Last year, Josh Bell earned his place in the spotlight with an All-Star season and grew more comfortable with his status as the Pirates’ face of the franchise.
Now more than ever, Bell is using that platform to shine a light on issues of systemic racism and social injustice and make a positive impact on society.
Never one to draw attention to himself, Bell broke character and publicly spoke out on several occasions over the last month about racial inequality, police brutality and the challenges that come with being Black in both baseball and America. The 27-year-old first baseman is continuing to lend his voice to the national conversation taking place following the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25.
Bell said he felt disbelief, disgust and “a little bit of anger” after the killing of Floyd. And he decided to speak up because he believes the media, and society as a whole, is now more accepting of the message behind the protests that took place throughout the country.
“He is not very outspoken about certain things. He keeps his head down and works his [butt] off on his craft. He is a student of the game who loves to hit. He loves baseball,” Pirates starter Trevor Williams said. “And for him to see this as an opportunity as a Black athlete — and as an All-Star, and as the face of the Pirates — for him to say this and to speak out against it and be educated and say something that doesn’t toe the line but gets in the face of, ‘This is a problem. We need to address it,’ I’m really proud of him for accepting that responsibility and really take that going forward.”
• Bell on activism: ‘Real change can happen’
While watching a protest in Pittsburgh last month, Bell said his girlfriend encouraged him to use his status and connections as a professional athlete to make a long-lasting impact. Bell reached out to a handful of players, including teammate Chris Archer, and created #SocialReformSunday.
“Right now, it seems like everyone’s all ears,” Bell said. “Everyone’s pretty surprised to learn about the war on drugs and the war on crime and who was targeted and what’s actually going on in the world today, how many people we have incarcerated compared to everyone else in the world. The numbers are there and the conversation can be had, and I think that conversation leads to change, so I’m excited for it.”
Bell said he is reaching out to local schools and youth academies. He’s been on Zoom calls with the Pittsburgh RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program over the last week. The Pirates offered to throw their support behind any initiative in which Bell is involved.
“The Pirates came to me and said, ‘You want to go out in the community and help? We’re right behind you.’ That has made me feel a lot better,” Bell said. “I’ve got a smile on my face coming to the field every day, knowing when the time is right, I can get back into the community and do what I can to promote good in this world. I’m excited about that.”
Other Pirates players are standing by Bell’s side, too, asking how they can help make a difference to create lasting change. Williams said social media support is not enough, so he told his teammates directly, “I’m in your corner,” and asked what he can do.
“The best thing we can do is educate ourselves,” Williams said. “It’s opening eyes. It’s giving me perspectives that I didn’t think I was going to need until this happened. It’s almost a second awakening for us, a great racial awakening to take positive steps forward. Over the last month, I’ve seen the steps forward, not only on our team, but within MLB and athletics in general.”
Williams is part of a book club that Bell recently started. The two of them just finished reading “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Bell said all of the books won’t be about social reform, however.
“It’s kind of like who I am as well as books that I feel like everybody should read so everybody can be on the same page in regards to not only understanding what social justice looks like, but understanding what being a good human being looks like,” Bell said. “I feel like if I promote that message, it’s not going to be going up into a conversation like this, like one side or the other, like you’re either right or you’re wrong. We’re all in this thing together.
“We’re all here. It’s July 4 right now. We’re all celebrating. This is the best nation in the world, and we have an opportunity to be even better. And that’s exciting.”