The MLB’s Bet on Ken Griffey Jr.: Can He Deliver African Americans Back to Baseball?

Published: Jun 21, 2022  |  

Academic Director of Graduate Programs in New York

With African Americans in baseball declining to an all-time low, the MLB (Major League Baseball) hired Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. as a consultant to improve diversity in America’s pastime. Affectionately known as “Junior,” his official title is Sr. Advisor to the Commissioner with an emphasis on baseball operations, youth development, and improving diversity at all levels of the game. Griffey Jr. was tasked with working directly with Commissioner Rob Manfred on several major league initiatives focused on improving the youth development pipeline, game operations, and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) within both the majors and minor league levels.

At first glance, it seemed like more of a public relations stunt to consider a former player with the acclaim and stature of Ken Griffey Jr. as qualified to advise the commissioner of baseball on these important social matters. However, if you look deeper at his credentials and family legacy, MLB’s rationale in choosing Griffey Jr. connects strongly to the transformative power of “a son never forgets” (ASNF), where he came from and paying homage to the legacy of African Americans in the major leagues of baseball.

Griffey Jr. has the chance to rekindle the past and re-establish the importance of baseball to the African American community. While this is not an easy task, I believe the MLB has chosen the right person for the job.

Junior’s Qualifications

As a former major league player and 13-time All-Star, Griffey Jr. was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2016 after being drafted by the Seattle Mariners with the number one overall selection in 1987. In addition to his ten Golden Gloves, he has suited up for multiple franchises in both the American (Red Sox, White Sox, Mariners) and National leagues (Reds). In short, he knows full well the athletic experience of an African American in the Major Leagues. Off the baseball diamond, he was one of the most popular athletes in the world, and his family name is held in high regard within baseball circles. In short, he has the star power to engage with all levels of baseball’s power brokers and institutional systems. He is in the inner circle and understands how to navigate baseball’s unwritten rules.

From a business standpoint, he has also paid his dues and has had a consistent presence on the front office side and business capacities of baseball since retiring in 2010. Griffey Jr. has worked previously in the Mariners’ front office in 2011 and has worked in multiple capacities for both MLB and the MLB Players Association on joint strategic programming. He has also maintained a strong presence in the Seattle community with the Mariners since retiring.

The truth is, he may be the best hope to recruit African American athletes back to baseball. During the 1990s, Griffey Jr. was arguably the face of baseball as a young dynamic athlete and commercial megastar. He was baseball’s equivalent to Michael Jordan (NBA), Wayne Gretzky (NHL), and Bo Jackson (NFL & MLB): athletes who were able to transcend sport into media, fashion, and entertainment. I believe nostalgia is the key to bringing African Americans back to baseball, and Griffey Jr. is well primed to be the face of the movement.

The Problem

It’s been over a year and a half since Griffey Jr. was hired by MLB, and there haven’t been any significant positive changes in the percentages of African Americans in the major leagues. The role that Griffey Jr. is being tasked with is very complicated and full of political bureaucracies that may have limited his effectiveness.

Additionally, the role is too cumbersome and convoluted, which could negatively impact his effectiveness. Being tasked with addressing baseball operations, youth development, and improving diversity at all levels of the game is three jobs in one. With 24 hours in a day, where will he have the opportunity to fully engage African American athletes and recruit them back to baseball, instead of choosing to specialize in basketball and football? Seems a bit of an overreach, and such a bloated job description limits how effective Griffey can be.

Also, when the MLB announced that it is donating $150 million to help increase African American participation in the sport, there was no mention of Griffey Jr.’s role in this initiative, which is an extremely significant missed opportunity. This was a monumental announcement that was promising for the success of DEI efforts to increase African American participation numbers, and while the MLB is partnering with the nonprofit organization Players Alliance on this new commitment, Griffey Jr.’s presence just seems to be missing.

The bottom line is that Griffey needs more than a consulting role: he needs a formalized position in the MLB commissioner’s office with a budget to match the expectations. True change agents in every industry from technology to fashion to entertainment all have direct access to top-line management and significant financial budgets matching the role. For Griffey Jr. to truly be the face of the recruitment efforts for the next generation of African American baseball players, a purposeful financial commitment will need to be made.

Authenticity is the key

75 years ago, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball and led the way for Ken Griffey Jr. to have so much access to professional baseball that he was raised in multiple major league clubhouses. While his father Ken Griffey Sr. was a major league ballplayer for the Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, and Seattle Mariners, he grew up knowing the intricacies of life as a major league baseball player.  For Griffey Jr., African Americans in major league baseball is a family legacy. He has devoted his life to baseball in multiple capacities and has achieved levels of success that qualify him to be the leader of efforts to re-engage the African American community. I hope that he will be given the proper support and resources to take full advantage of this challenge. This responsibility is a tough task, but Griffey Jr. has shown that he is up to the challenge and the perfect person to make a difference.

Filed under:

Tags mentioned: