Major League Baseball celebrated Black History Month this year by merging America’s favorite pastime with art.
The MLB commissioned 10 artists to celebrate the careers of legendary Black baseball players, in an effort to “honor the past and current game changers in baseball,” said Barbara McHugh, MLB’s senior vice president of marketing.
“We also wanted to use this as a moment to really get visibility to some of the future cultural game changers,” McHugh told CNN.
The players honored this past month include: Jackie Robinson, who played for the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1947-1956; Hank Aaron, who played in the MLB from 1952-1976; CC Sabathia, who played in the MLB from 2001-2019; Joe Morgan, who played in the MLB from 1963-1984; Ken Griffey Jr., who played in the MLB from 1989-2010; Bob Gibson, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1959 to 1975; Rickey Henderson who played in the league from 1979-2003; Josh Gibson, who played in the Negro Baseball League from 1930-1946; Satchel Paige, who played in the Negro Baseball League from 1926-1950, then played in the MLB 1948-1965; and Mookie Betts, who currently plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Artists Karabo Poppy Moletsane, Steeve Verna, Jerry Jones Jr., Oldemannwilly, Matthew Clayburn, Jaurice Jones, Sean Cuttino, Ashley Pinklomein Price, Frank Morrison and King Saladeen were each were assigned one player to honor in their pieces.
Project highlights players’ cultural impact
It was important for the project to “put an emphasis on the cultural impact that (the honored MLB players) had on the game, and also their impact on the next generation,” McHugh said.
Baseball may have been one of the first professional sports leagues to integrate, but it continues to reckon with the racism of its past.
For decades, MLB owners colluded to prevent the signing of any Black players, who ended up forming their own leagues commonly known as the Negro Leagues. That changed in 1946, when Brooklyn Dodgers owner and general manager Branch Rickey signed Negro Leaguer Jackie Robinson, who became the first Black major leaguer in 1947.
Last year, MLB teams and players used Opening Day to place Black Lives Matters center stage.
For the family members of those honored by the MLB, the art served as a nice tribute.
“I appreciate this kind of acknowledgment,” Linda Paige-Shelby, daughter of Satchel Paige, told CNN. “It’s extremely important to have this kind of representation. And then to use my dad as the symbol is amazing.”
Paige-Shelby described her father as loving and humble, always keeping his family close to him. He, at the same time, understood the importance of his contribution to the game and the role he played in changing it, she said.
“He was very much aware of racism,” Paige-Shelby said. “And he defeated racism with every game, 100%, to show the world that he was just as good as the players in the major league.”
Paige-Shelby also described her father as an oak tree.
He was “deeply rooted and couldn’t be moved by racist taunts,” she said. “He always stood for what he was, and he showed that not only with strength, but with courage.”
Artists aimed to honor players’ strength
Paige’s strength and courage is something that graphic designer and illustrator Karabo Poppy Moletsane wanted to make sure to highlight in her piece.
The South African artist said she saw this as an opportunity to learn more about one of the most iconic baseball heroes.
“Telling the story of one of the most incredible pitchers of all time was something that had a lot of weight to it,” Moletsane said. “So I wanted to make it something that honored not just his skill, but how he was adamant about changing the current condition and situation within baseball at the time.”
To see all the art pieces made for the project, check out MLB’s Instagram page.