Of baseball and business (diversity edition)

Baseball Hall-of-Famer Monte Irvin just died. Never heard of him? He not only helped the New York Giants get to two World Series, he also mentored one of their up-and-coming players, an outfielder you may recall named Willie Mays. But Mr. Irvin played for nearly a dozen years before joining the Giants. Before that, he had been relegated to the “Negro Leagues.”

A couple of decades ago, I had a client named Irvin. He happened to be an African American and I knew he’d been raised in the same town as Monte Irvin, so I asked if they were related. Yes, indeed. He was surprised I recognized the name, but I’m a big baseball fan. So the elder Mr. Irvin made a guest appearance in a speech I wrote for his nephew. Here’s an excerpt; you can read more of it on my website:

Cultures change slowly. Let me remind you that nearly 50 years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, there’s still not a single African American running a baseball team. And African American executives have been in the financial industry a lot shorter time than that.

My uncle was a major league baseball player—he played in the old Negro Leagues and later for the New York Giants. He could tell you that lots of African American players got hit by pitches—“accidentally,” of course—after the leagues were integrated. But it happened a lot less when a team had an African American pitcher on the mound.

It works the same way in the business world. The progress we make against racism in the workplace has a direct relationship to the positions that African Americans play on the team. As more African Americans take leadership positions and sit on Boards of Directors, more companies will stop throwing pitches at their African American employees.

Yes, it’s an old speech: the corporate world doesn’t throw pitches at its diverse employees anymore, not so blatantly. And it recognizes many forms of diversity, including LGBT people. But when it comes to leadership roles, are diverse professional relegated to the “farm team” longer than the majority folks in the pipeline? For some organizations, in some industries, the answer may still be yes.

Major League Baseball signed Mr. Irvin at the ripe old age of 30; the man considered perhaps the greatest pitcher in the Negro Leagues, Satchel Paige, was 42 when he joined the majors. Mr. Paige pitched for nearly a dozen more years, but his best games were far behind him. So much talent, consigned to relative obscurity. And how many more potential baseball stars aged out of the game before the Major Leagues opened their doors to players of color?

There’s a lesson there, and not just for baseball fans. Talent deserves to shine. And it’s not an unlimited resource—businesses can’t afford to waste the talents of their people, no matter who they are. We’ve made progress since I wrote that speech. But I can’t help wondering how many Monte Irvins and Satchel Paiges the business world has lost: how many talented women and people of color never got the opportunities they deserved, the opportunities to shine—and to lead.

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