C.C. Sabathia Is Kicking Off Retirement By Celebrating Baseball’s Negro Leagues

It didn’t take much for C.C. Sabathia to get used to retired life. The former Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers, and New York Yankees ace called it a career at the conclusion of the 2019 season, although for the last few years, Sabathia has had a pretty good idea of how life after baseball would go.

“I told everybody, really like two or three years ago, that I’m going to be really good at retirement,” the 2007 AL Cy Young winner told Uproxx Sports over the phone.

It certainly helps that his first foray into retired life is still within the world of baseball. Sabathia will serve as the creative director for a line of clothing that looks to pay tribute to the Negro Leagues in celebration of its 100th anniversary, along with the Black individuals who played such an important role in integrating the game. The initiative is the creation of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and the lifestyle brand Roots of Fight.

“Preserving the legacy of the Negro Leagues’ contributions to baseball is vital to growing our game’s diversity and popularity,” MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark said in a statement. “This partnership will help bring to life the spirit of these great players for a new generation of players and fans.”

While Sabathia was on his way to Yankee Stadium a little earlier this week, Uproxx Sports caught up with him to discuss the line, the role he hopes this plays in celebrating the Black individuals who are such an important part of baseball’s history, life in retirement, and getting to check out the Yankees during the team’s first televised intrasquad scrimmage.

How have you been keeping occupied the last couple of months, even beyond this being the first year where you’ve been retired from baseball?

Yeah, man. I told everybody, really like two or three years ago, that I’m going to be really good at retirement. I’m good just being in the house, being around the house, being with the kids. I traveled and played, really, all of my 20s and 30s, so being able to just kick back and hang with my family is a blessing, and it has been a lot of fun.

And actually, going through COVID and this quarantine and stuff, it was horrible for the country and we’re still going through it, but for us as a family, just getting that quarantine time, having all four of my kids in the house, there’s no school, there’s no extra activities. It’s just us kind of hanging out, being able to reconnect with them — was kind of a blessing in disguise for me, just getting back reintegrating with the family, if that makes sense.

No, for sure. I’m glad to hear it’s all going well and I’m glad to see that you have something really cool in the pipeline. Can you give me the backstory behind this line of gear that’s coming out — how it came about and when you came on board as creative director?

Yeah. So Tony Clark and I have a really close relationship, and we had been talking back and forth about wanting to do something special for the 100th year of the Negro Leagues. I think every Black player that has played in the league goes through Kansas City and goes to that museum, especially the guys that got to play at a time when Buck O’Neil was still around. And he would come to BP in Kansas City and introduce himself, and tell us stories about the Negro Leagues and just inform us about the museum and all of that stuff. So, really since 2001, I’ve been a huge fan of the museum and really had a good relationship with Buck, and been taking players there ever since. Every time I go into Kansas City, I take a trip to the museum. I try to take a couple of young guys and it’s just been my thing.

So, talking to Tony, we wanted to come up with something really cool. And immediately, I thought about Roots of Fight. I know [Roots of Fight co-founder] Jesse [Katz] and those guys, they tell great stories. I love the clothing that they do, the actual material of the clothing is incredible. And I knew that they tell really, really dope stories. So, I immediately just told Tony, I think this is the company we should go with and we just went from there.

So what became your stated goal when you decided to be a part of this project?

Roots of Fight

Just to bring awareness, you know what I mean? And tell the cool stories through this clothing line. I don’t think a lot of people really know about the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, how nice it is, and how it could be a destination. And hopefully, people inquiring about the clothes, and seeing that it’s the 100th year, and seeing all the guys behind it, will bring a lot more awareness and get people educated and going through Kansas City to check out the museum.

Do you have a favorite piece of gear in the line, or is it one of those things where you just can’t pick one? Because like I said, it is a really, really nice line that you guys got coming out.

Yeah, I honestly cannot pick one. I’m wearing the “They Played For Us” shirt right now. I’m headed into the stadium right now and I have that shirt on. But I’ve been rocking this stuff every day, man. So, I can’t really pick one thing. They did such a great job with all of it. I’m just happy the way it all came out and I think people are going to be very happy with us just getting started with this.

How important is it to constantly reinforce the role that the Negro Leagues, that players like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, etc., played in getting baseball to where it is today, both in general and as Major League Baseball is going through this moment where we’ve seen a decrease in the percentage of black players that are in the sport?

The slogan is actually, “They Played For Us.” It just came about just because, just thinking about those guys, what they sacrificed and starting their own league, and really playing amongst themselves and making it a league and making it this huge thing, and getting the game integrated, and letting the country know that we can play baseball. I wouldn’t be where I’m at today, none of us would be. So I think it’s just paying homage to those guys that — not just the Jackie Robinsons, obviously we know what he went through to be able to play Major League Baseball, but the Satchel Paiges, the Josh Gibsons, Cool Papa Bell, the guy that never really got their due. It’ll be cool to tell their stories and bring awareness to those guys.

So, it’s a direct effect, it’s a direct correlation. Those guys played baseball at a high level, they played so we can. And that was kind of the thinking behind it. It’s really simple, to be honest, and it’s easy for people to get behind because, like I said, there would be no Frank Thomas, there would be no Bo Jackson, you know what I mean? Ken Griffey Jr. It’s a bunch of different guys that wouldn’t have had a chance to display their talent had these guys in the Negro Leagues not done what they did.

This is the latest initiative that we’ve seen in celebrating the role that the Jackie Robinsons, the Cool Papa Bells, the Satchel Paiges and the Negro Leagues as a whole have played in baseball’s history. What impact do you hope this all has in this larger quest to reinforce how vital these individuals were in the game’s really rich history?

Yeah. It’s huge. And like you said in the last question, the numbers are going down, and it’s up to my generation of players to get back into inner city and get these Black kids back playing baseball. But it’s going to take for us to tell these cool stories about Satchel Paige warming up in the bullpen and Cool Papa Bell, and how we are huge figures in the game, and have been for a long time.

So, getting together with this players alliance that we formed, all the guys that we have in it. A hundred years later, after the Negro Leagues formed, we’re still fighting for some of the same things. So, it’s good to have the connection with all the guys that I have in the big leagues now.

So do want to toss a few baseball questions your way. I think I know the answer to this, but how quick did it take for retirement to set in? Was it a thing where, once you were done, you were like, “okay, whatever,” or are you still kind of processing that this is your first year without baseball since you were what, four or five years old?

Roots of Fight

No, if I had to say to somebody, do I miss it? I don’t miss it at all. I’m actually heading down in there now. So, I still get a chance to be around and hang out, but my time had passed as far as playing, I was way out of my prime, talent-wise. So, it just feels good to be able to still have the connection with the guys, and be able to go down there and hang out, and not have to actually pitch. So, that’s a lot of fun. Right after we lost in the ALCS to the Astros, I remember, I flew home, and my family was in Houston still. And I got home and I was the only one here by myself and I kind of just broke down. It was like a moment to myself, like, it’s over. And, I just got a chance to cry it all out, let it go. And then like 15 minutes later, I was good.

There you go. So is it one of those things where former teammates who have since retired are like, “We don’t need to give C.C. advice on retirement,” or do you have guys who were saying like, “This is what life is like now that you’re not preparing and dedicating 365 days a year to playing baseball”?

Oh no, I’m still always talking to the guys. I’m always talking to Andy [Pettitte]. I talk to Derek [Jeter] a lot. But me and Andy have a lot in common as far as family wise and things that we like to do. So I’ve been talking with him a long time. And like I said, amongst my friend, my circle, everybody knows that I’m going to be a good retired player. I’m pretty lazy, so I don’t need much to get going. So, just hanging around the family and doing simple things would be fine with me, I’m excited to just kind of do that.

I have to ask a few Yankee questions. First off, just how was it getting to be at the scrimmage last night and watching what was essentially a spring training game on July 6?

Yeah, it was crazy, man. Having the chance to be down there and watch those guys play, after everything that’s been going on. I know a lot of those guys were excited just to get back out there. But it was cool seeing baseball. Obviously, it’s been a rough summer for us. It’s July 7 and they haven’t played one game yet. That’s an unusual thing for a baseball fan, so being able to have baseball back at Yankee Stadium — when I pulled up last night, the lights were on at the stadium and it just looked cool driving in. So it was exciting. Hopefully we can just continue to keep being safe, do this thing right, and hopefully get a season off.

Yeah, obviously not a full live intense game, but just in what you got to see, how do you think the team looked?

I thought it was good. I don’t know if you watched, but Clarke Schmidt is going to be really good, so that was fun to watch. Watching J.A. Happ, I know he worked really, really, really hard this offseason to come back and be ready, so to see him be sharp as he was yesterday — I think we scored one run in the entire game. So, that just goes to show how good our pitching is, because our lineup is probably the best in the big leagues.

And then my last question, you know this as well as anyone, the expectations are always sky high in the Bronx. You’re still around the team, do you get the sense that even with everything that has gone on, the guys in the locker room are still as laser-focused as you have to be when the bar is win the World Series?

Let me tell you something, if a baseball season starts and the Yankees are playing baseball, every player on that team knows what’s at stake. Every time a pitch is thrown, every time it’s opening day and a pitch is thrown, all we’re thinking about is trying to win a World Series. That’s always the ultimate goal. So, no matter whether it’s a COVID shortened season, a strike shortened season, whatever, if they play baseball, every player in that locker room will be laser focused and ready to go, to try to win a championship. And, that’s the only reason you play in New York.