Baseball’s black knights: This family wants to save black baseball
Gary Matthews Sr. and sons are pushing to bring more color back to the game
The knock on baseball these days is that it has lost its appeal as a viable sport in the black community as evidenced by the fact that only 7 percent of the players on Major League Baseball rosters are African-American. This is a stark contrast to the 1970s and ’80s, when black superstars were plentiful and the percentages fluctuated between 15 percent and almost 30 percent.
Gary Matthews Sr. was one of those superstars and that decline in America’s baseball mojo didn’t affect his four sons, who all wanted to play in the pros like Pops.
The Matthews brothers lived through some great times with their dad, who was a star on that 1984 Chicago Cubs team that won the National League East title and had the town in hysteria, drunk with hopes of winning Chi-Town’s first World Series title since 1908.
Decades later, the Matthews remain one consistent black baseball family, unaffected by the lack of diversity in the game or in the league offices. And as long as they exist and continue to expand their impressive baseball legacy, the soul infusion of baseball’s black knights will always be felt, if not respected.
“For us, it started at a young age,” recalled Gary Matthews Jr., who played 12 years in the major leagues (1999-2010) with seven squads and was an All-Star once like his dad, in 2006. “I remember my father buying this huge coffee table book about the Negro Leagues.”
Gary Matthews Jr., just 10 years old at the time, points to that moment as the one that brought perspective and meaning to the “family business.”
Baseball is the family business
“That was the first time I saw drawings and stories about Satchel Paige and “Cool Papa” Bell and Josh Gibson, about how these guys weren’t allowed to play the game they loved at the highest level because of the color of their skin. I was shocked,” Gary Matthews Jr., now 41, revealed. “That moment led to my dad telling me the story about Jackie Robinson being the first African-American player and breaking the color barrier. That story meant so much to my father and eventually myself as I climbed the ladder.”
Grasping the importance of diversity in baseball and becoming an example of its endless possibilities started very early for the Matthews family, who are using their baseball pedigree to influence Major League Baseball in ways that extend beyond the playing field, helping to shape the future of the game and exposing youths to the opportunities it offers.
Despite traveling so much, “Sarge,” as Matthews was reverently called by the baseball universe, stayed close and set high standard for his five kids. His four boys, Gary Jr., Delvon, Dustin (drafted by Chicago Cubs in 1998) and Dannon, all grew up wanting to follow in their father’s footsteps.
When Matthews wasn’t on the road, he was at home being dad or at the ballpark working, with his kids never far away. They grew up around the game and often attended spring training. They served as bat boys during games when their dad played for the Atlanta Braves, and while their friends were at summer camps, the Matthews boys were at Wrigley Field running the hallways.
Growing up witnessing baseball history firsthand provided each of Matthews’ sons with an understanding of baseball’s unique life offerings.
“Kids had more leeway in the clubhouse and on the field back then,” Gary Matthews Jr. added. “We spent countless hours learning to interact with my father’s teammates, the front office and media.”
Delvon Matthews fondly recalled how the boys would go out early with their father and hit in the cage during pregame batting practices and imitate the other players.
“Dad was always just dad,” Delvon Matthews told The Undefeated. “But as I grew up and started hanging out at the ballpark and going to spring training and going out to dinner, I saw the way people responded to him and asked for his autograph and I would see him on TV and realized my dad was a celebrity.
“My brothers and I wanted to be like my dad and his friends like Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Mike Schmidt, Ryne Sandberg, and Dusty Baker. I got exposed to a lot of different things at an early age, going to ballparks and different cities. I grew up in the baseball locker room and it really set the whole foundation for my career now.”
Delvon Matthews said that being able to get daily baseball lessons and observe every aspect of the game from the players in the locker room to the live action to how the executive offices worked allowed him to easily transition into his post-playing roles of locating, analyzing and assessing talent and identifying areas where Major League Baseball can improve its diversity initiatives.
Sarge set the table
Matthews grew up in San Fernando Valley playing sandlot baseball and was the No. 17 pick of the 1968 MLB draft by the San Francisco Giants at the age of 18. Matthews blossomed quickly. His pro career started in 1969, balling for the Giants’ Decatur Commodores (A) affiliate in Illinois. By 1973, he was National League Rookie of the Year. He would continue to excel as an elite player in the ’70s and ’80s, a golden age for African-Americans in baseball.
“I had a great career. I was always a three-hole hitter, the guy they counted on to get the big hit and drive in key runs, and I was always ready to play,” Matthews said.
Matthews had a rock solid 16-year career with the Giants, the Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners. The .281 lifetime hitter kept his ‘fro low and a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and was known as a clutch playoff performer and leader. As a player for the Phillies, he shined in the 1981 and ‘83 playoffs, hitting seven homers in 19 playoff games and winning the 1983 National League Championship Series MVP.
He followed that season up by joining the maligned Chicago Cubs. His impact on the field was immense as he led baseball in walks and on base percentage that season. Injuries began to catch up with him and Matthews told The Undefeated that he retired in 1987 with aspirations of becoming a manager.
After hanging his cleats up, Matthews said, he worked in the private sector and as a broadcaster and joined the Cubs as a minor league hitting instructor from 1995-98.
“I was told I needed to get some experience before I could lead a team,” Matthews told The Undefeated.
With baseball’s most decorated African-American manager Dusty Baker already locking down the Cubs’ lead gig, Matthews left and spent two seasons as Toronto’s hitting instructor. In between, he also found time to work as a Blue Jays studio analyst, but he said his desire to become a manager brought him back to the Milwaukee Brewers as a hitting coach in 2002 and another stint with Chicago as a coach from 2003-06.
Eventually, Matthews said, he had to “face the harsh reality” that while baseball has many black players, there was still a reluctance to give those players an opportunity at leadership positions. When his managerial dream didn’t materialize, he went on to serve as a color analyst for the Philadelphia Phillies from 2007 to 2013, with little regret.
It’s odd that a guy who was nicknamed Sarge because of his ability to lead by example, take charge, seize the moment and inspire those around him – several of the defining characteristics sought in a big-league manager – wasn’t given a serious interview for a head coaching job.
“As a player, people always said I had the leadership and intellectual qualities of a manager, so I developed aspirations of becoming one,” Matthews told The Undefeated while traveling in a cab back to his Chicago hotel. “I got the experience everyone said I needed, but when it comes down to the actuality … it just didn’t happen for whatever reason.”
Matthews didn’t get to be a skipper, but it didn’t soften his belief that anything was possible if you were willing to get your hands dirty and give maximum effort, principles he passed on to his four sons and daughter.
Doors closed for Gary Sr., but opened for his sons
The number of African-Americans in the game was dwindling and the faces in Major League Baseball clubhouses were changing by the time Gary Matthews Jr. got to The Show in 1999.
“Little Sarge” attended Granada Hills High School in California and then went on to play at Mission College in Santa Clara before being drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 13th round of the 1993 amateur draft.
Around this time, Delvon Matthews had his “cup of coffee” with the Milwaukee Brewers organization before beginning work in the executive offices of the Chicago White Sox under Kenny Williams, who happens to be an African-American.
After being released by Milwaukee, Delvon Matthews, a talented and cerebral All-SWAC Conference third baseman and graduate of Texas Southern University, became a shining member of a baseball executive development program. From 2007 until early this year, he worked in the executive offices of the Chicago White Sox, most recently as the team’s assistant director of player development.
He ran the team’s minor league camp and helped evaluate talent. He also worked as the director of baseball operations for the Arizona Fall League.
As baseball bigwigs realize that player diversity is the future and lifeline of pro sports, the commissioner’s office has made the expansion of baseball’s youth initiatives a top priority. This change in philosophy has benefited intelligent African-American baseball lifers such as Delvon Matthews who have the experience and perspective to figure out where baseball is missing the mark in attracting black ballers.
In April, he was named the senior director of baseball development at Major League Baseball, responsible for overseeing the daily operations of MLB’s Urban Youth Academies and implementing initiatives designed to expand and diversify the game’s reach.
He will be working with former Angels general manager Tony Reagins, MLB’s senior vice president of youth programs and managing two main initiatives implemented to provide professional-level instruction and exposure to diverse youth ball players from around the country: the Breakthrough Series and the Elite Development Invitational.
In these roles, Delvon Matthews has a shot to really impact the type of player baseball is looking for and make opportunities in baseball more accessible to athletes of color by providing them with high-profile events and exposure to pro coaching and scouting.
Delvon Matthews fell short of becoming a major leaguer, but his life has taken a different path, and through those invaluable experiences he has maintained the family’s stature as African-American baseball taste makers.
“It was always in our blood,” he said. “Growing up in a household with four boys, competition was always high and that competitive edge can definitely be attributed to my father. The discipline, work ethic and desire was born from all of that and it ultimately led to my brother going pro and me becoming a professional.”
Gary Matthews Jr. said it was a rough time for everyone when his brother decided to hang up his cleats.
“It almost felt like a piece of me had walked away from the game,” he said, “but it takes a lot for an athlete to accept when it’s time to do something else.”
Matthews said it was no big deal. His son just didn’t have the goods, so it wasn’t the end of the world.
“I evaluated talent for a living at that point,” Matthews said. “So I was honest with Del about his chances … that he might not have all the tools to be a pro.”
In any event, the way Delvon Matthews has rebounded and charted his own course has truly earned him some major props from the ambitious men in his family.
“My brother took some time to mourn the loss of himself as a player and he went back and developed his own niche within our family business,” said Gary Matthews Jr. “He’s growing into a talented future general manager and well on his way to taking our family into places we’ve never been.”
Delvon Matthews was honest with himself and quickly moved on to his next mission in life.
“When I went back to school, I thought about what I wanted to do and how I could be impactful with my passion, baseball,” he recalled. “I read Ken Williams’ bio and was inspired to chart a new course as an executive.”
Delvon Matthews says coming to the commissioner’s office and doing the work he does now with the Breakthrough Series events and Elite Development Invitational doesn’t feel like a job at all.
“It’s just my life coming full circle,” he said. “Giving back through baseball and helping to shape the game and identify talent on a pro level, while strengthening baseball, especially at the urban grassroots level.”
When Gary Matthews Jr. retired, he had ideas of investing his small baseball fortune and venturing into real estate. Today, he’s part of a successful team that invests in small hotels and residential properties.
Like baseball, it’s a trade that a family member passed down to him at an early age. His grandfather owned a set of strip malls and was successful in buying properties and assessing land value and he hipped him to the business as a youth. Gary Matthews Jr. says he wanted to prove that he could accomplish things outside of baseball. After all, expanding horizons and testing the limits of their possibilities is what the Matthews family is all about.
Delvon Matthews’ elevation to executive has also inspired his brother to start participating in the family business again. Gary Matthews Jr. said he has already accompanied his brother on a trip to one of baseball’s Urban Youth Academies.
Baseball is a game for all
Over the years, Matthews has helped expose black youths in Philadelphia and Chicago to baseball, but he said baseball is a universal sport that shouldn’t be limited to one ethnicity. “All kids should get an opportunity to play the game,” Matthews said. “Not just black kids. All kids. That’s what baseball should be about.”
The Matthews family’s approach to the diamond and life was molded by an incomparable baseball lineage. Jackie Robinson shared his jewels with the great Willie Mays when they played together in the Negro Leagues. At the end of Mays’ illustrious career he played and shared jewels with Matthews, who ultimately passed his experiences on to his sons.
The Matthews brothers are simply an extension of baseball’s African-American influence, all-encompassing beauty and social relevance.
Their story isn’t laced with tragedy, financial struggle, criminal ruin or remarkable rises and transformations. They were always on point. The upbringing solid and the dreams real. The father was present and the kids stayed the course and achieved coveted goals.
It all goes back to those legendary Negro League players from the huge coffee table book. They are why Matthews played the game, and why his kids have constructed lives reaping benefits that baseball has to offer.
“When I think about what Jackie Robinson did for the game and society,” Gary Matthews Jr. said,” I hope that when he looked at what the game was going to be like in the future, that he looked at a family like mine … I would hope that 70 years after he graced the sport and changed society forever, he would be proud looking at what my family’s been able to do and the impact we continue to make, whatever small place we hold in this game.”
These days, Matthews often visits his son Gary Jr. in Corona del Mar, at a beautiful home he purchased when he signed a $50 million deal with the Anaheim Angels in 2007. Speaking about the house conjures one of Gary Jr.’s fondest images of his dad.
“It’s always good to look out at my dad sitting back with a wine glass in his hand, smoking on a cigar overlooking the beach,” he said.
There’s a mutual feeling of pride that exists in those moments.
The house represents the truth in what Sarge taught his kids. “He always told me if I listened and worked hard and did what he told me, we’d be in this position one day,” Gary Jr. recalled. “He didn’t lie.”