Since his elementary school days, Shippensburg University outfielder JuJu Cason has connected with fastballs and covered his pants in grass and dirt stains.
Cason, an East Arcadia, North Carolina, native, grew his baseball roots in Dixie Youth Baseball and is a first-generation ballplayer in his family.
But by climbing through the ranks of baseball, Cason began to take notice to something that was not as apparent at a younger age: the lack of diversity in the sport, specifically at the collegiate level.
According to the NCAA demographics database from 2012-20, the median of Black athletes in Division II baseball has not exceeded 6%. When you narrow the demographics to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), that median becomes even smaller — 2%. At a managerial level, the PSAC has not had a head coach of color, spanning the last nine seasons.
Cason — now a graduate student — spent his first four seasons with the Crusaders of Belmont Abbey College in the Conference Carolinas. He said he recognizes the absence of diversity in baseball and remains optimistic about the diversifying of the sport.
“It’s different,” Cason said of the lack of representation in the PSAC. “But we take this as a positive moving forward because if we can make a change to the league, the league play in the PSAC, we might be able to get more recruits who are colored in the league and on our team.”
Baseball has historically failed to break the color barrier compared to sports like football and basketball. According to the NCAA demographics database from 2020, Black athletes account for 50% of the players in Division II men’s basketball and 47% in Division II football. In the PSAC, the median of Black athletes in men’s basketball sat at 51% and football 44% in 2020.
Cason was a multi-sport athlete in high school, playing basketball. From his perspective, what separates baseball from other sports is the challenges it presents.
He feels most young athletes want to a play a sport they succeed in. They want the flashy plays and the consistent highlight reel. That is not always the case with baseball.
“The game’s a little slower than most. You can’t go out there and hit somebody in baseball. You can’t go out there and score 40 on somebody like in basketball,” Cason said. “It’s one of those things where our excitement is you go out there and make a diving play. You go out there and hit a home run. That’s the exciting part of baseball.”
“It’s a hard sport but you have to understand it. If you can build off of your failures, you’ll be able to be successful in the future no matter what because baseball is one of those games where it teaches you about life outside of the game. I’ve become a better person, a better teammate and a better worker because of baseball.”
Another issue is the scarce availability to baseball in low-income communities. And with the costs of equipment and travel ball programs continuously skyrocketing, it does not make entrance into the sport any easier.
Plus, having experience in travel ball programs is key, according to Next College Student Athlete (NCSA), an online scouting organization where future collegiate athletes and recruiting coordinators can connect. Without that experience, the recruiting process for some may be more taxing and it may be harder for coordinators to find statistics on athletes.
Even with the incessant lack of diversity in baseball, Cason said he has seen the strides that the sport has taken to improve the representation aspect of the game at all levels.
Over the last year, civil unrest swept and continues to sweep the United States in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, most recently Daunte Wright and many others. Protests, marches and movements have also unfurled across the country, bringing together groups of different races to show their support for the Black community, especially in the sports world.
In his senior year at Belmont Abbey, Cason along with help from peers and campus counselors, founded the Black Student Alliance, an organization that allows students to voice their opinions and stand in solidarity with the Black community. Cason later became the president of the organization prior to his graduation. At the start of the organization, there were not any other Black groups or fraternities on campus.
Cason said he was not able to witness the progress of the organization as much as he had hoped due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The Black Student Alliance began its embarkment when the pandemic made its appearance last March.
“I feel like the advancement, moving forward, it was great for Belmont Abbey,” Cason said. “Being a PWI [predominately white institution], we were able to put our stepping stone in the ground at the school, and I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Within the sport, Cason said he feels baseball leagues and groups at all levels have supported its athletes in the discussions and movements that advocate Black lives, specifically Major League Baseball.
Starting last season and stretching into this year, MLB has permitted its players to wear patches on their jerseys, showing support for social justice movements. Additionally, players have also worn batting practice shirts and message-generative cleats that bring awareness to social equity.
For Cason, that is what matters most — raising awareness.
“We’re not trying to agree to disagree, we’re just basically trying to get a viewpoint from people, spread the awareness that this stuff happens all the time,” Cason said. “I remember my parents would tell us whenever a cop pulls us over, it might be different for you. When a cop pulls us over, we don’t move at all. We ask the officer for permission to move. We keep 10 and two on the steering wheel. And we just had those rules that we learned from a very young age. I learned this at 10, before I even had a driver’s license.”
Cason wants to bring awareness with his voice and be the change on the baseball field. Cason said when he goes home to North Carolina to visit family, he typically works out with the high school ball players in the area.
“I have to continue to play hard and give it my all out here, so they can see that there is promise as well moving forward. To see that they can do it too,” Cason said.
In the end, Cason said he is going to play ball just like he always has. And with coming to SU, it has made the gravitation to the field that much easier. He said he is thankful to Coach Jones and Williamson for the opportunity to keep playing and competing in the game he loves.
While baseball does have a diversity problem, Cason said it is about how you compose yourself on and off the diamond. How you go out and put your team on your back.
“I don’t care what color I am. I’m going to go out there and try to win for my team and I know that my team would do the same thing for me,” Cason said. “I’ll run through that wall for them, take the hit, just anything to put ourselves in play and put our team in a position to win.”