and it won’t be significant when a Black man like Washington is hired to manage a team or Brown to be a general manager. Maybe someday Jordan Jackson will be calling the shots for the Marlins.

But a lot of qualified people have been waiting for a long time. Thirty-three years later, baseball still finds itself wrestling with Aaron’s question.

How long is this going to take?

Far more than the pageantry of Monday’s ceremony, the most fitting way for baseball to honor Aaron is for it to happen sooner than later.

Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. (13) reacts after striking out during the fifth inning against the New York Mets at Truist Park on Thursday, April 11, 2024.
Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez