Surfacing tensions: Blacks, Hispanics not on the same team
Gary Sheffield hit a nerve that grows increasingly raw with each passing year: The number of Hispanic players on major league rosters has risen, Sheffield said, while the number of black Americans declined because Hispanic players are easier to control.
“I called it years ago,” the Detroit Tigers slugger told GQ magazine in June. “What I called is that you’re going to see more black faces, but there ain’t no English going to be coming out. [. . . ] [It’s about] being able to tell [Hispanic players] what to do, being able to control them.”
That, predictably, did not sit well with Hispanic players and coaches. “That’s going to hurt a lot of people,” said Eddie Perez, a former Sheffield teammate who now serves as the bullpen coach of the Atlanta Braves.
Hurt feelings aside, Sheffield’s words also exposed a divide between black American players and the growing population of Hispanic players that surfaces with each real or perceived slight.
A study by the University of Central Florida Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed that 8.4 percent of players on Opening Day rosters last season were black Americans, down from 27 percent in the early 1970s.
The number of Hispanics in baseball, meanwhile, has risen steadily: More than 29 percent of the players in the majors are Hispanics, which is more than double the percentage of 20 years ago.
As their numbers rise, the power and voice of Hispanic players also increase and so does the tension between them and current and former black American players, who see their place in the game diminished and their legacy disappearing.
The strained relationship was evident when Hispanics petitioned baseball to retire throughout the major leagues the No. 21 uniform of the great Roberto Clemente, a black Hall of Famer from Puerto Rico, the same honor bestowed upon Jackie Robinson for breaking the color barrier in 1947.
Sharon Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s daughter, told the New York Daily News that it wasn’t appropriate to honor Clemente in the same way as her father.
“To my understanding, the purpose of retiring my father’s number is that what he did changed all of baseball, not only for African-Americans but also for Latinos, so I think that purpose has been met,” she said last year. “When you start retiring numbers across the board, for all different groups, you’re kind of diluting the original purpose.”
Hall of Famer and former Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, who now works in the commissioner’s office to increase interest in baseball among black youth, also questioned whether Clemente should be so honored.
“Jackie Robinson was a very unique situation and historical,” Robinson said at the time. “Clemente did an awful lot of good things and was a terrific ballplayer, but I don’t think it’s the same type of situation as Jackie Robinson. And if you do it for him, where do you go? Where do you stop? Then you neglect someone and create some big controversy.”
Jim “Mudcat” Grant, an author and former major leaguer, upset Hispanic players with his tribute to the “Black Aces,” the 13 black American pitchers in major league history to win 20 or more games in a single season.
No black Hispanic pitchers have been invited to join the group — a snub that angers Luis Tiant, a black, Cuban-born pitcher who won 20 games four times in a major league career that lasted nearly two decades.
“Whoever came out with that idea, it’s embarrassing to us,” Tiant told the Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Sun Sentinel.
Orlando Cepeda, a black Puerto Rican who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999, said he understood Tiant’s anger and recalled a time when those groups shared not a grudge but a bond.
“When we came here, black and Latins, we both had to go to the back on the bus, and we had to eat in the kitchen,” he said. “We got the same treatment black players did. We were black, period.”
Outsourcing the national pastime? Gary Sheffield of the Detroit Tigers angered Hispanic players when he said they were easier to control than black American players, the latest salvo across a growing divide.