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?

We are.

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).

I guess the late Ozzie Davis had a point

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.

13 Responses to “We’ve Forgotten Our Negro League Past Part 2: Interview With Senior Writer Justice B. Hill of MLB.com”

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  2. Antone says:

    Good interview, thanks for the add to your roll, I will do the same. Good site you have going here!

  3. mizzo says:

    Same to you brothaman. We try here. You are doing your thing as well. Thanks.

  4. I look at the Philadelphia high schools and the majority of the students playing baseball and softball are American African. The interest is there, I sincerely believe that it is, however the money is seriously lacking. The equipment and playing fields are bad to say it best.

  5. mizzo says:

    That’s the biggest problem AG. I also think it’s the biggest reason some youth make it despite the odds.

    Picture the Williams sisters training on tennis courts strewn with glass for a point of reference.

    It drastically changes on the college level. Most HBCU’s are loaded with White and Latino kids. At least they are fielding teams, but there should be a lot more Black representation.

  6. Okori says:

    well, Mizz, this is why you need increased numbers in College Baseball Scholarships. Guess where Rickie Weeks (recent Golden Spikes Award Winner for the nation’s best amateur baseball player, and a very promising second baseman) went? Southern University, HBCU. If you gave the HBCU’s more scholarships you might have a situation where guys like Rickie Weeks can play baseball on a high level.

  7. mizzo says:

    This is the problem. It’s not about the college level…trust me on that. I’ve coached little league up to 16-18 almost half of my life. When I see a Black kid with talent in the other dugout spittin’ seeds and pinch running, I get heated. White coaches play their own and label the Black kid an “attitude” problem.

    He’s mad because he’s not playing!

    I would be too.

    There is a huge disconnect with coaches and kids who are not White. I’ve coached in leagues. It’s the same thing everywhere.

    Are there White coaches who pay particular attention to all kids?

    Damn right!

    Is it prevalent?

    Hell no!

    I tell this story all the time, but a Black kid in a league I coached in (my kids played in the league. I tell my son’s story here) was pitching a no hitter in the state championship game. He walked a hitter to lead off an inning and was pulled! I couldn’t believe it. Up to that point he was one batter over the minimum (caught stealing). They promptly loss the game later on because of pitching.

    Scrutiny sucks!

    Oh Dads out there…check this piece out as well.

    That kid is no longer playing baseball.

    Good luck Raheem.

    I tell both stories here:

    MT: I see the issue of the Black exodous from baseball differently. I coach little league in an area where hardly any Blacks are playing. I would say it’s 96% White. I’m one of only two minority coaches and there isn’t any Black umpires or administrators. I feel like I’m in a time warp during a game. I feel as though I have to be on my p’s and q’s all the time. I have to talk to the kids in a certain fashion without coming across as too Black or too strong. Sometimes its very frustrating and very overbearing but I do it for the kids. I would defend them against anything.

    Last year in the All Star tournament, my son was arguably one of the best players on the team. I’m sure other coaches and parents would back me up in stating that. The year before he played stellar defense–throwing out many runners from centerfield and was the only player to hit a homerun in the entire tournament. They simply had a great team; great coaching and pulled it all together to win the state championship. The homerun my son hit traveled directly over my and his mother’s head. Great experience. He had a better year the next season but in the All Stars he hardly played. Other players were set up to recieve the glory and his talent was for some unexplained reason delegated down. His team had a realistic shot at going to Williamsport–they were that good. I don’t think he got more than two at bats in any game in the tournament and was replaced by younger kids late in games even though he was most definitely one of the best all around players on the team. For some reason, the coaches had him batting 8th–telling him that he was their second clean up hitter–and then inexplicably had him bunt multiple times with 2 outs, 2 strikes and runners on second and third! I couldn’t believe it. I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t want anything to upset the team dynamic because of their impending Little League World Series opportunity. I just didn’t think it would have such a adverse affect on him like it ended up having. Well, in an elimination game against the team they beat in the state semi-finals the year before, my son finally batted fourth. I was shocked! It gets better…trust. In the last inning, with the other team up by one and a runner on, my son due up next. He was pulled for a pinch hitter–as a cleanup hitter in the last inning mind you–who was put out on a bunt to end the game. I’ll never forget the look in his face. He went from licking his chops to totally devestated. I know he wanted to hit a bomb to win the game. You could see the opposing team almost celebrate when he was taken out. I still feel like shit for him just talking about it. As a father, this memory still has a profound affect on me whenever I pull up to the field that I need to get over. Needless to say, he didn’t play this year even though he has some of the best hands around. He just isn’t the same athlete and I truly don’t know what to tell him. I won’t force him to play. It’s his decision and I’m comfortable with that even though I want him out there. He said he’s sticking with basketball and football and I don’t blame him. It truly hurts me to have my thirteen year old kid to go through such heartache at such a young age.

    Another example was in the 11 year old tournament the same year where my step son played. I will say that his team’s coaches were very encouraging and also game smart, but they also dropped the ball and I honestly feel bad for them. They had a Black kid pitching a no hitter into the fourth inning–with his team up by I think four–and pulled him after walking his first batter with the no hitter still intact. They subsequently lost a close game because relief pitching let them down. Raheem is no longer playing even though he hangs around the complex all the time. I talk to him every day about getting back into the league but to no avail. It just sickens me to see these two talented kids walking around aimlessly while their White counterparts continue on. I won’t say it’s all racism. I think it’s a disconnect between mainly White coaches and young Black kids. I won’t say this about all White coaches because we have some fine coaches in the league that do the right thing. You have to get to know kids and make sure you are on the same page no matter what as a coach. It’s your responsibility, not the kids. My team is almost all White. I take the time out to get to know every individual personality. It’s the only way to coach. If I take the time out, then so should everyone else. There shouldn’t be a difference.

    It’s also a point that we don’t have our fathers coaching us. Kids look for guidance that just isn’t going to be there. They are forced to make difficult personal decisions that other kids don’t have to.

    There are a lot of Black kids that are extremely raw and if some of these coaches just took the time to develop their skills, they would start to enjoy the game on a different level. Some kids have a chip on their shoulder because they don’t have that strong father or father figure. Some coaches don’t try to make a break through–subsequently tossing the kid aside even though in some cases he’s the most talented. They label him a head case…or he has an attitude.

    A cop out.

    I’m not in it just for fun because I realize the opportunity I have to teach. I know the short time I have with the kids potentially could help produce greatness or simply a future 65 year old coach who is doing it for the love of the game.

    Fathers who are also coaches: please get to know every kid, not just your own. It’s discouraging to see fathers baby their own kids and spit fire holler at the rest. It’s your job to teach for the next level while still having fun. You must also give them a chance to win–especially the older kids. Your impact will be felt the rest of their lives. How do you want to be remembered? Do you even care? Is it just about your own?

  8. Okori says:

    I have a 3-point plan for this.

    1: MLB pays USA Baseball all the money it needs to buy and establish olympic-quality playing fields in every major U.S. City.

    2: USA Baseball begins the establishment of a development fund for struggling highschool baseball programs, run by the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

    3:All college baseball scholarship numbers are doubled at the least.

  9. mizzo says:

    Justice and I speak on this in part 3. I’ll have it up Monday.

  10. Okori says:

    kool. and I have a friday fire question: Pick the one player in the NBA who you think plays the game as fundamentally perfect as is possible to do. My vote goes to Duncan. That dude has a classic jump shot and seems incapable of making like a form error.

  11. steve m says:

    im interested in finding out about a negro lottle league team that was denied playing in the little league world series .i saw it on tv and i cannot not find anything on the web …thank you

  12. Mizzo says:

    A Negro Little League team?