As the votes trickled in, millions of Americans held their breath. Arguably the most consequential election in recent US history took five days to be called in favor of the Democratic candidate Joe Biden and, for many people, the wait was unbearable.
While the ballots were being tallied in states from Nevada to Pennsylvania, the baseball player Bruce Maxwell was grateful for a distraction; he was in training but still paying very close attention to the news.
For Maxwell, the outcome of the 2020 Presidential election was personal and, for him, those anxious days would come to represent a conclusion of intertwining narrative arcs that were both devastating and inspiring.
Growing up in Alabama, baseball has been the story of Maxwell’s life; his dream was fulfilled when he arrived in Major League Baseball as a catcher for the Oakland A’s.
But it also led him to the darkest place that anybody could imagine, contemplating the act of suicide.
Speaking to CNN, Maxwell vividly recalled the moment when his life almost came to a premature end, a desperate hour spent alone with a gun pointing at his forehead.
“All I had to do was pull the trigger,” he said, recalling those moments of intense despair.
“I felt like I was in a never-ending hole. I couldn’t talk on the phone, I couldn’t talk to my family. I felt like my family and the people that knew me were better off without me.”
And yet, this is a man who took an historic stand in his sport, an athlete whose name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the NFL’s iconic protester Colin Kaepernick or Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the American sprinters who defied the US Olympic Committee with their infamous Black power salute in 1968.
In 2017, Maxwell became the first major league baseball player to take a knee to protest police brutality and racial injustice, but it took another three years for anyone else to follow his lead in the big leagues.
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Maxwell always knew that he was a little different.
The son of a mixed-race couple in the Deep South, he didn’t see many people that looked like him. He told CNN that baseball “is not a very popular sport among the African-American community down where I’m from.”
As he grew up, he began to notice “there were less and less of us on the field. I felt out of place.”
According to a USA Today report in August 2020, only 7.8% of the league was made up of Black players.
It may have felt uncomfortable at times, but baseball was also giving him a blueprint for life in general.
“I learned from a very early age that I love this game,” he said. “The more I worked at it, the more I fell in love with it. It taught me how to fight; it taught me how to accept and grow from failure.
“And so that has led into my life outside of baseball and just being able to conquer and to bounce back every time I get an obstacle put in my way.”
In July 2016, Maxwell made his MLB debut with the A’s, but it was the events that played out 14 months later that really changed his life.
On September 22, 2017, President Donald Trump went to Maxwell’s hometown in Huntsville, Alabama. During his address to a packed arena, Trump took aim at the NFL players who’d been kneeling during the national anthem, protesting police brutality.
To a cheering crowd, Trump said: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b*tch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
The sports world was stunned, and Maxwell took it personally.
“I went through these racial injustices when I was a kid and to hear our current president at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, where I’m from, and to see the amount of people in this city that supported him and showed him love was shell-shocking for me.”
The next day, he addressed his teammates, the staff at Oakland and the club’s ownership personnel and outlined his intentions.
“I told them what I was going to do, gave them my reasoning, how this is something for me to do, to stand up for the people that don’t have the spotlight shining on them.”
Ahead of the game against the Texas Rangers that Saturday, Maxwell took the knee. He immediately experienced a rush of conflicting emotions, “I was heavy hearted; I was nervous. I was almost kind of refreshed. I felt like there was a weight lifted off my shoulders, for hiding what’s been going on in my life and to my own people.”
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He knew there might be consequences, but he wasn’t prepared for the intensity, or the malice.
“There was a lot more in volume than I anticipated, and it was pretty remarkable, honestly.”
“I got numerous death threats for not only myself, but the rest of my family. I had people want to burn my house down, people calling me the N-word, people threatening to hang me and my family. I had a couple of people call my mom ‘N-word lover.’ I mean, you name it.”
Maxwell struggled to cope with the backlash. At the end of the season, he found himself without the support of his teammates; he was alone.
“Outside of saying ‘we support you,’ there was no substantial support. The team said: ‘It’s your choice’, we’re behind you.’ They gave me the freedom to do it, they didn’t object,” he added.
“But down the road, there was no additional support. They knew I was getting death threats, they knew I was having a rough time. There was no psychological support, nobody reached out, nobody checked in.”
CNN reached out to the A’s for comment but has not received a response to Maxwell’s assertions.
Maxwell says he became depressed and paranoid and his condition reached a nadir when he pulled a gun on a food delivery driver at his front door in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Nobody was hurt and he described it as a misunderstanding, but later that evening around a dozen police officers showed up at his door and arrested him on a felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct with a weapon.
Police bodycam footage showed him being escorted out of his residence, shirtless and barefoot. He plead guilty to the lesser charge, according to the Arizona Republic, after the state dropped the felony charge, when it agreed that Maxwell didn’t point the gun at the driver, as police originally alleged. He was sentenced to two years probation.
In the following season, Maxwell’s form deteriorated. He was cut from the Oakland team, but he still loved baseball and he wasn’t ready to walk away from the game.
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In the absence of interest from any other Major League team, his salvation came from just over the border, in Mexico.
In 2019, Maxwell lined up for Acereros de Monclova, a team that had never before won a league title.
“They believed that I could lead their team to a championship for the first time ever,” he said.
“And they believed I’d be a leader, not only for their team but their city. I respected that and I gave it a shot.”
What unfolded over the next few months reaffirmed his love of the game and breathed new life into Maxwell’s career.
“It wasn’t political. It wasn’t, you know, people trying to kill me. They just appreciated me coming down there and giving everything that I had. It was amazing for me.”
Maxwell smashed 24 home runs, leading Monclova to their first ever league championship, and in that moment of triumph, he was able to reflect on the tortured journey that had led him there.
“I’ve never been so happy before. It’s probably the best thing that I’ve ever done on the baseball field. To see my teammates, from all over the world, come together and fight for one team in one city was a beautiful and emotional thing.”
Maxwell’s success over the border caught the eye once again of MLB and in July he was signed by the New York Mets on a minor league deal.
On November 2 – the eve of the US election – he was re-signed to the Mets and invited to the major league team for spring training next year. Just a few days later, the man whose hateful rhetoric inspired Maxwell to take a knee, lost his bid to remain in the White House.
Maxwell described hearing the news that former Vice President Joe Biden had passed the threshold of 270 electoral college votes as “a good feeling, a relief. It was awesome.”
Maxwell told CNN that he felt another four years of Trump would have led to “significantly more deaths” of African American people and the possibility of martial law. He says he’d have considered staying in Mexico if Trump had won a second term.
“The result was a breath of fresh air for me and my family. Our country came out and set a record for the amount of voters in one election and I’m glad people took a stand for humanity and for the betterment of our country. Character does matter; treating people with respect does matter.”
From the global pandemic, to the worldwide protests about racial injustice and now an historic US presidential election, 2020 was a seismic year. And three years after Maxwell had taken a knee on the baseball field, other players found the courage to do the same.
Maxwell says that he understands why it took them so long, explaining how vulnerable African American players can sometimes feel in the league.
“We make up a very, very small amount in Major League Baseball, including coaches. And so it makes it very hard to speak out. We’re outnumbered in there.”
“You try to mind your P’s and Q’s, to stay in the game and keep your job and keep a good image. I just feel like people were afraid to take the same stance,” added Maxwell.
Once, he was the outlier, but now he’s grateful not to be baseball’s only protester. “Now people are realizing how big of a deal this really is. And it makes me feel happy because we’re doing something about it. Smaller or big, there is a change coming in the game that we play.”
Maxwell isn’t naïve enough to think that the world’s problems can be solved with a few more players taking a knee or even a different president in The White House.
He knows how much more work is still to be done. As he put it bluntly, “I still get these nasty looks and comments when I take my mother to dinner.”
But as he prepares to hopefully play Major League Baseball again next season, he is at least feeling more optimistic about the future. “I feel joyful about it,” he said.
“You know, I feel progressive about it, and I feel confident in the change to come.”