Orlando Hudson has been outspoken — at times, controversial — when it comes to African-Americans in baseball. The San Diego Padres second baseman cares deeply about the subject, and his knowledge of the game spans from the Negro Leagues to the present day. Perhaps most important to him, though, is the game’s future.
The numbers are sadly staggering: In 1975, African-Americans populated more than a quarter of major-league rosters. By 1996, when Hudson signed his first professional contract, the figure was 17%. Today, only 8.5% of this season’s Opening Day big-leaguers were African-American. The downward trend is one that Hudson would like to see reversed.
The four-time Gold Glove winner addressed the subject when the Padres visited Fenway Park earlier this summer.
Hudson, on the man who preceded Jackie Robinson: “Fleetwood Walker was the first African-American to play in the big leagues. People say that Jackie broke the barrier, but Fleetwood broke in back in . He had a couple of years in before they said, ‘We don’t want blacks in baseball.’ He was a light-skinned brother. He was the first one and then — 60 years later — Jackie came along, in 1947. It was like, ‘OK, I’m here to stay.’ He played nine or 10 years in the big leagues. Then it was [Don] Newcombe and [Larry] Doby, and so forth.
On the players who followed Robinson: “They aren’t [as well known] because they were there at the same time as Jackie. Here’s a prime example: At one time you had Jeter, A-Rod, Tejada, Nomar and Vizquel. Wow. All right, out of that bunch you have four who are still playing. Nomar is out, so nobody talks about him anymore. Everyone forgets that Nomar was one of the best in the game. They mostly talk about Jeter and A-Rod. That’s why I think that Doby and those guys aren‘t talked about. Jackie got all the limelight. Branch Rickey was like, ’OK, this is the first guy, right here, Jackie Robinson.’ People just gravitated to him.”
On the integration of Latin players: “Jackie opened the door for not just African-Americans, but to Latin players, which, to me, are of African descent. True that. When slavery broke up and some white folks went to the islands, and whatever… they spoke Spanish. They had white folks and they had Africans there. Nobody came to Africa speaking Spanish, but even though they didn’t learn our language, they’re still our people. Jackie opened the door for them, for Latins and also for Asians. It’s a wide-open game for everybody. He didn’t just do it for African-Americans. Just like Martin Luther King. It was equality. This is a game for all of us.”
On why it took so long to have an African-American manager in the big leagues: “They wouldn’t let [us] manage in the big leagues, but [we] could have managed in the big leagues. Why did it take so long? If I said what I wanted to say, I’d be out of baseball. I wouldn’t be able to go to no stadium anymore.”
On independent leagues and the Negro Leagues: “Basically, that’s what the independent leagues look like right now. They look like the old Negro Leagues. A lot of independent teams have a lot of African-American guys trying to back into the minor leagues, to try to get to the big leagues, any way they can.
“Why [are they playing in independent leagues]? That‘s a question you‘re going to have to ask me after I retire.”
On the decline of blacks in baseball: “The numbers are in steady decline. I rehabbed for a few days this year in A-ball and I saw a few African-American brothers playing the game. That was good. A couple of first-rounders, a couple of second-rounders. It’s good to see them down there and I hope they stick with it. But do you know what, man? Basketball and football do so many other things, and you can get to the league quicker. And it’s not such a grind.
“When I’m back home, African-Americans say, “It’s a white man’s game. It ain’t made for us, man.’ At the same time, they forget that blacks dominated this game, way before their parent‘s time. During their great grandparent’s time. Blacks dominated the game. If they really knew that white folks back then said that Babe Ruth is the white Josh Gibson, and that black folks said that Josh Gibson is the black Babe Ruth, they’d be like, ‘Dang. Seriously?’ Yeah, like seriously. Babe Ruth had a lot of respect for Josh Gibson, just like Josh Gibson had a lot of respect for Babe Ruth.
“You have to remember, when the old Negro League all-stars played against the white all-stars, the Negro Leagues won 75 percent of the time. And it brought tons of money to the game, but they stopped it. The guy who took over as commissioner [Kenesaw Mountain Landis] was very racist. He said ‘no,’ because the African-Americans were beating them.
“You’d hear older white guys [saying], ‘Damn,’ and bragging on how good Satchel Paige was. They’d say, ‘That’s the toughest pitcher — and the best pitcher— I’ve ever seen.’ Those guys paved the way for us, but now African-Americans don’t really play. Damn.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.