African-American 20-Game Winners are Nearly Extinct
By Rick Hurd (5/30/2007)
You are black. Or, if you prefer, African American. Whatever designation you choose, you can't deny that your race stands out when it comes to writing the history of America's oldest professional sport.
You also were a major league pitcher. In your day, you won 20 games, in some cases more than once. So you can't deny that you stood out regardless of your race.
Now, you're being honored. Partly because you once won 20 games. But mostly because of your skin color. And the more you hear your accomplishments recited, the more you realize that the opportunity has never been greater for someone to follow your path, yet the likelihood has rarely been less.
Exactly how does all of this make you feel?
If you're Vida Blue, Mike Norris or Dave Stewart, this is the question of the moment. All three, along with Jim "Mudcat" Grant, will be given an engraved crystal baseball and a video tribute in pregame ceremonies today before the A's face the Texas Rangers at McAfee Coliseum as a commemoration of their status among baseball's "Black Aces."
The term was coined by Grant as the title of a book documenting the 13 African-American pitchers who have won 20 games in a season.
Stewart (four times), Blue (three) and Norris (once) did so with the A's. Grant, who won 21 games with the Minnesota Twins in 1965, pitched briefly for the A's. Thus the reason, along with the presence of the Negro League Museum's traveling exhibit, that the A's are giving the quartet some well-deserved recognition.
What also should be acknowledged is that the feelings this will inspire from these Fab Four likely goes deeper than just "beinghonored," as Blue, Norris and Stewart said in separate interviews.
"What makes this so special is that it's a fraternity of black pitchers who have accomplished a number of wins in baseball that is not being captured that often," Stewart said. "When you can identify with the tasks and tribulations of being a black athlete in baseball and double that by being a pitcher, that really makes it extra special."
And yet, as Stewart and the others acknowledged, this will be a melancholy moment, too. It may be a verification of greatness, but it is also a realization that theirs may be a dying breed.
Here we are about one-third through the 2007 season, and Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia, Florida's Dontrelle Willis and Pittsburgh's Ian Snell are the only African-American starting pitchers to record victories.
Just as noteworthy, 39 pitchers have won 20 games in the 16 full seasons since Stewart recorded the last of his four straight 20-win campaigns in 1990. Only one — Willis — is of African-American descent.
In the 16 full seasons before Stewart first won 20, 65 pitchers reached the milestone, and six (Blue, Norris, Fergie Jenkins, Dwight Gooden, J.R. Richard and Al Downing) were African-American. Blue and Jenkins did it three times.
This speaks to a lot of things, but the conversation generally leads to the same conclusion. Namely, that in a world in which only 8 percent of the baseball-playing population is African-American, the black player, much less the black ace, is fighting for survival.
"That's a scary thought," said Norris, who is involved in baseball's RBI program that's trying to revive baseball in the inner cities. The "Black Aces" is "a legacy that goes back to Satchel Paige, and there's nobody to carry it forward."
To the casual observer, this might seem insignificant. It isn't. Because time was, when you were black and winning 20 games, you were defying something far more meaningful than opposing hitters.
"What was told to me was that teams directed black players to the outfield, because that was considered an athletic position," Stewart said. "They kept them away from the infield, catching, and especially pitching, because those were considered to be thinking positions, and that was something we supposedly couldn't do."
Blue said: "There was a stigma. ... You knew it existed. So in our own way, we broke down prejudices."
Prejudices such as those may not exist as they once did, but there are other barriers to be demolished. The notion, for one, that all things being equal, the pitcher's mound is no place a young, black athlete would ever choose to be.
"There are kids out there ... in the inner city who have the tools to play this game," Blue said. "But baseball has to make a more concerted effort to reach them."
However, without role models with whom those kids can relate, reaching them is going to become only more difficult.
"I don't want to totally play the race card, but it's important to keep this thing alive," Blue said. "It's part of our evolution, both in a sports sense and socially. We can't lose that."
Which is why today's ceremony should be viewed not as an opportunity to run to the concession stand but as a slice of history. And why we should all feel that something far more important is at stake.
Rick Hurd is a staff writer for Median News for Inside Bay Area.