We’ve Forgotten Our Negro League Past Part 2: Interview With Senior Writer Justice B. Hill of MLB.com
Could you imagine looking out from the plate and trying to find a hole in this outfield? Arguably three of the best of all time
In Part II, Justice and I get into some issues that need to be addressed as well as the Willie Mays/Hank Aaron who is better debate. I’m spreading this interview out in hopes that baseball might seep into our collective psyche. Justice brings up some very important points as to why the game isn’t being played in the Black community and how we can address this dilemma. If at all it’s that important…
Part III will be posted next Monday.
Michael Tillery: Getting into Willie Mays and Hank Aaron…When people comment on those two players in particular, Willie is described as being the better all around player. This is sort of confusing to me, but is Hank Aaron underrated?
Justice B. Hill: Well..again that’s a tough question. In general a center fielder always has more value than a right fielder.
Clearly, Mays had more tools than Hank Aaron. Hank Aaron was a great great player. I don’t see this huge separation between the two. If Mays is better, it’s so close it’s not even worth arguing about.
In a lot of people’s eyes…no one wants to give him his due because he broke the most hallowed record in baseball…Babe Ruth’s home run record.
It’s easy for people to say he wasn’t that good. He wasn’t this or he wasn’t that. Mays didn’t have that baggage. I think if he did, then people would be saying well he wasn’t as good as Joe DiMaggio or he wasn’t good as Tris Speaker or whomever. There’s a lot of negativity attached to Aaron because he broke the home run record. That’s the difference as I see it Michael. I think most people look at those two men who were contemporaries of each other and see two great players.
Again, trying to judge a right fielder and a center fielder is a tough call. Mays had a great career…so did Hank Aaron.
MT: Another one of those guys for me was Stan Musial. .331 average, 3630 hits and a ridiculous 725 doubles and played in 24 All Star games. When I was ten or eleven my folks bought me one of those Franklin Big League Baseball hand held computers. They had every single MLB stat. I would compare stats here and stats there and one that stuck out was Stan Musial’s slugging percentage. He’s another guy that doesn’t get talked about at length. Why are there players like that? Is it there personalities?
Shares the distinction of being born on the same day…November 21…in the same city…Donora, PA…as Ken Griffey Jr. 50 years earlier. In fact, he played on the same high school team as Griffey’s grandfather.
The sweetest swing possibly ever. Griffey’s lineage to the game is astounding
JBH: No. A lot of it might of have had to do with the city he played in. He played in St. Louis. Most of the great player–certainly from yesteryear–are east coasters, so that has a lot to do with it. It’s hard to argue that Stan Musial wasn’t a great player. He also played during the time when Joe DiMaggio was playing. He career also overlapped Mays, Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente. Then you go back to Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth. Babe Ruth was a right fielder. Stan Musial was a right fielder. Who would you take, Babe Ruth or Stan Musial? That’s what you ran into with Stan Musial. Who would you take Stan Musial or Henry Aaron? He was a great ball player, but there were other great right fielders as well. Of course he’s going to get overshadowed a little bit. People tend to forget that a substantial part of Mays’ career was in New York.
MT: Getting into modern times. Is there a player out there now that you would pay to watch?
JBH: There’s not one player. I don’t generally look at sports that way other than boxing. Baseball is a team game. I’d rather go see a team that plays well and has a star or two, so there’s not really one player.
There’s some great baseball players. You put those great players on a bad baseball team and it’s easy to see meager production. You can be the best pitcher in the world and if your team isn’t scoring any runs, what does it mean?
What you want to see–to me–is teams that play the game and respect the game. There are a lot of teams that do that. The Colorado Rockies for example. They’ve got a star in Matt Holliday and a couple of other young players but they don’t kick the ball around. They’ve got some speed. They’ve got some power. They’ve got good pitching. They’ve got a good bullpen. That’s a wonderful team to watch.
The Indians are the same way. The Red Sox in a lot of ways are the same way. The elite teams are fun to watch–especially when they play a good game. I’ve gone to baseball games where I’ve seen pitchers like Johan Santana give up like 5 or 6 runs.
Two of the most popular athletes who happen to not swing a bat
You know that in basketball Kobe or LeBron is going to get at least 20 points every night. In baseball, you don’t know when a hitter like Ichiro is going to go 0-5.
That’s the nature of baseball. It’s a game of failure. How you deal with failure is a measure of how great you are. No matter how good you are, you are going to fail 7 out of 10 times in baseball if you are a hitter.
MT: Manny Ramirez. I could have him as a teammate. He’s a monster at the plate. A lot of people couldn’t deal with his personality but you could see his talent way back in ’95 when he was with Cleveland. He’s comical to me. What do you think is going through his head sometimes?
Manny hits the ball a ton and also has one of the sweetest swings. Hits it hard everywhere. Is he misunderstood?
JBH: This is one of the things we can’t do as journalists. We tend to do it, but we shouldn’t do it. We expect every player to fit into the same definition of what a player should be. Manny Ramirez, if you ever get a chance to meet him Michael is a very simple guy. He’s just out there doing his thing and not bothering anybody.
Just let Manny be Manny. That’s become a cliche because you hear it all the time, but that’s him. He seems to be having a great deal of fun and he seems not to let anything bother him.
That’s not so bad.
This is what he does for a living, so he doesn’t let it bother him.
MT: In terms of his hitting–it doesn’t matter whose pitching–I truly feel that he would be smashing Beckett if he had to face him. He’s an amazing hitter–the type of hitter I aspired to be growing up. He can hit to all fields with power. Dead eye on the ball. His swing and follow through is ridiculous. I truly admire him as a hitter. He’s what I would want my kids to hit like.
JBH: To answer your earlier question. If there was a player I would pay to watch, it would be Manny Ramirez at bat. Not the other aspects of his game. I think he has the most beautiful swing in baseball. Ryan Howard has a beautiful swing too and so does Griffey.
Manny Ramirez has an absolutely beautiful swing. When he really hits it, it’s gone.
As a hitter, he’s one of the best right handed hitters in the history of the game. He is a marvelously talented hitter.
Is he a complete player?
Manny doesn’t play defense. With Manny, you get what you get. You get somebody that’s going to show up and does his thing.
MT: Theoretical question, but what is it going to take to get our children back to the game? It seems like today kids are more into basketball or football. They are really missing out. I remember playing and just day dreaming. The smell of the grass. Fixing my glove. Breaking in my glove. Just doing those types of things that cultivate thought while on defense in the field. That’s what baseball does. You get to think. You get to dream. Our kids are truly missing out on it. Do you have any ideas or solutions I could pass along to anybody?
JBH: Well…that’s a good question Michael. It’s hard to build interest that isn’t there. This is what MLB has come to grips with. Attendance is at its all time high. Attendance records have been broken the last five years.
They don’t need Black fans.
Whose missing out on these big contracts? Whose missing out on these opportunities to go to college? Whose missing out on front office or behind the scene job opportunities?
If you don’t find those positions attractive, other people will. Those people will make handsome livingings and get wonderful educations. We are chasing basketball and football to the detriment of everything else. If you are 5’9″, 160 pounds, you are not going to make the NBA. It ain’t gonna happen.
You can play Major League Baseball.
I think that any success the sport has in terms of energizing the Black community…I don’t know if it’s worth the effort to do that Michael. In my role at MLB.com, I’ve tried to get us to do more Negro League stuff and various things a couple of years ago that I’d help set up. I don’t know if you were at the convention…
MT: No, I wasn’t writing then.
JBH: Wow. Really? OK. Well we had a panel discussion on “Why Blacks Don’t Go to Baseball Games” in Indianapolis.
MT: I was writing then. I wrote my first piece that same summer. I was supposed to attend but neglected to do so. Wish I’d went.
JBH: OK. Well we had some experts in and a bunch of people talking about it. I thought it was a great idea. At the end of the day if the interest isn’t there, it just isn’t there.
There used to be a time where Whites were very interested in boxing. They don’t give two cents about boxing anymore. We don’t make the same statement there. They don’t care because they don’t see a lot of White people in boxing. We don’t care about baseball because we don’t see a lot of Blacks in baseball.
If we see more, we might play, but if we play then we see more.
MT: Wow that’s real. Sounds like something Da Mayor would say off of Do the Right Thing also (We laugh).
JBH: You know? I look at these as opportunities that we need to seize and we haven’t done that.
MT: What kind of advice could you give the young Black writer? Those who may not know a lot about baseball, but do have the hunger to want to write about it (cough Anthony Gilbert, cough).
Justice then makes a very real and honest statement that shook me a little…
JBH: I haven’t run into that young writer yet.
What I’ve run into is brothers that want to be sports writers but don’t give two cents about baseball. I’ve got some real good friends in our business and you couldn’t send them to cover a baseball because they have no interest in it.
If there’s any effort in building interest in baseball, it’s gonna come from the little league level.
It’s gonna take money.
It’s gonna take building better fields and keeping them well groomed.
It’s gonna take some of the prominent Black baseball players to travel the country and do seminars and talk to kids. Making high school visits. NBA players do clinics all the time.
Black MLB players don’t do them. I was at a conference in December 2006. We talked about getting a group of Black ball players and doing some barnstorming in the South. Birmingham, New Orleans, Jackson, Mississippi–cities with substantial Black populations. So kids that are interested in sports might see there are a substantial number of Black ball players in MLB and might then look at the sport in a serious way. There was serious talk about that but will it happen? I don’t know.
MT: I’m very impressed with Curtis Granderson (made appearances on ESPN during the playoffs last season). He seems like a very intelligent young man. I hope he sticks to his guns and stays true to his conviction…
JBH: Michael, is there something he said that I missed? When you say stick to his conviction what do you mean?
MT: (Stuttering..after all I am speaking to a man who has covered the American league extensively) Wha..what I mean by that is that he seems to me to be a hungry player. I don’t mean personally. I have no idea what his personal philosophies on culture and life are.
JBH: Oh OK. Torri Hunter is the same way. Torri puts his money where his mouth is.
MT: Yes he does. This is what he’s said recently in the L.A. Times (Justice and I get into what baseball is attempting to do in Part 3):
“What upset Hunter, he says now, was this: The Houston Astros had no black players on their team last April, and yet the entire team wore No. 42. That got it away from, ‘OK, we don’t have any blacks,’ ” he said. To Hunter, a roster with no black players did not represent the progress for which Robinson stood, and baseball celebrated.”
“When you have a team that doesn’t have any African American players on the team, and then everybody on the team wears it, yes, it’s watered down, because they don’t have blacks to represent Jackie Robinson over there,” Hunter said.
“Some of these kids have never flown on a plane before,” Hunter said. “They get a chance to get on a plane and see something different. That can change your life.” That happened to him. He never had left Arkansas until 13, when he flew to New Mexico with his youth baseball team. He stayed with a host family, went hiking, discovered a great new world in which he wanted to play his part.”
(AP Photo/Tom Olmscheid)
The perennial Gold Glove winner has always been outspoken regarding race and MLB
JBH: He’s raised money to bring more Black kids in to try to energize interest in the sport. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. Every step is going to lead to another small steps and it’s gonna take many small steps to see more Black ball players born in the United States on MLB rosters.