It’s been 20 years since the Cardinals last started three Black players on Opening Day

It is not an exaggeration to say that shortstop Masyn Winn and outfielders Victor Scott II and Jordan Walker are essential to the future of the St. Louis Cardinals as currently constituted.

Both Walker and Winn ranked among the best prospects in baseball throughout their time in the minors and entered this spring with unusual incumbency in the lineup. Scott was ticketed for Triple-A Memphis prior to Dylan Carlson’s shoulder injury, but performed at a high enough level in spring to push himself into a position where that ascent was possible.

That trio is also aware of a meaningful footnote attached to their presence in the Opening Day lineup.

They represent the first group of at least three Black players to start for the Cardinals on Opening Day in 20 years, dating back to second baseman Tony Womack and outfielders Ray Lankford and Reggie Sanders in 2004.

“I think it’s huge,” Winn said. “We’ve talked about it a lot, us three…Talking to Willie [McGee] and Ozzie [Smith] before the year, it’s obviously huge to them. It means a lot to them. To be able to represent the Cardinals the way Lou Brock did, the way Ozzie did, the way Willie did, it’s truly special [for] all three of us.”

Cardinals history is replete with meaningful contributions from Black players, dating back to Tom Alston’s debut which desegregated the team in 1954. The greatest pitcher in franchise history, Bob Gibson, was African American, and headlined the team alongside Brock in the 1960s and 1970s.

McGee and Smith, as well as Vince Coleman, Lonnie Smith, Terry Pendleton and others were highly visible through the 1980s, and the team’s resurgence under new ownership in the late 1990s featured an outfield of Lankford, Ron Gant and Brian Jordan.

The long gap in time since 2004 coincides with an overall decrease in African American participation in the sport. Research done by USA Today in 2023 found that only 6.1% of players on opening day rosters last season were Black, the lowest figure since 1955.

Apr 1, 2024; San Diego, California, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Victor Scott II (11) and shortstop Masyn Winn (0) celebrate on the field after defeating the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:San Diego Padres;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">San Diego Padres</a> at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY NETWORK

“Players like Mookie Betts and Andrew McCutchen were the players that I would watch growing up, because they look like me,” Scott said. “That’s somebody who has [gone] through the same kind of struggles that I would end up going through in order to get there.

“To kind of see them make their way up and be so successful as they are, it gives guys like me and Masyn and Jordan an opportunity to know at such a young age to know that, OK, we can do it.”

“We’re obviously going to see more [African American players] in baseball,” Walker added. “Absolutely seeing that we had three on opening day, a really special moment, for sure.”

It would be more difficult to find players of all races who have played for the Cardinals since McGee joined the coaching staff in 2018 who haven’t been impacted by his mentorship and instruction than those who have, and it’s in that connection that he finds commonality. Between the lines, for McGee, the game is the game, and that’s what matters.

“On the field here, on teams mostly, you don’t ever hear about too many bad deals,” he said. “Guys respect each other, appreciate each other, work together. It’s a great situation, and a great model for America, and for the country.”

Cardinals manager Oli Marmol, who is of Dominican descent, is just the second person of color in team history to hold his job. He said Tuesday that he’s received private entreaties from younger Latin American people who work or want to work in the game who have been motivated by his presence, seeing in him what they want for themselves.

“It inspires them to, like, it’s possible,” Marmol said. “Others have done it, but it gives them more confidence as to, like, there’s another Latin manager, you know? I get that from time to time. I do think it’s important to see people who look like you in roles that matter.”

The Cardinals announced Tuesday that the team’s Hall of Fame is launching an initiative to honor the impact Latin players have had on franchise history with an exhibit called “¡Viva! Los Cardenales,” including a display featuring the work of Polo Ascencio, the team’s first Spanish language play-by-play broadcaster.

Through its Cardinals Care charitable arm, the team has also done work to expand its support for baseball in predominantly Black communities throughout metro St. Louis. Brock, Gibson, Smith, former outfielder Dexter Fowler and Negro Leagues legend James “Cool Papa” Bell all have namesake baseball diamonds designed for community use.

Mar 31, 2024; Los Angeles, California, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Victor Scott II (11) reaches second on a double against the <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Los Angeles Dodgers;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Los Angeles Dodgers</a> during the fifth inning at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY NETWORK

The Cardinals also paid to refurbish the baseball field at Harris-Stowe State University, the former home of the Negro League’s St. Louis Stars, and will play the San Francisco Giants this summer at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, the oldest operating baseball stadium in the United States and the former home of Birmingham Barons, who played as a barnstorming team composed of Black players before joining an organized professional league.

Keeping the memory and legacy of Black baseball players alive has been an organizational priority, and with the emergence of their three young stalwarts – and top prospect starter Tink Hence rising quickly behind them – the next generation of players will be able to benefit from the example set by a current generation of representative stars.

“These kids, they’re great kids, man,” McGee said. “They’re gonna do what they need to do. The way they carry themselves in the way they work, the way they play to get better, it’s going to do a lot for the community and for themselves, and for the team, mainly.”