PHOENIX – The world of sports changed forever when Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
And while February was Black History Month and served as a way to honor and celebrate figures like Robinson, baseball is looking for ways to celebrate and uplift African-American voices well beyond one month.
To achieve that goal, Minor League Baseball launched “The Nine,” a community outreach platform to honor the game’s Black pioneers and provide opportunities to young Black baseball and softball players.
A big part of the program is focused on expanding Major League Baseball’s ”Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities” program (RBI) in MiLB’s more than 120 markets. The plan includes new MLB Pitch, Hit & Run contests and Junior Home Run Derby events in minor league communities.
Named for the number that Robinson wore when he played in the minor leagues, The Nine is modeled after a similar Latin American program, Copa de la Diversión. Minor league clubs around the country will honor and celebrate Black pioneers of the game throughout the season, and events such as Negro League tribute games are part of the plan.
Jill Gearin, the play-by-play broadcaster and media relations director of the Visalia Rawhide, a low-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, said the program will be player-driven and the club wants players to feel free to speak their mind.
“Let’s talk about our players,” Gearin said. “Let’s let these players know that we are willing to give them a platform to back them up if they want to be vocal about certain issues. I think that’s a really important thing for a young player, because these guys are ages 18 through 25. Let’s make sure that they know that we will support them and help them get their voices heard.”
As part of Copa de la Diversion, the Rawhide played a game as the Toros de Visalia. As of now, there are no plans to rebrand for a game as part of The Nine program, but other minor league clubs will suit up in alternate uniforms to honor the past.
The Fresno Grizzlies, low-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, will suit up June 24 in uniforms of the city’s short-lived Negro League club on Fresno Tigers Tribute Night.
The Fresno Tigers played only a handful of games in 1946 before relocating to San Diego. Because there was virtually no media coverage of the Negro Leagues, there are only a few newspaper clippings as evidence that the team ever existed in Fresno.
Jonathan Bravo, director of marketing and communications for the Grizzlies, said it’s a privilege to teach people in the Fresno community about this part of their baseball past.
“We still see it as an extremely important part of Fresno baseball history,” Bravo said. “We’re in a really unique position that we get to be part of the inaugural group of The Nine … all of us in the front office feel so lucky that we have a community tie (and) that we can point to the Fresno Tigers as a vehicle to really bring up the conversation and to connect really closely with so many different fans from so many different walks of life.”
The Hillsboro Hops, high-A Affiliate of the Diamondbacks, plan to honor Robinson as part of their effort. The MiLB season starts April 8, so minor league teams will be playing on Jackie Robinson Day, April 15. That’s the day he played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
The Hops are planning a fireworks show and will play videos about Robinson throughout that night’s game against the Everett AquaSox.
“A lot of it is just trying to communicate to the younger kids that you can play baseball, if you want to,” said Casey Sawyer, director of marketing for the Hops.
A challenge representatives from each team said they must tackle is reaching beyond the demographics of their communities. Hillsboro, Oregon and Visalia, California have African-American populations of just more than 2%. Fresno’s Black population is 7.4%.
However, teams like the Fresno Grizzlies hope by reaching out through different organizations in the community and presenting them to everybody, The Nine will have an impact across the entire community.
“At the end of the day, we’re a baseball team, but we see ourselves as so much more than that,” Bravo said. “We are a cornerstone for the community. We get to be in the heart of that, and we get to be a place our community comes together to learn. It’s just really special.”