For years, baseball’s Black players had discussed the possibility of forming something like the Players Alliance -- a group that could use its collective voice and resources to create opportunities for the Black community in baseball and beyond. Those conversations, though, would routinely get sidetracked by the hectic grind of the season.
It took a pandemic for these players to finally find the time to organize.
“The season wasn’t playing,” said former All-Star outfielder Curtis Granderson, president of the Players Alliance. “Guys were at home, and you didn’t have the difficulty of trying to catch up with each other.”
After a long thread of group text messages, the Players Alliance was formally created this summer, urged on by an important calling. As a racial reckoning arrived in the United States, the Players Alliance proved a meaningful resource to big league teams, to Black players and to communities in need, all while forming what figures to be a lasting relationship with Major League Baseball itself.
“This is all player-driven,” former All-Star outfielder Chris Young said. “This is guys putting their resources to use. Guys are actively trying to make the situation better.”
Young, Granderson and fellow former outfielder Chris Dickerson spoke last week on a panel held as part of MLB’s virtual Winter Meetings. Titled “Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Unfiltered: A Conversation with the Players Alliance,” the discussion was moderated by MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds and also included Michele Meyer-Shipp, MLB’s chief people and culture officer.
The panel was an opportunity for three of the more than 100 current and former players who are members of the Alliance to explain the group’s goals and to reflect on how much has been accomplished in a short time.
Already, the Players Alliance has donated more than $1 million -- with an additional $1 million donation from MLB -- to stage the ongoing Pull Up Neighbor Tour, which will reach 33 cities in 19 states and the District of Columbia. At each stop, a pop-up pantry, COVID supplies (face masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and hygiene products) and baseball gear are brought to communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
“Cars have been wrapped around the block,” Granderson said of the tour, which runs through Jan. 23. “The number of players showing their support has been amazing. We’re excited to see this thing keep going.”
The Players Alliance has secured a $10 million donation, to be dispersed over a period of five years, from MLB and the MLB Players’ Association in an effort to increase Black participation at all levels of the sport.
“We’re on the bus,” Meyer-Shipp told the Players Alliance members, on behalf of MLB. “And we’re going to be on the bus with you all the way through. You’ve got a partner in us moving forward.”
The Players Alliance wants to break down barriers to entry for Black athletes who might not otherwise take up baseball. The group’s largest organized effort to that end is the Gear for Good program, which works with teams, corporate partners, players and fans to collect gently used equipment and have it cleaned, packaged and delivered to Black communities.
“If you ever want to see something expensive, look up purchasing a metal bat,” Granderson said. “It’s $100 to $500, and you’re probably going to need another one the next year. And then you have a glove, a ball, training lessons, private coaches. You start adding those things, plus the travel ball, and it gets very expensive for families to play this game.”
And for those Black players who have reached the professional ranks, the Players Alliance wants to be a resource. This year, the vast majority of the players selected in the amateur Draft did not have a team and clubhouse to report to. So Alliance members stepped in with phone calls to make the players feel welcomed in the pro baseball community.
Such conversations are important in a sport that had just 30 Black players on Opening Day rosters in 2020. On the panel, Granderson, Young and Dickerson spoke about the alienation that can occur when a Black player does not feel he has an ally, and when a social justice issue arises, the player doesn’t feel comfortable speaking out in front of his teammates.
“It can be terrifying to speak up,” Dickerson said.
This summer, players spoke up. MLB players protested racial inequity by posting videos in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, kneeling during the “Star-Spangled Banner” and even postponing games. As these conversations moved front and center, some Major League executives began contacting the Players Alliance to discuss how best to handle the situation internally.
“[General manager] Erik Neander with the Rays, his team fielded zero black players the entire year,” Granderson said. “He called and said, ‘I’m trying to communicate to these guys the importance of what’s going on.’ He had no one of color to speak on their behalf.”
Ultimately, Granderson said, white players Nick Anderson and Hunter Renfroe served as important allies in that situation.
“It was great to have that happen,” he said, “because it never had happened before.”
Added Meyer-Shipp: “Your white brothers finally saw what we’ve been seeing for decades. For us, the killing of black men across America, this has been happening forever. … For white people in America watching this, there was this awakening. To see the white players step up and have the courage to be allies, it was huge.”
In a year of improved recognition in the Major League community -- a year in which Black players felt more comfortable speaking out about injustice and a year in which MLB has officially elevated the Negro Leagues to Major League standing -- the formation and early work of the Players Alliance has made an impact, with plans for plenty more to come.
“Although this was started by Black players, we understand we won’t be the only ones to make this change,” Granderson said. “We need the help from MLB, the Players’ Union, the Commissioner’s Office, GMs, owners and everybody in between. We got the ball rolling, and we haven’t stopped, and we’re not looking back anytime soon.”