As 2020 continues to be one of the more externally challenging years in recent memory, it has also brought about a moment for our society to take a step back in activity and ask questions fundamental to our past, present, and future. I wanted to address the issue of race through the language I do know best: baseball.
I am a white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual dual-parented male born into a middle class family who identifies as a follower of the Christian faith. Which puts me in nearly every majority segment of the population. My role in this moment is first to listen and learn. It is not to take the slogans of Black Lives Matter and defensively shift the narrative to something that is more palatable and perhaps a little less piercing. Like taking an African-American football player protest of racial inequality/police brutality and turning it into a story about patriotism and love of country to deflect the focus of the protest. It also brings up serious questions as old as our country itself: Can we as whites accept not being the main character in the story? Can we listen to other voices? When black athletes are told to shut up and dribble when they address issues of race- I get doubtful.
Baseball – specifically the organization of Major League Baseball – would have you think that it started the civil rights movement and wrote into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . Baseball would have you think that it leads the way in racial harmony. That Jackie Robinson broke the segregation barrier for baseball and society waltzed forward, ushering in equality for all and tearing down walls of discrimination. Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day on April 11th every year – the day Jackie debuted in 1947 – and ALL players wear number 42 which is retired for every MLB team to illustrate just how perfect the world they helped create has become.
Baseball often goes a bit too far.
As a nation right now we are talking about systemic racism, justice, injustice, wealth inequality, police brutality, looters, protestors, and white privilege. The nation is shouting in the streets, and we must listen:
Black Lives Matter.
Defund the Police.
I Can’t Breathe.
Say Their Names.
At times – sports can guide us in times of unrest or provide models that go beyond words- yet this current conversation about race is contemporaneous with another life altering event with the COVID-19 pandemic. The normal distraction of sports is not here and so we are left to chase words and ideas that we know but don’t always like to acknowledge. To engage in the uncomfortable and the intangible. To listen, to learn, to think.
I do know this: baseball’s conversation about race often starts and stops with #42. The story does not start and end there.
“This is what some rhetoric about Robinson and interracial democracy brazenly misses. Even if Robinson’s heroics in the stadium pushed baseball fans to rethink their racial attitudes, even if Ebbets Field became a crucible of integration, very little of that feeling spilled over into the city—or country—at large.” Zocal Public Square
Jackie Robinson playing Major League Baseball was a big deal – but it was not the end of racial segregation, and for some became a distraction. Where the Jackie Robinson story strays off course is in the idea of individualism and meritocracy. This idea is a deeply engrained idea in the American ethos, from the pilgrims who first landed here in 1619 to the John O’Sullivan led idea of Manifest Destiny – that in America if you work hard enough, you can succeed. This idea is rooted in racial undertones and often is used to hide systems of racism.
In White Fragility, Robin Diangelo writes that “Individualism claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character…that we are each unique and stand apart from others, even those within our social groups.”. So individualism becomes a shield to hide racism with the idea that if African Americans could just do the work they would be successful – ignoring the reality that many African Americans simply don’t start at the same point. In our effort to be color blind we fail to acknowledge real differences of circumstance that have far reaching consequences.
This concept affects our thinking of Jackie Robinson this way as noted by Diangelo:
“The subtext is that Robinson finally had what it took to play with whites, as if no black athlete before him was strong enough to compete at that level.”
Jackie Robinson is rightly honored as an incredible baseball player and person, but the danger remains that his elevation takes away from other African American players who were not given the chance to play in Major League Baseball before him. That Jackie was able to rise above his circumstances where others were not. This is an idea all too often seen on a larger scale in our society. It fails to respect the additional challenges facing many African Americans in specific fields that their white counterparts do not have. If the narrative is affirmed that African Americans who do succeed in white dominated career fields are “so exceptional”, it actually gives a counter-message that those who don’t aren’t good enough. In reality access is limited to the same opportunities.
Was Jackie Robinson the first, best player to arise from the Negro Leagues? Hardly.
History certainly proves out that the talent in the Negro Leagues was equal to or higher than much of the play in Major League Baseball. From the time Jackie Robinson broke into the National League in 1947 through 1969 of the 23 MVP winners, 16 were African American. The winner of that 1959 NL MVP Award was Hank Aaron, who in 1974 would pass the great Babe Ruth as baseball’s all time home run king. Satchel Paige played 30 total seasons in professional baseball, but wasn’t allowed to come to Major League Baseball until 1948 at age 41. He came back from 1951-53 at age 44-46 and even made two All Star Teams. For good measure he came back ten plus years later at 58 years old for one start where he tossed 3 innings, allowed one hit and no runs! MLB has righted some wrongs of the segregation era by inducting 35 players from the Negro Leagues into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
“Narratives of racial exceptionality obscure the reality of ongoing institutional white control while reinforcing the ideologies of individualism and meritocracy.” – White Fragility
As we continue to wrestle with racism in our society today, we must understand institutional racism and move the conversation from defensiveness to action. Often when confronted the idea of racism – white people can get defensive by the word and not acknowledge that many African Americans are born into situations with less opportunity. The reason we talk about institutional racism is because in the case of African Americans in baseball – they did not have the opportunity to control their fate in baseball. Had Jackie walked onto the field before 1947, he would have been arrested. Humbling ourselves(as whites) to acknowledge our mistakes in the present and those of our forefathers is a starting point for moving towards making actual change.
We like to think we are beyond the open racism of the past, but we are not. As John Perkins writes, “Change works more like an old oak tree in the spring, when the new life inside pushes off the old dead leaves that still hang on.”. It can be slow, gradual change, and does not end simply with legislation.
When Hank Aaron did pass Babe Ruth in 1974 for the all time home run record, he was attacked with racists taunts, death threats and hate mail along the way. Aaron says he kept the hate mail because “because they remind me not to be surprised or hurt. They remind me what people are really like.” In 1975, the year after he broke the record, MLB saw its highest percentage of African American participation at 18.5%. That number has dwindled to 7.7% at the start of 2019. Just this week former player Torii Hunter talked about why he always had no trade clauses to Boston in his contract because of the racist jeers he received. In a change of history – the Red Sox this time acknowledged it as a major problem.
Baseball is a living example that success at one point does not guarantee future success. This movement has been going on for centuries. It does not change overnight, just like Jackie Robinson integrating the Dodgers didn’t simply end racism in baseball. We are still talking about it nearly 75 years later. By understanding the forces of racism that are perpetuated generationally we can begin to make changes that can make a difference. An area we can look for future indicators is in leadership. In that area, baseball and most professional sports in America have a long way to go. Baseball is still well behind on managers in the dugout, General Manager jobs, and certainly in ownership. The Cubs Theo Epstein addressed this recently: “If I’m being honest, have similar backgrounds as me and look a lot like me…At this moment in time, silence is complicity, and it’s important that all of our voices are heard.”.
This current time is calling for change – and change can be only started when we know where we really are. Jackie Robinson was one actor in a long line who stepped onto the stage and achieved success and fame. Robinson himself acknowledged both those before him and those would come after him when he said: “The many of us who attain what we may and forget those who help us along the line have got to remember that there are so many others to pull along the way. The farther they go, the further we all go.”
That line gives us hope. The farther they go, the further we all go. We all have a responsibility to grow, to learn, to push, to protest, to speak, to listen. We do so by letting go of pride, greed, and selfishness and looking to help all people around us. This way of living is certainly traits that Jackie Robinson exhibited, perhaps greater than any on-field accomplishment.
Black Lives Matter is about realizing that the work isn’t done. That the role race plays implicitly and explicitly in our thinking is often manifested in police officers who hold a role in society where violence is allowable, but the question of when and how to use that violent power is unclear at best.
To call the job complete would deny the work yet to be done in understanding the past and how it continues to mold the present as we work to shape our future. Working with inner-city youths through the R.B.I. program, providing equipment and uniforms to those who need it and helping lessen the financial inequity, and the Hank Aaron Invitational Camp are just a few examples that give hope to the future in providing access for future African American baseball stars.
Celebrate #42? Yes. Don’t Stop There.