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Los Angeles Dodgers’ Black Heritage Night significant for more than baseball fans

From former players to HBCU alumni enjoying a leisure activity, the annual gesture is appreciated

LOS ANGELES — By the time Chris Tucker finally took the mound to throw out the first pitch Wednesday night, the vibe was set. Prior to, he’d interviewed Jason Heyward in front of the Dodger Stadium crowd. Just two brothers talking about family, foundations and movies, before the team took on the Chicago White Sox. The occasion was Black Heritage Night, and the gesture was appreciated by many.

It isn’t an easy balance to strike for a big league franchise. Honoring a particular heritage or group in front of tens of thousands is not a task for amateurs. Finding the line between pandering and respect — nevermind balancing the z-axis of not moving into an area that many snowflakes consider “discrimination” — is the kind of thing that if you mess up, someone might be looking for a new job.

For an organization that first introduced Jackie Robinson to the world, it’s particularly important.

“I think the Dodgers, basically baseball, does a great job of acknowledging different cultures and backgrounds,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said from the dugout Wednesday. “I’m excited. I think that just to continue to raise awareness for Black ball players and more to come hopefully.”

On the field is one thing, in the crowd is another. As Mookie Betts so eloquently pointed out via his T-shirt at the All-Star Game in 2022, we need more Black people at the stadium. On this midweek evening, all sorts showed up to not only get a special custom giveaway No. 50 jersey, but, in general, just to kick it.

Truthfully, my curiosity about the function drew me to the yard that day. Yet for many people, particularly those who only make it to less than a handful of games a year, this one is a must on the calendar. 

“We’re from Tulare County,” Tony Espinosa explained, standing with his son, Tony Jr., and his wife Trishun. “Which is approximately two and a half hours away from here.” A baseball family due to their son’s playing career, they’re now Dodgers fans. “We try to come every Black Heritage night. We’ve been doing it for the last… maybe three years consistently,” Trishun pointed out.

But they still follow the same lonely road that so many families do at this stage of their existence. When they get to the park, they’re the only ones of us there. 

“You know. It’s an experience. We talk about it. We actually played against an all-Black team from L.A., and that was exciting for us to see so many Black players on one team playing,” Tony Sr., said with the kind of bemused acceptance that comes with what is this wild existence. “About 99% of the time he’s the only Black player on a team.”

“When we see that there’s another Black kid or we go to say, a camp or something, and there’s another all-Black family,” Trishun said. “We instantly connect and it’s a good feeling.”

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts (left) and catcher Austin Barnes (right) look on in the first inning in Los Angeles on June 14 in Los Angeles.

AP Photo/Alex Gallardo

The proceedings had all the trappings of a theme night at the park, but not in an overbearing way. The trivia word scramble on the DodgerVision screen featured the words: Juneteenth, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson. After the first inning, the live cam showed folks in the crowd while James Brown’s “Say It Loud” played. There was a mid-frame look back at a James Loney nine-RBI day and his 2008 NLDS grand slam. A nice touch.

Most importantly, when it came to the actual issue at hand, the franchise didn’t shy away from speaking to the specific problem. The video presentation that came before the game was thorough and informative. It featured a recap of the Dodgers’ team visit to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, along with an extremely detailed look at the problems that ail Black baseball, which if you’re paying attention are obvious. But if you’re just another Black person watching a baseball game, it felt eye-opening.

Not everyone is deep in the weeds on the structural inequities of the game. Folks know what’s in front of them, however, and how that makes them feel. The goal is to feel welcome, not necessarily singled out as special, just for showing up. It shouldn’t be so unheard of for us to just be there, because we love the game like everyone else. Not because we’ve got a family member or friend on the field.

“I only got into baseball because we started dating three years ago,” Tyler Allen, 31, said standing with her partner, both holding the Betts giveaway jerseys in their plastic wrapping, opting not to immediately rock them, like many. “Baseball is becoming more interesting now that I understand it. At first, I didn’t understand it. We don’t see a lot of people when it’s just a regular game, which is unfortunate.”

The whole place was big ‘early in the day on Homecoming’ energy, without say a step show or band performance at halftime. Just a normal situation in which our achievements in the game and just appreciate being there. It was the most Black women I’d seen in a ballpark at once in ages.

“I don’t know a thing about baseball. So I just came out with the girls,” said Michelle, a Howard University grad in her 50s who was there with her teen daughter. She was buying a cap that matched her sorority’s colors. “We have a picture of her when she was about this big. That was the last time we went to a baseball game. So I’ve probably been here maybe two, three times in my life. I’m from here. I just don’t follow baseball. I do know that there are a lot of us [Black folks] that are not American that are playing.”

It was another reminder that there was a time when just being a Black person at a ballgame didn’t make you part of some elite group of historical warriors battling for the soul of the game. It was just another leisure activity in America like anything else. To see folks doing the electric slide in the new centerfield concourse felt appropriate without being overbearing.

Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson (left) and Los Angeles Dodgers’ Mookie Betts (right) talk during their game at Dodger Stadium on June 13 in Los Angeles.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The signature jerseys were everywhere, because the special ticket you had to buy to get one sold out. The only other time that’s happened for a unique giveaway at Chavez Ravine was Mexican Heritage Night. The design featured a grey jersey with blue sleeves, and what we’ll just call an African print trim.

As part of the proceedings, a name from the past whom some might not remember was there to greet fans. Reminder, not every brother who’s ever passed through the bigs was a former Negro Leaguer or a superstar.

“This is huge for me,” said Dennis Powell who pitched for the Dodgers from 1985-86. “And coming from a small town in Norman Park, Georgia — population: 891 — and getting here to pitch in Dodger Stadium and to be here still. Wow. So many years later. Still relevant with the Dodgers. It’s huge for me.”

As for the cause, it’s the same refrain and he knows it.

“When I played, I think it was like 20% African American. Now we’re down to about five, maybe four [percent]. And it’s a little sad. I mean, because I know we have the talent. I see it in the streets. I see it in the communities,” Powell lamented. “And it’s just sad to see this game, a great game with so many positions and opportunities for us, and we’re not being produced or developed or even given fair chances sometimes.”

So, when you’re watching the Compton Kidz Club dance and sing its heart out to a gospel remix of Martin Luther King’s “Drum Major” speech, enjoying the fellowship, you realize it’s a far cry from the days when you used to get escorted out of the building for wearing a shirt with Tupac or Biggie on it. But then some old white guy in the press box says, “how long is this hymn anyways?” with a sneer and gets a laugh among his ancient colleagues.

Ironically, right before the bottom of the ninth inning, a losing effort for the Dodgers that night, the power went out at the stadium. And for even just a few seconds there, what you saw around you seemed like it made sense: pitch black.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.