Our Hero Makes The Hall: Ken Griffey Jr. and Why Representation Matters
To many, he’s known as “The Kid”. To others, he’s “Jr.” To us, he’s one of the greatest baseball players of all-time and today, he made it into the Hall of Fame.
Ken Griffey Jr. received 437 of a possible 440 votes to get inducted into Cooperstown. While there was no doubt that Griffey Jr. would make it in first-ballot, the feeling in the air during the week was that #24 might go in unanimously. As you can see, he missed only by three votes.
Casting those three decisions aside, it was a no-brainer as to why the Mariners and Reds great should have made the Hall on his first at-bat: 13-time All Star, ten Gold Gloves and 630 home runs. He goes down as one of the best center fielders to ever play the game, saving a franchise, the Seattle Mariners, to boot.
But to many of us, his cultural relevancy and simple matter of representation are the reasons why my generation, those born in the 80s, look at Ken Griffey Jr. as the greatest baseball to ever walk the planet. He looked like us and we wanted to be like him.
At some point, every kid looks up to a certain athlete like he or she is a demi-God, a mythic creature who really doesn’t exist. A superhero. They aren’t real, only fictionalized characters that existed x-number a games a year but their jerseys are our capes, their shoes are our ruby slippers. Simply put, we idolize them for what they are portrayed to us to be, as we’re naive to whom they really are, once the newspapers stop their coverage and the televisions are turned off. The moment they appear to be human, to be mortal, is the saddest day of our lives. The ultimate dream deferred.
But Ken Griffey Jr. never gave us that and even if he did, we’d probably act like it never happened. He was our superstar, our superhero. The backwards hat was his powerpack, his lefty swing was his finisher. The Air Max 1s made him faster than a speeding bullet. The number “24” was greater than “23” for a reason. Hell, even “23” wanted to be like “24”. He’s what they call “smooth with it”. He was our baseball player and nothing could take that from us.
And by “our”, I mean that he represented for every Black kid who wanted to play baseball. It’s no question that the achievements by Black baseball stars changed the game and the country. Black folk have always been and will continue to be involved in “America’s Pastime”. But there was this thing about Jr. — that baseball cap, those shoes, that Hip-Hop chutzpah — that made him just like us. He was really a kid — just 19 — when he was propelled towards the biggest stage in sports. And little man dominated. Dominated to where all of his detractors had to bow down and kiss the ring. And we as Black kids saw that.
There is something so powerful about seeing someone that looks like you dominate their field. “Representation matters” is not just a slogan, it’s a life-saver. You can believe that you have a place, that your life matters — that you are capable and qualified. People want to be like you, downright envy you. They have to acknowledge your presence because you do belong there — whether they actually want you there or not. That was Griffey Jr. And he was cool as all hell doing it.
So people wonder why we haven’t had a player like his since; a black baseball player be the most popular athlete in all of sports. A few factors play into this, most notably being the appearance of dwindling numbers of African-American baseball players in the majors. On a meta-scale, baseball’s overall popularity has decreased significantly — the NFL become America’s new favorite sport. People don’t watch it like they do a random football game on a Sunday.
The steroids era didn’t help much either. While Major League Baseball ignored yet supported performance-enhancing drug (PED) use, it’s takedown of the game’s greatest yet suspected steroid users soured the taste of the national press, who in turn soured the sport to all of us. And while the league has recovered fairly well — and with new superstars to boot — it hasn’t be able to have a player reach the national relevancy of a Ken Griffey Jr, Derek Jeter or even Mark McGuire, who is a self-admitted user of PEDs.
And of those new stars, none of them are Black. That’s not to say that we don’t have popular Black baseball players in the Majors — Pittsburgh has one of them, Andrew McCutchen — and Afro-Latino starts to boot and that their representation does not matter, there isn’t a Black Bryce Harper or Mike Trout. Guys who are beloved by the fans and media alike, who have kids wearing their jerseys hoping to fly and mimicking swings, hoping to knock something out. The new generation of ball fans adore both Harper and Trout and they are their representation. We don’t have that. Not yet, at least.
I believe that it can happen. Because for the next representation, their journey was paved — and most-likely influenced — by the player that we call “The Kid”. And that’s why today’s Hall announcement matters. It’s a representation of where we came from and what we hope it inspires one to do. We deserve to have Ken Griffey Jr. in the Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball deserve to have it’s next Black baseball superstar take his rightful place. Because number 24 helped that kid to believe that it could happen. Representation matters.