WASHINGTON — The 200-yard black cloth stretched along the foul lines, starting at one edge of the outfield, wrapping around home plate and extending to the other side of the diamond. It was held by coaches and players from both the Washington Nationals and the Yankees, all spaced out, as a message recorded by the actor Morgan Freeman played over the stadium speakers.
Then they all took a knee for 60 seconds of silence — an idea agreed upon by the Yankees in a team meeting the night before Thursday’s season opener and then shared with the Nationals. For the national anthem, both sides stood again.
Before the recorded message and the kneeling, a Black Lives Matter video produced by the Players Alliance — a new nonprofit comprising 150 current and former Black baseball players — and featuring several of baseball’s biggest stars was played on the stadium’s video board.
This was not the N.B.A., or the W.N.B.A. or the N.F.L., where players have been demonstrating before and during the national anthem for years. But what happened on opening night Thursday was notable for Major League Baseball, a league that has been slow to address social issues publicly, compared to many of their counterparts.
The demonstrations drew a rebuke on Friday morning from Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and President Trump’s personal lawyer, who tweeted: “All those ball players, including the Yankees, taking a knee during the National Anthem of the country that made them millionaires is hypocritical. Support for BLM, which is provoking attacks on our law enforcement and innocent people all over America, is disgraceful.”
Those comments, which incorrectly said the Yankees kneeled during the anthem and mischaracterized largely peaceful protests, were countered by Yankees President Randy Levine, who worked under Giuliani during his mayoralty.
“Rudy got it absolutely wrong,” Levine said in an interview. “The display of unity that was done last evening by our players and players across the league was beautiful, respectful and dignified. To me, it showed unity and the desire for a better world, social justice and enlightenment. I didn’t — and nobody should — take that as being disrespectful of anyone, including law enforcement.”
The idea for the cloth and the moment of unity at Nationals Park came from Andrew McCutchen, a veteran outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies, and was organized by players without M.L.B.’s involvement, according to a statement. They came to M.L.B. to finalize the efforts, and similar cloths were sent to the 14 other stadiums that hosted games on Thursday and Friday.
“This moment is important for all M.L.B. players to unite and show support for one another as we begin the 2020 baseball season,” McCutchen said in a statement.
He added: “No matter where we are from we are all facing battles for social justice and equality, the concerns of keeping our families and communities safe during times of a global pandemic, and facing the same challenges with the return to baseball.”
In the second game of opening night, all Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants players — except Giants pitcher Sam Coonrod — held a similar demonstration. But the Dodgers star Mookie Betts and several Giants knelt during the anthem, too.
Betts, who once said in 2016 that he would always stand for the anthem because his father served in the Air Force, told reporters after Thursday’s game that he didn’t originally understand what kneeling meant.
“Kneeling has nothing to do with those who served our country,” he said. “Kneeling is for the injustice.”
In its own statement, M.L.B. said it had an “open and constructive dialogue” with the Players Alliance, individual players and the players’ union about how players could show their support for social justice causes as the league began play after a four-month delay.
M.L.B. provided shirts that said “Black Lives Matter” across the front for players to wear during batting practice. They also gave players the option to wear a patch on their jerseys that read “Black Lives Matter” or “United for Change.” The Yankees wore both on Thursday.
Teams were allowed to put a “BLM” stencil on the mound at their home ballparks, which the Nationals and Dodgers did. The league also lifted restrictions for the season to allow players to decorate their cleats with “social justice messages and causes.”
While such coordinated public gestures from brands and sports leagues have become increasingly common in recent months, the demonstrations on Thursday represented a stark departure from the norm for M.L.B.
Players in the N.B.A., W.N.B.A. and the N.F.L. participated in a wave of demonstrations in 2016, but until Thursday only one M.L.B. player, Bruce Maxwell, then a rookie catcher for the Oakland Athletics, had knelt during the national anthem before a regular-season game, in 2017. Maxwell, who played professionally in Mexico last year, has said since he did not feel supported in his decision.
After Thursday’s game, Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton said his teammates appreciated that the moment of unity was player-driven. He added that the players chose to kneel before the anthem, rather than during it like the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began doing so during the 2016 season to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality. Stanton said he also knelt for racial injustice, but his teammates were entitled to do so for “any overall reason.”
Added Aaron Judge, another star outfielder for the Yankees: “We got a lot of guys in this clubhouse with different beliefs, different feelings, different walks of life and they’re from different countries. We wanted to respect all of that. As a team, we made a united decision to kneel right before the anthem. We wanted something to include everybody.”
Judge said that when Maxwell first knelt, the players “just didn’t have the support yet” and weren’t unified.
But lately, Judge said, players had been talking with each other more than ever about their experiences and the difficult topics of the day.
“It starts with us and starts with the team,” he said. “And once we’re able to get that message out as a team and have those talks as a team, we can take it to the league. I don’t have all the answers now, but I like where we’re going with this.”
After George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis in May, it took nine days for M.L.B. to release its first public statement, making it the last of the major four Northern American sports leagues to do so. Betts, the game’s most prominent Black player, has said the league “did not do a good job” in its response.
But since then, M.L.B. has announced other initiatives, including donating to the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund and launching a new web page to fuel the conversation on social justice. Earlier this week, M.L.B.’s official Twitter account wrote messages in support of players and a manager who kneeled during the national anthem before an exhibition game.
“M.L.B. recognizes more needs to be done,” the league said in a statement on Thursday. “M.L.B. will continue to listen to the Black community.”
During an exhibition game in Oakland, Calif., this week, Gabe Kapler of the San Francisco Giants became the first manager in M.L.B. to take a knee during the national anthem.
He was joined by two of his coaches — Antoan Richardson and Justin Viele — and three of his players — Jaylin Davis, the lone African-American player on the Giants’ 40-man roster; and Austin Slater and Mike Yastrzemski. The following day, players Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval and Mauricio Dubón did the same. Los Angeles Angels pitcher Keynan Middleton also knelt before an exhibition game this week.
Following those actions, President Trump — who said on Thursday he had been invited by Levine to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a Yankees game in August — once again voiced his contempt for professional athletes demonstrating during the national anthem.
“Looking forward to live sports, but any time I witness a player kneeling during the National Anthem, a sign of great disrespect for our Country and our Flag, the game is over for me!,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.
In a tweet of his own, Kapler said he did not believe it was disrespectful to exercise the right to peacefully protest. “I kneel because I’m unhappy with the injustice in our country,” Kapler wrote. He kneeled again during the anthem Thursday.