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Behind the Seam: The fight for inclusivity in baseball

March 21, 2022

The echo of singing begins to fade as the service slowly comes to an end. As people begin to rush out of the church, Xavier Duckett heads to execute the rest of his Sunday routine at his grandparents house; consuming a meal prepared by his grandmother, followed by a game

The echo of singing begins to fade as the service slowly comes to an end. As people begin to rush out of the church, Xavier Duckett heads to execute the rest of his Sunday routine at his grandparents house; consuming a meal prepared by his grandmother, followed by a game of catch in the backyard with his grandfather.

The Southwest Virginia native’s love for baseball was sparked when his grandfather, Lucion David Sweetenburg Sr., introduced him to the sport. Together the two would play catch in the backyard, practice hitting and discuss their favorite players.

“Anyone who encountered my grandfather knew that baseball was his thing and it's what he really advocated for,” Duckett said. “He had a shed full of baseball equipment and we played all the time. He would even hang a tire in the backyard for us to practice throwing accurately.”

Sweetenburg’s passion for the game started as a young boy residing in Roanoke in the 1940s, after learning the ins and outs of the sport and admiring superstars like Hank Aaron, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. Those names have now since grown less and less popular among baseball fans today, as representation for African American athletes and fans has started to decline in recent years.

Today, the majority of major league and minor league baseball rosters consist of white players and coaching staff with Dave Roberts and Dusty Baker Jr. being the only two African American managers in the Majors. The lack of diversity in front offices is also alarming as the list of owners, executives and CEOs is similar.

Ray Doswell, the Vice President of Curatorial Services for the Negro League Baseball Museum, has been part of important conversations and research investigating into the decline within in the sport.

“Representation matters and you cannot say that people of color aren’t interested in the game because they have been since the beginning and still are,” Doswell said. “If they did not care the Negro League would not exist. Fans will want to come to games when they feel welcome.”

Doswell has been part of the museum since 1995 and is in charge of collecting artifacts, archives and helping with educational programs.

Aside from the question surrounding the lack of diversity in the stands, Doswell has looked deeply into how the scarcity of African American players is noticeable on all levels of professional baseball.

“There is no feeder system of talent for black athletes to play in their youth which means they usually do not play through high school,” Doswell said. “Since they don’t go to compete in college baseball, there is no minor league opportunity that leads them to the pros.”

While the first sport he ever played was baseball, he later moved exclusively to football in his middle school years after seeing the sport in mainstream media and having more resources for the game in his community.

“In a dominantly black area football and basketball were catered to us more than baseball, so they were more popular to play,” Duckett said.

Though he excelled on the football field and basketball court for North Side High School, he decided to add baseball back into the mix his senior year. Despite leaving the field for a few seasons, he was still surrounded by passion for the game with the influence of his grandfather and knew he could compete at the varsity level.

The only concern from his family after he made his decision to dust off his cleats were the obstacles he would face as an athlete of color.

“My grandfather was really excited for me to start playing again, he even got me new equipment to use,” Duckett said. “The issues I would face as the only black player on the team was something my family was concerned about, but we knew it was unavoidable.”

Behind the scenes he dealt with hardships from every angle.

“There is so much I had to deal with on the internal side, that it made me question if returning was the right decision,” Duckett said.“Knowing I was the only black player on my high school team, I saw a bigger vision of how this could play into my future.”

After graduating high school in 2009, Duckett attended Old Dominion University in Norfolk to play Division I football. After a successful undergraduate career, he left with a bachelor's degree in human services with a minor in sociology and returned to the Roanoke area.

Once he returned to his hometown, Duckett found his passion for educating and empowering black youth. In 2015 he started The Humble Hustle Co., a non-profit organization that provides resources for youth programs and highlights the importance of giving back.

To increase awareness of Humble Hustle’s mission, Duckett created shirts with the message: Keep Giving. After selling the shirts in various places successfully, he birthed the HMBLE HSTLE Clothing line. Fundraising events and donations from the community primarily have helped the company provide scholarships for girls, outdoor exposure events for inner city youth, and supplies to underprivileged youth. Additionally, the clothing line has helped fund programs including Humble Hikes which provides outdoor recreation to inner-city youth, and Pretty Humble, an empowerment program for young girls.

Duckett hopes that his story paired with his love for baseball, along with passion for Humble Hustle, can help bring awareness to the lack of diversity. Just as his grandfather did with him, he also hopes to pass down a great deal of baseball knowledge and opportunities to the younger generations.

“I think having these conversations regarding the poor treatment and exclusivity makes people uncomfortable. But it's what needs to happen if there is going to be change, not just here but everywhere,” Duckett said. “Since graduating high school, I have used my fearlessness and passion to help others towards the progression in inclusivity.”

There are many local and nationwide resources available to learn about the history of African American baseball and culture. Resources include the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and the Harrison Museum of African American Culture, based in Roanoke.

June 18, the Salem Red Sox are hosting African American Heritage Night at the ballpark for the third time in the team's history. The first time the event occurred was during the 2018 season, and the second during the 2021 season.

Salem’s General Manager, Allen Lawrence, understands the importance of making the ballpark a welcoming environment.

“I think it is really important to have nights like this to reach different parts of the community because it shows that the ballpark is for everyone,” Lawrence said. “Overall, it creates an opportunity to get the ball rolling to be more inclusive and have people comfortable coming back to more games in the future.”