In the clubhouse at Anaheim Stadium on July night, Dave Stewart needed to freeze his arm. But he made sure to place himself in front of a TV.
It was 1989. Stewart was a starter in the American League in the All-Star Game. It would take another two decades for another black pitcher to start the game, but at the moment baseball was a game loaded with black stars: Kirby Puckett, Harold Baines, Jeffrey Leonard, Ozzie Smith, Tony Gwynn, Andre Dawson, Vince Coleman, Eric Davis and others still.
It was the end of an era – the last All-Star game in a decade that featured the highest percentage of major African-American teams. Black players accounted for 7.8% of the MLB roster on the opening day in 2020, down from a 1981 high of 18.7%, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.
It was also a time when some of the country’s best athletes grew up playing more sports, but chose baseball as the best way to create their heritage. And no one was more protean than the man Stewart, ice on his arm, settled down to see: Bo Jackson.
That night, on TVs around the country, the twang of Bo Diddley’s rectangular electric guitar clip with Jackson running, pounding, swinging, lifting and cycling in Nike cross-training shoes, part of the company’s now iconic “Bo Knows” “campaign. The commercial played out the budding mythology surrounding Jackson as a multisport star.
At Auburn, Jackson was a 6-foot, 225-pound bulldozer moving like a Bugatti. As a football player, when the defenders could touch him, he ran through them like twigs. He averaged 7.7 meters per carry as a sophomore – then he ran one of the fastest 55-meter times in school history during the indoor track season.
As a junior in the spring of 1985, he hit .401 with 17 home runs on the diamond; that fall he won the Heisman Trophy while setting up a Caribbean caravan in Auburn that still stands (4,303 yards). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers first drafted Jackson overall in 1986, but he did something today’s two-sports stars rarely do: He chose baseball.
The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the fourth round that year. He played with the minor league Memphis Chicks and was called up to the majors the same season, and he continued to develop as a powerful, strikeout-prone hitter with an ability for the spectacular in defense. Jackson scaled walls, snatched base runners and hovered through the outfield to rob base hits. He punished pitchers – and bats – and even went to the farm after succeeding in calling for time. His 21 home runs were a draw for the AL management at the all-star break in 1989.
“I was a big fan of him as an athlete,” Stewart said of Jackson. “But when he started playing baseball … you had to be a fan of him because he could do things that other baseball athletes could not do.
“I remember having a conversation with him on the field in KC, and I said to him, ‘Man, shoot, you have to give up football and just play this, brother.’ He said, ‘Man, as long as I can do them both, I will do them both.’ “
That night in Anaheim, Jackson finished the top of the first by securing Pedro Guerrero’s flyball. Stewart retired to the clubhouse and found a TV. On it, Vin Scully and guest commentator Ronald Reagan talked about the former president’s affiliation with football when Jackson went on the plate against Rick Reuschel, whose first pitch sinks dipped under Jackson’s knees for ball one.
“The Bo down there, it’s a pretty interesting hobby he has for the holidays when baseball ends,” Reagan said before cracking Jackson’s bat interrupted his next sentence. Jackson’s moonlight sent Davis jogging against the midfield wall – sending several spectators crawling over tarpaulin-covered seats, where the ball landed some 448 feet later.
Many of history’s biggest black baseball stars thrived in other sports and could have taken different paths. But in baseball, they could make money earlier and have healthier and longer careers.
The fearsome right-hander Bob Gibson averaged more than 20 points at Creighton and delayed his Hall of Fame baseball career playing for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1957. Dave Winfield was drafted into four leagues: the NFL, MLB, NBA and American Basketball Association. Rickey Henderson and Ken Griffey Jr. said they became more interested in playing college football than baseball.
Just on all the star charts in 1989, Gwynn was an all-conference point guard in San Diego State. Coleman dropped out of the NFL after Washington’s professional football team tried to convert the former Florida A&M player into a wide receiver. Leonard received more than 60 scholarships to play college football and basketball. He got no one for baseball, but chose to play it anyway.
Davis was a high school basketball star in Los Angeles, but he chose the majors in the NBA in 1980 because he did not want to “wait four years before I could do the pros.” Three years after his big league debut with the Cincinnati Reds, Davis said he refused interest from the Los Angeles Clippers due to planning conflicts.
Today, multisport athletes see baseball as a secondary option. Jameis Winston, Colin Kaepernick, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson are among several current or former NFL quarterbacks who were drafted by major league teams before continuing their professional football careers instead. Wide receiver Golden Tate football stuff despite calling baseball his “first love.”
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray turned the tide after signing with Oakland Athletics, who selected him with the ninth pick in 2018. He lost most of a $ 4.66 million signing bonus with Oakland for playing football, and became the top pick in the NFL – draft 2019 – and earn a bonus five times greater in the process. He became an immediate starter with the Cardinals, but it took three seasons before the earliest of the other top-10 drafts of the MLB draft made their major league debut.
Others will continue to face a similar choice. Jerrion Ealy participated in Perfect Game, the amateur baseball showcase, in 2018 and was drafted by the Diamondbacks the following year. However, after failing to accept the terms with Arizona, he chose instead to play baseball and football at the University of Mississippi.
Ealy, who runs back and outfield, said that baseball racing in his family; an uncle played for the Houston Astros. Ealy started playing at a young age, before football, and looked up to Sammy Sosa and Torii Hunter, whose number 48 he wears on the diamond. But as he got older, the All-SEC team learned before the season about Jackson and Deion Sanders, and he began searching for stories and highlights from their careers.
“I was like, ‘I could do that too,'” he says of pursuing both sports professionally. “That’s the ultimate goal, to be the first person to be the Hall of Famer in two sports.”
Ealy, one of two black players on the Mississippi baseball list, partly credits his early exposure to baseball for his relationship with the sport.
“With football and basketball, there are many more who played it and many more who have succeeded,” he says. “You rarely see anyone in your city who has gone anywhere with baseball. Or it is this: Even though there are several players on a football team, it requires more players to practice baseball. You can not just go out and do a single- “It takes space, equipment. It takes a lot.”
Davis, who has worked to increase youth baseball participation during his career after playing, says MLB has not invested enough resources in finding and cultivating African-American talent. He also points to MLB’s lack of black talent beyond the playing field – in the media, the coaching staff and the front offices.
“In my day, the scouts were so on point that they knew where to go to find Black players, and they did,” he says. “They went to South Central Los Angeles. They went into Birmingham, Alabama, to find Willie Mays and these guys. When you have scouts who are fascinated by wanting to do something, you put in that effort. Today, the scouts are lazy. “Today, the scouts go to show off games, and if you’re not a black player who is a first-class boy at Perfect Game, who sees you?”
MLB has made some progress, but Davis says it must prioritize growth in black communities.
“When we talk about the nuts and bolts in this game, and about black kids playing, and about black kids getting opportunities, who gives those opportunities?” he asks. “Did the game give us what we gave it? You answer that question.”
As a 58-year-old, Jackson does not do many interviews, and through his representative he refused to be interviewed for this story. He raises money for relief through his charity bike ride, Bo Bikes Bama, and organizes a charity golf event that benefits youth sports and education programs in Illinois. He is also listed as president of the food company Jackson and Partners.
He has made occasional appearances over the years, including an interview with Sports Illustrated in 2016 in which he said that he “probably would only have played baseball” if he had known the dangers of a concussion in football.
There was another injury that forced him to make a similar decision.
Jackson was named the MVP in the 1989 All-Star Game and began his best NFL season three months later, earning his only Pro Bowl nod in 1990. But both careers stopped abruptly during the third quarter in a playoff game between Los Angeles. Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals that season. Jackson broke free for a gain of 34 meters and suffered an injury in the left hip during the tackle. It ended his NFL career and threatened his time in baseball, which ended three seasons later, after another 183 games and 32 home games with the Chicago White Sox and California Angels.
Since Jackson’s retirement, when black stars have disappeared from the sport, Stewart has reconciled himself to the notion that others can never experience what he did in his career.
As a three-sport high school star, Stewart declined 30 college football scholarships because of his connection to baseball. He still remembers waiting three hours to meet his first professional player, Willie Mays. He started playing baseball as an 8-year-old, and in his 15s he jumped fences to struggle with Reggie Jackson during athletics practice – before beginning a lifelong friendship with the Hall of Famer.
Stewart puts black players, then black faces and was quickly integrated into a group that sharing, teaching and being were the by-products of their culture, not initiatives or diversity projects. Having that support can help renew the baseball attraction for those who consider the sport, he says, drawing future phenomena to the game – boys like Bo Jackson, like Black fans will go out of their way to look.
“The reason I wanted to play baseball was because I could see myself on the court – not just one or two of us, but an abundance,” Stewart said. “Baseball was rich in black players. That was what made me play.”