Dodgers’ Mookie Betts embraces his activist side in push for Black inclusion

Mookie Betts wanted to deliver a message ahead of Tuesday’s All-Star Game, quietly but with purpose. It was written in blue airbrush on the black t-shirt he wore during batting practice.

“We need more black people in the stadium,” said the shirt.

Mookie Betts' shirt during batting practice carried a message

Mookie Betts’ shirt during batting practice carried a message

(Steve Saldivar / Los Angeles Times)

A few hours later, Betts used his voice. As the All-Star teams from the National League and American League gathered on the field at Dodger Stadium, Betts grabbed the microphone to extend a heartfelt birthday greeting to Rachel Robinson, wife of Jackie Robinson, who turned 100 on Tuesday orchestrate. It was only right that Betts, one of six Dodgers All-Stars, take on MC duties.

“I’m just glad everyone tuned in,” Betts said. “Everything she’s been through and is going through may be hard on her, but she’s handling it very well.”

Betts, 29, was named an All-Star for the sixth year in a row. He was chosen as a starter by the fans for the third time. He is a former Most Valuable Player and a two-time World Series Champion. He’s on his way to Cooperstown for admission. And he’s accomplished those feats as one of baseball’s few prominent black faces.

On Tuesday, after Betts delivered an RBI single in his lone punch against Tampa Bay’s Shane McClanahan, he shared that he’s learned to accept the responsibility of serving as a black ambassador for his sport. He admitted to having shied away from the strain in the past. But he takes responsibility as an established veteran who has secured generational wealth because “somebody’s gotta do it.”

“Just growth,” said Betts, who was pulled out after 2½ innings. “You evolve in life. i am not young I’m not even 20 years old and I’m trying to get by now. I’m almost 30. It’s a different part of life.”

MLB officials have been trying to attract more black Americans to the sport after years of declining interest and participation. They’ve invested aggressively at grassroots level, in youth baseball programs, over the past decade to stem the slide.

The effort has yet to result in changes at the major league level. This season, 7.2% of the players on opening-day rosters were Black Americans. That’s down from 7.6% over the last year.

However, lately there has been better success in recruiting black players. It was evident Sunday when four of the top five players selected in the draft were Black. In a press release, MLB noted that this was the first time since the draft’s inception in 1965.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and outfielder Mookie Betts embrace in the dugout during the All-Star Game.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and outfielder Mookie Betts embrace in the dugout Tuesday during the All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Five black players started Tuesday – Betts and four on the American League side. Betts said he came across the shirt online that he wore during batting practice. He bought a few of these from Bricks & Wood, the South Central LA store that made them. He said he spoke to MLB Monday about the pre-game birthday ceremony for Rachel Robinson. He was the ideal candidate: a black star who played on Jackie Robinson’s team just minutes from the trailblazer’s birthplace in Pasadena.

“That tribute there is probably what I’ll remember the most,” Betts said. “It was very special for me to be on the mic and say it. It meant a lot.”

It was an opportunity he might not have grasped in the past. He said he didn’t feel the need to encourage others to join him and take responsibility to attract black fans and players. He knows that for some, time will come. In his case, he feels an obligation at this stage in his life. On Tuesday, that meant a message and his voice while the baseball world watched. Dodgers’ Mookie Betts embraces his activist side in push for Black inclusion

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