Through Players Alliance, Jason Heyward and other Black players are honoring Jackie Robinson’s legacy
When Jason Heyward was dressing for Friday afternoon’s game, he was putting on a pinstripe Cubs’ jersey that had the number “42” emblazoned across his back. It’s MLB’s yearly homage to the legendary Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
But Heyward’s tribute to Robinson extends beyond his jersey or specialty cleats that he wore on Friday. As a part of the Players Alliance, Heyward donated his salary from the day to the Players Alliance where they hope to give back to local communities like they did in the offseason with their Pull Up Neighbor Tour.
“I think you’ll see something similar to that along those lines, but it’s definitely gonna go right back in the communities, money that can go towards city, communities in Atlanta, as well as the ones in Colorado around the All-Star game,” Heyward said. “I think that’s all we can ask for and continue to pay homage to Jackie Robinson and what he’s meant to everybody.”
Heyward and the Players Alliance are taking plenty of action off the field to pay tribute to Robinson. After Robinson broke into the big leagues, he served as a mentor to other Black players as they made their way through baseball. That sparked a movement amongst the veteran Black players who helped younger Black players as they worked their way to the big leagues.
“A great example is Monte Irvin with the [New York] Giants baseball team,” said Adrian Burgos Jr., a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who specializes in the history of minority participation in sports. “Monte helped a very young Willie Mays get acclimated to life in the major leagues. He helped the other guys breaking into the Giant organization. Many ballplayers so greatly respected Monte Irvin.”
Along the years, the mentorship aspect decreased a bit, but that’s one thing that Heyward and the Players Alliance are hoping to rekindle.
“There’s a lot more group chats now, I think, going on in the season, in the offseason, just people able to ask questions, stay in-tune with each other,” Heyward said. “It feels like a fraternity within a fraternity.”
That came from looking at another minority group – the Latino baseball players — and their hermandad — brotherhood.
“When you’re on the field competing against another team, you compete and you compete your [butt] off,” Heyward said. “But I think that community does a great job of embracing each other and pushing for their equality and pushing for their respect in this game and bringing their flair and what their culture brings.”
Like with Robinson and Irvin, the Latino camaraderie dates back to the middle of the 20th century, when more and more Latino ballplayers were arriving in the big leagues.
In the 1950s, players like Minnie Miñoso, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou and others would routinely compete against each other, then leave the field and meet up and have dinners and spend time with one another. They passed that mentorship onto one another.
“By 1965, they’re 10% of the major leagues,” Burgos Jr. said. “By that point, there’s a culture among these Latino players, of looking out for each other, of providing guidance, because they all have gone through the experience of cultural adjustment.
Heyward hopes that’s the case, too. The hope is that the fraternity being built through the Players Alliance will help all Black baseball players, whether they’re major leaguers, minor leaguers or those picking up a glove for the first time.
“I think Jason Heyward’s right that this is an important part of how the Players Alliance can very much cultivate and develop the individuals as ball players who see themselves as connected to a long history, to a mission,” Burgos Jr. said. “It’s not just a mission of be the best ball player you can be but have the biggest impact that you can have.”
The early signs are there.
“I think you’re starting to see that in the African American community,” Heyward said. “In the African American community, it’s positive to see somebody like Ken Griffey Jr. step into the MLB side and wanna reach back to the youth and show that you can have swag, have fun, be yourself no matter where you come from and enjoy this game we all love.”
Heyward’s showing he’s ready to do it, too. He worked out with Cubs first round pick Ed Howard in the offseason and spent time with him at the Pull Up Neighbor Tour.
“I’ve honestly tried to give him his space and respect that he’s got his journey, but he does know that he can reach out to me at any point in time if he has any question, anything he can think of that doesn’t look familiar to him, which I know that’s gonna be a lot here very soon,” Heyward said. “Man, he’s a super humble kid, works hard, respects the game and I know he really loves the community of Chicago and he’s looking forward to having the opportunity to give back. Those are the few things I’ve picked up on him in the short amount of time. He’s a bright young guy and I’m looking forward to watching his career blossom.”