ATLANTA–If there is to be a reunification of baseball and African-Americans in Atlanta, Jason Heyward said it is going to take much more than a face on a billboard—or, for that matter, three faces on a billboard.
The father who points his son or daughter toward the Braves outfield in Turner Field this summer and says, “Look at those three guys,” should not expect that instant reward where baseball fills up the youngsters’ consciousness. Heyward is happy to oblige the dad or mom with effort and performance, but he knows that his smiling face is not going to tug kids through the turnstiles.
Heyward is thoughtful about this. He understands why some people might think he could be a P.T. Barnum in the black community, a salesman, along with left fielder Justin Upton and center fielder B.J. Upton, brothers who also happen to be black. It’s just not reality, he says. Go ahead and say it is not skin deep.
“I didn’t pick baseball because I’m African-American and because we need more African-Americans in baseball,” said Heyward, who is 6-foot-4 and dabbled in basketball while growing up in Georgia (his uncle played for UCLA). “That’s not the way it goes. I picked baseball because it’s fun. So expose the kids first. Bounce something off the kids. You can’t sit here and say to them, ‘We need to do this thing because there are not a lot of black kids.’ That’s not fun, that’s not genuine.”
As it did in many other Southern cities, baseball among African-Americans waned when the schools of the Southeastern Conference, among other Division I college football conferences, opened their rosters up to black high school athletes in the early and mid-1970s. Perhaps the best example of that is Mobile, Ala., the hometown of Hank Aaron and Satchel Paige that was once a haven for sensational baseball. Now Mobile is firmly a football town, as is Atlanta. Heyward said an all-black outfield is not going to immediately change that.
The automatic reaction in the offseason, when the Braves lined up the first all-African-American outfield in the majors since 2001, was that Heyward-Upton-Upton was intentional, so as to sell the Braves to urban Atlanta and be a spark among a demographic that has not embraced the Braves. Maybe it will be a spark, but the club insists it is a myth that the outfield was reconstructed with a multi-cultural marketing purpose in mind.
Baseball Moves First And Foremost
Heyward was the 14th pick overall in the first round of the 2007 draft. The Braves have a habit of drafting local stars from the talent-rich Atlanta area, and Heyward, out of Henry County High in McDonough, Ga., was a consensus first-round pick.
Atlanta needed a right fielder at the time and they did all they could to make sure Heyward fell to them, scouting him as surreptitiously as possible and trying not to tip their hand. He was a logical pick, not a contrived pick. Did the fact he was black in such a black enclave as Atlanta, the home of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. and residence of home run hero Hank Aaron help? Sure it did, but it was an ancillary benefit. Heyward needed to be a player first.
Michael Bourn, who also happens to be black, had been the center fielder in Atlanta for the last season and a half, but he turned down the Braves’ contract offer (eventually signing with the Indians). The club found B.J. Upton as a replacement. Like Bourn, Upton was a free agent. The Braves worked from a list, and Upton was on their list of available center fielders.
And then came Justin Upton, who may be the most talented of the bunch but had grown stale in Arizona. The Diamondbacks had talked sporadically about trading Upton for more than a year, but when the opportunity to make a deal presented itself in January, the Braves jumped. They made a seven-player deal with the Diamondbacks, with Martin Prado the main player Atlanta sent away.
It was a baseball pickup, not a ticket-selling prop, the front office said, and Upton’s obvious ability argues that point better than anything else. The Braves, as a franchise of modest revenues, do not have resources to waste. They needed an above-average defensive outfielder, and they wanted a power hitter. Prado was a valuable player and the baseball side of the organization wanted substance, not style, when it chased Upton. It was a bold move, and the kind of move the Braves have to make to keep up with the Nationals in the NL East.
“It was a baseball move first and foremost, and once the baseball move was made, then us marketing guys have the opportunity to best position and market the players,” Braves executive vice president for sales and marketing Derek Schiller said. “But this was not a marketing move first or influenced by marketing.
“I would call it a wonderful bonus, but we’re not creating a separate marketing machine to try to exploit those three guys for any kind of multi-cultural marketing efforts. We have consistently marketed the Atlanta Braves to the entire population without specifically going after one demographic.”
The number of black fans attending Braves games has gone up 4 percent since Heyward became the starting right fielder in 2010, Schiller said. The crowds in Turner Field are still overwhelmingly white, as they are across all of baseball.
“I stopped looking at the Braves, but now that this team has some flavor to it, now I’ll go,” said Joe Banks, who has coached for 31 years at Gresham Park in south DeKalb, a predominantly African-American youth baseball league. “We’ve been trying to keep baseball going here, and this will help. We saw black players leave the Braves and we were disappointed by it. Football and basketball were taking a lot of kids, but this is a good thing with the Uptons and Heyward.”
Rodney Brinkley, another Gresham coach, said the allure of the Uptons and Heyward in the black community is a matter of cultural identity.
“What’s the difference between the person who has a Dominican flag that stands up and waves it or cheers loud when a Dominican player does something good and a black fan who cheers when a black player does something good,” Brinkley said. “We’re fans, we have our favorite players. People identify with the same. That’s all it is.”
Banks and Brinkley are in some legendary company with their opinions about the Braves perhaps being back in vogue in south Atlanta. The great Hank Aaron, who some still consider baseball’s home run king, lives in Atlanta and has heard the rumblings of excitement in south Atlanta.
“When the Upton boys get out there, and Heyward, you’ll be surprised how fast word will fly around all over southwest Atlanta,” said Aaron, a senior vice president with the Braves, referring to the predominantly African-American section of Atlanta. “People will say ‘Go watch them Upton boys play.’ It means the folks will want to have some association with them.
“The excitement is going to come by once the season starts and once they get out on the field people are going to realize the team is made up a little bit different than it has been the last few years. When most black people see basketball, they see mostly black players and they follow them. We haven’t had that in baseball here.”
The excitement started early, as the Braves and Justin Upton in particular got off to a blistering start, with Upton hitting six home runs in his first seven games and the team going 6-1.
The 2013 team even had an early signature moment, in a stirring comeback against the Cubs on the first Saturday of the season. Down 5-1 at one point—the one run coming on a Justin Upton home run—the Braves scrapped back to within 5-4 going into the bottom of the ninth. B.J. Upton opened the inning with a deep home run off Carlos Marmol, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Heyward came up next and flied out deep to left field. Then Justin Upton came up and hit another homer, setting off a wild celebration at home plate and serving notice that this team will be worth watching all season. Fans were responding, with crowds averaging more than 35,000 through Atlanta’s first six home dates.
The Braves are all for African-American fans identifying with the product, but when the Braves market the outfield they say it will be as “the best defensive outfield in baseball” and nothing else. It will be marketed to black media in Atlanta, as well as across all Atlanta media. Schiller said baseball people gushed over the Braves’ defensive abilities with the Uptons and Heyward and that is how the front office will play their cards.
“Marketing takes its cue from the way the positioning in the marketplace presents itself,” he said. “For the most part, it is not a focus on any one player, but marketing the outfield as a whole.”
For his part, Justin Upton will take whatever responsibility people want to lay on him for reviving baseball in south Atlanta and south DeKalb County, as well as Clayton County, which are black enclaves in the metro area.
“Hopefully it does have an impact on African-American population and the young players, and they take up the game of baseball, but we also want to impact all youth of any color,” Justin Upton said.
“Baseball has done a lot of things for me in my life. We want to bring that love of baseball.
“I played everything, too, always keeping busy and having fun with athletics. We shouldn’t take away the football and the other sports, but I think we, as fans of the game, want baseball to be a more identifiable sport than it is right now.”
Switching Sport Allegiances
What has happened in Atlanta has happened to cities all across the South, as baseball lost its foothold in black communities to football. The lure of 85 scholarships in football trumped minor league bus rides or the paltry 11.7 scholarships offered by Division I baseball teams.
“Everyone is going to see what’s in front of them, what’s closest, and they are going to gravitate toward what they feel is the best opportunity and what is most appealing,” Heyward said. “They are going to gravitate to what they feel is their best chance for success in life.
“If you have more people helping you with football and providing more instruction, then that is what you are going to go to. I’m not saying to walk away from baseball, but they are going to gravitate to the most instruction in a particular craft. If certain things are missing as far as instruction and time and dedication it is going to be hard to perfect a craft.”
In Cairo, Ga., the birthplace of Jackie Robinson, the black citizenry would line the fences at Holder Park in the mid-1970s for Sunday afternoon baseball. Ernest Riles, who played nine years in the big leagues, played in those Sunday games as a teenager against men in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Baseball was a happening. Not anymore.
Interest in the game faded under football’s weighty influence. The SEC became a Goliath and sucked away five-tool talents, the athletes who could run, throw and hit for power.
On March 16, Sharon Robinson, the daughter of Jackie Robinson, participated in a ribbon cutting and groundbreaking for a renovated Holder Field at the renaming of the Boys & Girls Club of Cairo-Grady County. It is not just about baseball for her. It is about school and having fun and teaching life skills.
“Baseball is important to me, but you have to give kids a facility and give them good training and make it fun,” she said. “Baseball is a tough sport. You have to overcome failure all the time, but of course we can grow baseball here. Of course, we can.”