CC Sabathia on the pressure Black athletes face to play baseball ‘the white way’

‘Right now, this sport is not for us, and we know that’

Excerpted from Till The End, a new autobiography of pitcher CC Sabathia.

I had outlasted 10 of the major league stadiums that existed when I was a rookie. Only Ichiro and Albert Pujols, among active players, had been around as many seasons as me. In a spring training game, I faced Daz Cameron – the son of Mike, my former Brewers teammate! I didn’t need any other reminders that I was really old in baseball terms, and that I had been in the big leagues a long time. I got one anyway that winter when the Yankees stunned everybody by hiring Aaron Boone as our new manager. Boonie had never managed or coached anywhere before — not officially, anyway. We had been teammates for two seasons in Cleveland, and days that Boonie wasn’t in the lineup, he’d be sitting in the dugout pretending to manage the game. His father and brother and grandfather had played in the majors, so he had been prepping for his whole life, and he had a light touch with people. The Yankees didn’t ask me, but I thought Boonie was a great choice.

We came into 2018 confident, especially after adding Stanton. And we did go on to set a new major league record for team home runs that year. But the regular season was a mess of injuries, and it was amazing that we won 100 games. I contributed nine wins, but it was a battle just to keep going out to the mound every five or six days. Three times I needed shots of lubricant so my right knee would be flexible enough for me to pitch. Those shots did nothing for the pain, though, and in August it got so bad I had to go on the DL for 10 days.

I pitched okay afterward, even though my knee didn’t feel a whole lot better. The main highlight came in my final regular-season start, in Tampa. It was the last week of September, game 159 out of 162. A meaningless game, in terms of the standings. We’d clinched a playoff spot and the Rays had been eliminated from contention weeks earlier. We were pounding them, up 7-0 in the bottom of the fifth, when I threw a two-seamer inside to Jake Bauers. He didn’t even move to get out of the way, and it clipped him on the right hand. No big deal. But in the top of the sixth inning their pitcher, Andrew Kittredge, threw a 93-mile-per-hour fastball behind the head of Austin Romine. That’s crazy dangerous, but I knew what it was about – and I was pretty damn sure where it was coming from. Kevin Cash, the Rays’ manager, had been on the Yankees as a backup catcher in 2009. I liked him fine at the time. But now he was on the other side, and I don’t like anybody on the other side. And Cash was trying to show us up. He was managing a young team, and he wanted his players to learn a lesson about never being scared and always punching back. But throwing at a guy’s head is the wrong f—ing way to do it. Not only that, Ro was a catcher, so he was my guy — I had to protect him. Even worse, Ro had recently taken a foul tip square in the mask and gone through concussion protocol. Ro came back to the dugout after his at-bat, after nearly being beaned, and he was spooked. Me, I was pissed. I would show the Rays the right way to send a message.

With my first pitch in the bottom of the sixth I aimed straight at the front leg of their first hitter, Jesús Sucre. Nailed him good, just above the left knee. I’ve got nothing against Sucre personally. It was Cash I was pointing to and yelling at when the home plate umpire threw me out of the game: “That’s for you, b—-!” They were trying to punk us. When the Rays came out on the field, pushing and shoving and acting tough, I yelled, “You got something to say about me hitting Bauers when he could have got out of the way, come out here and talk about it!” None of them said a f—ing word.

Did I know at the time that getting tossed could cost me $500,000 because I would end the season two innings short of a bonus in my contract? Sure. I didn’t care. Did I think about the fact that this might be the way I left the field for the final time – because there was no guarantee I’d get a start in the playoffs, and my contract was coming to an end? Nope. It wouldn’t have been the way I’d choose to go out, but if that was my exit, it would have been fine with me. Because you always protect your boys.

New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone (left) hugs CC Sabathia (right) after he pulls him from the game in the third inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 18, 2019.

Elsa/Getty Images

You need to keep protecting them until your opponents get the message — and until your own guys understand what’s up. The way the Rays tried to tell it – “Oh, we got young pitchers, they’re just trying to throw inside, sometimes it gets away from them” — well, our guys are young, too. They’re talented, but they’re young. They don’t know what it looks like when a pitcher is deliberately throwing at a batter. They wonder, “Oh, did he do it on purpose, blah, blah, blah?” After the game, after Kittredge almost killed Romine, Didi talked to guys he knows on the Rays, asking if they threw at Romine on purpose. Get the f— out of here! I know what that s— looks like. People thought I’d lost my mind when I hit Sucre, got ejected, and started screaming at the Tampa Bay dugout. Nope. Oh, I was mad, but I knew exactly what I was doing.

People call that kind of thing old-school baseball; they mean it as a compliment, and I appreciate it. Those same people complain about guys doing bat flips after hitting a big home run. Bat flips don’t bother me. You beat me? Fine. Celebrate. You’re worried about the guy flipping his bat? Worry about throwing a better f—ing pitch! If you don’t want to see someone pimp a home run, don’t give it up. And when I beat you, when I strike you out with the bases loaded, I get to dance and yell. If you don’t want to see me yelling and cussing as I walk off the mound, don’t strike out. Simple rules. We’re not showing each other up. We’re enjoying the moment. Baseball is boring too much of the time. The game needs to change, and I don’t mean using more data to shift guys on the infield. I’m talking about the way people say, “He played the game the right way” when what they mean is “He played it the white way.” What they mean is they don’t like the flair that Black and Hispanic guys bring to the field.

When I first came up, there were so many Black players in the league you had the luxury of not liking some of them. The Latino guys all hung out together, because they were the real minority in the game at the time. By this point, though, that was us. We all knew one another. We all talked to one another. We had to talk to one another. I had a million white friends in the game, guys who couldn’t be more on the opposite end of the spectrum from me in how they grew up or in their political views. But if you saw another Black dude on the other team, it’s automatic: Oh, we’re going to dinner tonight. It didn’t matter that for three hours on the field I did everything I could to beat them; after games I’d hang with Mookie Betts, David Price, Adam Jones, Marcus Stroman. All the Black players were in a text group. It was self-defense, self-preservation. The bond was tight, because we had a lot in common and there weren’t many of us. In 2007 I did an interview where I said the shrinking number of Black players wasn’t a problem, it was a crisis, and afterward everybody jumped down my throat: “Oh, my God, what are you talking about?” But I could see what was happening in the organizations. The A’s, the Indians, the Reds, the Pirates – there used to be organizations with a bunch of Black players. Nope. Not anymore. When I said it was a crisis I was the only Black guy on the Indians’ Opening Day roster that year.

Cleveland Indians rookie pitcher CC Sabathia in his major league debut on April 8, 2001, at Jacobs Field.

David Maxwell/AFP via Getty Images

You can play baseball a long time, have a lot of fun, and make a lot of money. But right now, this sport is not for us, and we know that. If the game doesn’t change, it’s going to be in trouble, and not just with Black people. I know there’s been a lot of debate about the “Indians” nickname, but Cleveland is taking a positive step by replacing it. Could I have said that when I was playing in Cleveland? Yes, but taking on racial issues when you’re a Black baseball player is incredibly complicated. For one thing, you are almost always in a serious minority. That’s why you’ve seen more Black NFL and NBA players speak out than MLB players — there’s strength in numbers. There were plenty of years in Cleveland when I was the only Black player on the roster; New York was better, but even with the Yankees, most seasons I was one of a maximum of four or five Black players on the 25-man roster. That’s a lonely place to be at any point in your career, but especially if you’re a younger guy trying to prove yourself in the game. You want to hold on to your job and you want to feel like you’re part of the team, not an outcast, not the “angry Black guy.” And you want the fans to love you. LeBron is probably the only athlete who is so good that as soon as he’s back on the court everyone forgets what he tweeted about social injustice. The rest of us, we’d hear about it from the fans and the media.

Even when I was an established veteran, I always put being a good teammate over my personal feelings. So if we were sitting around the food table after a game and someone said some racist s— that made me livid, I would just walk out. A few years ago in the Yankee clubhouse, some s— came up — it may have been Trump, it may have been a police brutality case. I was super close to losing my s—, so I just got the f— up and walked out. When I came back, I said, “We ain’t talking politics in here no more. F— that. Whatever y’all believe, leave that s— at the door. I’m gonna leave my s— at the door, we’re just gonna come out here and talk about baseball or whatever else, but never politics.” I guess I had enough seniority or had earned enough respect that it was never a problem again. It ain’t fair or healthy, tamping that stuff down, and over time it eats at your insides – it’s part of the dance all Black Americans have done for a long time, learning how to be non-confrontational and non-threatening, just so that we can go about our lives and not be in danger. When my son, Lil’ C, turned 16, I started teaching him how to drive – but the first lesson was what to do when he gets pulled over by the cops, because it will happen. Put your hands up. Don’t move fast. Do not raise your voice. Be super respectful. That’s a stupid and f—ing humiliating conversation to have with your son, when I should be teaching him how to actually make turns!

It makes my heart ache. I’ve worked hard for my success. I’ve won awards and been cheered by thousands of people. Been called a hero. My wife Amber is an upstanding citizen who has raised and donated millions to charity. And our son will still be looked at first as a big Black kid with locs. Black folks are still marching and rallying for the same civil rights that our grandparents marched for 50 years ago. It’s crazy.

I’ve known players who became obsessed with how they were treated because they were Black. They weren’t wrong, but the bitterness became a distraction. Ellis Burks told me early on, “Play their game” — which means being a good teammate, being a leader, all that s— — “and you can play as long as you want.” When you’re Black in baseball, if you don’t play their game, then they can run you out whenever you’re not producing. I would’ve been done in 2014 or 2015, but I got an extra five years by playing the game, by being thought of as a good guy in the clubhouse. And all most of us really want to do is play baseball. You’re thinking, I’m trying to get f—ing Evan Longoria out tonight. That’s hard enough.

Liner Notes

From the book Till The End by CC Sabathia with Chris Smith. Copyright © 2021 by Carsten Charles Sabathia Jr. Published by Roc Lit 101, a joint venture between Roc Nation LLC and One World, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.


CC Sabathia played 19 seasons of Major League Baseball. He was a Rookie of the Year, Cy Young Award winner, World Series champion and six-time All-Star.

Chris Smith writes about politics, sports and entertainment for Vanity Fair.