Interview: Chuck D Knows Where All the Black Baseball Players Have Gone

Chuck D had much to say on why he thinks the numbers of black baseball players have gone down and the role his father played in his love for the sport.

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Complex Original

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Chuck D grew up “obsessed” with baseball. As a teenager in his Roosevelt, Long Island home, he’d sketch drawings of his favorite athletes and sports broadcasters, hoping one day to emulate them. He was a Mets fan (and also a huge Roberto Clemente fan, the inspiration for rocking the Pirates’ hat all these years) and sports influenced the Public Enemy front man so much that he in part patterned his rapping after legendary broadcaster Marv Albert. His love of sports and the bond he had with his father, the late Lorenzo Ridenhour, has been a current throughout his life and career. Chuck played in Rock-n-Jock softball games (1992), wrote the Sunday Night Baseball jingle for ESPN, wrote the foreword to author Dave Zirin’s book Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports, collaborated with LeBron James and Samsung on this iconic ad, and, after beefing with Hot 97 in New York released a diss track using all baseball metaphors. “If you don’t understand the (baseball metaphors’) context, they go past you like cabs in the 80sfor black folks. Like, zooooom,” he said.

Next week baseball will celebrate the 69th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. But last year in a monologue about black culture and baseball for HBO Real Sports, Mets fan Chris Rock said being a black baseball fan was like being part of an “endangered species.” Watching it felt like I was reliving a loop of the conversations I had with many black players when I covered baseball for ESPN. I had always wanted to talk to Chuck about the declining percentages of American-born black players in MLB. Not just because Chuck is one of the most socially and politically conscious voices, and been outspoken on Twitter about baseball, its racist past, his role in using it as fashion (and others’ too) and its relevance, but also because I knew that the political risks for black players prevented most from really speaking up. I knew that would most definitely not be the case with Chuck.

I spoke to him on Opening Day–the same day commissioner Rob Manfred was asked on air about the declining numbers of African American players. Manfred pointed to the RBI program and urban initiatives – the usual talking points – but also noted that 25 percent of players drafted last year were African American, “a number we haven’t seen literally in decades.”  

Our conversation covered a lot and Chuck—who has a habit of giving long, thoughtful answers—had much to say on why he thinks the numbers have gone down, how big a role his father played in his love for the sport, and whether Rock was right.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Did you grow up playing pickup baseball and Little League?
We all did. It was a normal thing. We played on a baseball team, we played in the streets. Everything was baseball. Baseball was the black male refuge of the first 50 years of the 20th century. Those of us that worked together, played together, came together. Baseball is one of those games that is hard to play by yourself. It also was representative of the struggle for the unity we tried to have.  

There’s a play on baseball and hip-hop. I would love to be part of a committee that finds out what that line is between baseball and hip-hop and how baseball can be marketed to a new audience of artists and kids."

Chris Rock said he feels the black baseball fan is an endangered species.
Did Chris play baseball as a kid?

Yeah, and he grew up a Mets fan, still is a Mets fan.
Me, too. It’s kind of crazy and surreal to have this interview because I just lost my dad, the day after the Super Bowl. And I remember we all was watching [when the Mets] lost to the Royals in Game 5 during the World Series. And something was lost in the translation of where the game was now and what we were watching. But we still enjoyed the fact of our team being in there. Just losing him on Feb. 8, my whole everything about sports has shifted. Anything I think about sports and baseball makes me think about him. That was our bond, man. The Knicks, the Mets, the Jets. Our bond was sports.

I’m so sorry. I didn’t know you lost your dad. That’s interesting to me that you said something was lost in the translation. Did you talk about the fact that something was lost in the translation or was that just a personal feeling you had while watching the game?
[With] players of color, there’s going to be Latinos and black Latinos that stick together for the common bond, and you used to see that—African-American baseball players coming out in unity. And that was gone. But that’s not to say that something there wasn’t beautiful. It was beautiful to see all the ballplayers that came up together from their respective territories and nations, be it Venezuela, be it Puerto Rico, be it Dominican Republic, be it some of them from Cuba—and expect more from Cuba—that common bond of struggling against the odds and making a new place respect you. And we saw very few of the black USA-born players [during the World Series]. They seemed to exist in sort of like an individual bubble as opposed to this unit. That was strange watching.

I covered baseball for years, and I can attest that the black players, as their numbers dwindled, many became more afraid to speak out.
Yeah exactly like the struggles of Roberto Clemente fought against of being black and also being—well, eventually he was bilingual—but being black and also being Latino. [There] were maddening gaps between trying to figure out how you lived here and how you accepted it. And then [he] couldn’t even pick up on the racism and its detail. [He could] just pick up on some of the overt racist things that a lot of people were oblivious to. It was a language gap and a cultural gap. So Roberto Clemente would say, “If you speak Espanol, we’re in this together. Let’s stick together to understand how we’re going to survive together.” And that solidarity led to the total dominance of the Latino ballplayer in the major leagues now.

[Meanwhile African-Americans have] drifted off to more individual team games such as basketball, and maybe what they call a quicker, more turbulent game such as football. [Laughs.] There are a lot of cats playing football, but in football you’re not doing a real long career.

No, you’re not. There’s not one reason people can point to as to why there aren’t as many black players playing in the big leagues now; there are a lot of different factors. But the (lower) numbers are there. It’s a fact. At the height in the ‘80s, almost 20 percent of the league was black. Now, it’s hovering around 7 or 8 percent. You can’t deny the numbers. I’m wondering from your perspective as this has shifted generationally and fewer kids are playing pickup ball or little league or—
Can I say this? Number one, baseball in the United States of America starts with relationship of father to son. Ya hear me? Starts with the relationship of father to son. My father played baseball with myself and my brother. The understanding of the game and team and sportsmanship, all of that starts there. The bond between me and my dad was the fact that there was baseball to be explained. The bond between me and my father was the fact that we could watch the game together and learn together and at the same time, go out and play catch.

When you have the eradication of the black community and the destruction of black fatherhood for whatever reasons it might be—you can say it’s a redefinition of the family but there are actual facts. Meaning what? There was 100,000 black men in prison in 1970, and there’s well over a million and a half now in U.S. prisons. Go explain that. If you take the father away from the son, you’re going to have a lot of missing [opportunities for] explaining how we should work together as a team, how the game is played with nine people, how the pace of the game seems slow to the [uninformed] watcher, but it’s really fast when you understand. Details are important, details are important in every little thing. Whether you’re fixing a car, whether you’re in a relationship. The detail as opposed to the overt. All of these things have separated black men away from the understanding that collective is the only way that we can survive as a people.

Baseball is a game where you have to have nine people paying attention [who] are in accord and in sync. Versus nine other people. You can’t play the game by yourself. And that is a problem in the individual millennium. The black community has been fragmented seriously, since the 1980s, for a bunch of different reasons. Be it drugs, guns, a whole bunch of areas of non-development. Baseball fields were always full in black communities in the United States in the ‘50s, in the ‘60s and in the ‘70s. They were full and at the same time you’d go to the sideline and fathers would almost always outnumber the sons. You don’t see that nowhere no more.

You don’t even see pickup baseball anymore.
It takes people. You gotta have a collective of people on the same page. Magnify that: “I don’t want to play baseball because it’s boring to me.” Just like kids are bored with playing the piano. The problem is that later on they want to learn how to play keys because “I want to get into production and play this music.” You know you gotta learn how to play keys; you gotta learn the notes? “Oh shit, that was what that piano shit was for?” Right? Duh.

Found my old drawing stash in my way back 15-16 year old archives-as you see I wanted to be a sports cartoonist 1975

— Chuck D (@MrChuckD) April 4, 2016

I look at the Samsung commercial you did with LeBron—that type of marketing wasn’t and isn’t happening with baseball. I know the black players were frustrated with that.
[Black kids’] social realm isn’t tied into what baseball is. Before, baseball in the 1940s—our social everything was around baseball. Basketball and football were afterthoughts. Baseball? All the black chicks were there, all the musicians were there, everybody was dressed to the nines. Black folks filled stadiums in the Negro Leagues on Sundays. Our social everything was around the game that we struggled hard to get into, that we knew we couldn’t get into as an individual so we all collected to push the doors down and make them respect that. That was a major movement and everything was wrapped around it.

There’s not a major movement around hip-hop and baseball. For Joe Morgan and Jon Miller, I did the Sunday Night Baseball game of the week beat, back in ‘99. Baseball was not well informed about hip-hop or this new dynamic of black kids because they were probably saying “Well, I don’t know, we’re not gonna go after the black kids. We’re gonna take who’s the best and we’re gonna field and make sure we market to whoever wants it.” Baseball was on its high horse and is still kind of on its high horse. They’re not in the business of trying to recruit a certain category of people for their game unless they can get the best for less. Maybe that [contributed to] the whole marketing of Latin America because they can get a fantastic player for a cheaper price. A complaint you heard from the African-American ballplayers was “They can get the Latino cats to do a lot of things that we definitely ain’t doin’.”

So is Chris Rock right? Is being a black baseball fan like being part of an endangered species?
Well, time is God. Five years, 10 years seem like a short period of time to older people; it’s a long period of time to younger people. So somebody is eight years old and they go through a 15-year period of the game being irrelevant, and they go from 8 to 23, and it’s about Steph Curry, it ain’t about no [Yoenis] Cespedes…And Roberto Clemente said, “Yo, we’re all the same.” Clemente said, “We’re even black.” But at the same time he said he had to tell the black players that we’re all the same. He was a humanitarian who fought for the equality but he first united the people who were scrutinized the most and that was the Latino ballplayer, because they were being shitted on by certain biases that we had as African-Americans without knowing. It’s a weird thing how all this formed in 2016 knowing that the average black person age 40 and under doesn’t have baseball on their register. And the average black woman [Laughs]really doesn’t have baseball on their register. “I’m going to a baseball game. “A baseball game? Nah, that’s wack.”

Are there any ways of that changing?
Well fathers and sons are sticking together more…The bottom line when it comes down to it is that schooling and employment is different. In baseball there was always some kind of position from the ‘70s on up, for a brother to be a coach. The opportunity outside of the game itself has metastasized so much now, that someone like Stephen A. Smith gets paid as much as many of the top players. When I see a cat like [MLB analyst] Harold Reynolds, I’m like, This dude is a dude that pioneered a lot trying to break down the game a lot in a hip-hop way, a modern way, for somebody looking on the outside in. Somebody black. Harold Reynolds gets a lot of heat, from a lot of cats, like the old guard, the cocky white boys who want to come on and just have a chip on their shoulder and attack Harold through blogs…Harold Reynolds played the game.

I used to live next to Marquis Grissom and Delino DeShields and they were friends with Gary Sheffield. And these ballplayers were the last of a dying breed at the end of the ‘90s and they were always telling me about [cultural disparities in baseball] and I was closing my ears because they felt they had to tell somebody. And they were young, they were 23 years old, and they’d be in the club and they don’t wear their fame on themselves. Somebody walks in and they play for the Atlanta Hawks and the room temperature changes and the young baseball players might feel a little bit of insecurity that they’re not being noticed. But the baseball players were making way more money than the basketball players and especially the football players!

So when people say baseball is boring, yeah it’s boring because you don’t have the time to understand, to grasp it. Don’t just say it’s wack because you don’t understand."

Guaranteed money.
Guaranteed money. Quiet trillionaires, right? Walking up in the spot and being treated like nobody. So it was like, can you live making that quiet existence? I would tell ballplayers, “Man don’t try and build your fame up in the club, or in the hood, wearing straight diamonds on your neck to show that you’re a little bit more than you are. Try and play it low. Alright, you don’t have that visible hood fame, but let it work for you.” But it was a lonely existence [for] the black, US-born player. You ever see the “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”?

Haven’t seen it.
It’s a documentary on Motown [back-up] musicians. They made the music, they got paid, but one thing they said was—they were seriously, seriously clamoring for recognition. They were not being recognized for all the great things [they did]. And this is what’s happened to the US-born black ballplayer. It’s like, “Yeah, I’m an All-Star. Not only have I been an All-Star, but I’ve been an All-Star for 16 seasons and no one knows who the hell I am in the black community.” They’d look around and see rappers getting recognition for doing nothing; they’re like “Shit.”

There’s a whole ‘nother thing to it. Baseball is structured to last. If you’re really good and great at it? Baseball is the game, but [it needs] the opportunity of letting more people in. The solidarity is not there. So now, the African American baseball player is in the same position that the Latino ballplayer was in the late ‘50s. They’re the minority within the minority.

And ain’t that some shit. How much that’s changed…
I’m telling you. Alvin Dark once had Orlando Cepeda, the Alou brothers [on the San Francisco Giants team he managed] in 1962. They had like seven Latin/black ballplayers on the team and he was like, “No, Spanish in the locker room.” Like, “You all are trying to plan a coup or something.” [Laughs.] You know what I’m saying? That stuff comes out when people start collecting.

Is the lack of black baseball players in baseball something that is important to you personally?
Yeah. It disturbs me because of my own personal adoration with something I was obsessed with baseball as a [teenager]. I was obsessed with the game. If you look on my Twitter, I drew hundreds of old baseball players. I was obsessed with the game so it’s a personal thing.

You have to be closer to the development of young people and [help them understand] the things they say they like and the things they say they’re interested in. People say they love hip-hop but they don’t have a clear definition of it. You need people to teach hip-hop to them and how it can be engaged and how it can galvanize their life as an art form.

There’s a play on baseball and hip-hop. I would love to be part of a committee that finds out what that line is between baseball and hip-hop and how baseball can be marketed to a new audience of artists and kids.

I can send you a cut I did on a solo project I did. I got a whole four-minute song of baseball analogies. The average person would be like, “What the hell is he talking about?” If you [don’t] know the subject matter, you’re gonna be swinging and missing. Another baseball metaphor. You didn’t see it comin', like poof you can’t even see the heat. So if you use that as a metaphor in a rhyme—“I’m rhyming past you like Bob Gibson”—if you don’t know who the fuck Bob Gibson is, you don’t get the rhyme. Somebody might say, “Oh that’s wack.” This is wack because you didn’t understand. [Laughs.] So when people say baseball is boring, yeah it’s boring because you don’t have the time to understand, to grasp it. Don’t just say it’s wack because you don’t understand.

I was talking to (our mutual friend) Mike Tillery about being a black baseball fan and about talking to you on this—and you know Mike loves baseball, it’s his favorite sport—and he was curious to hear whether you think that integration worked.
Integration worked but not disintegration. [Laughs.] You know? You’ve got to manage integration, you can’t have it run amok cause if you have it run amok it turns into disintegration. And we got disintegrated along the way. You’ve got to manage anytime you make a deal with an environment you have to manage that.



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