What is the greatest moment in sports history?
If you’re thinking of a specific play or a great game, you’re not thinking big enough. Perhaps I should rephrase the question: “what is the most meaningful moment in sports history?” For that, I’d say we would have to go back to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1947, during Brooklyn Dodgers infield practice. It was here when Pee Wee Reese stopped the drills to walk across the field and put his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulders. The simple gesture was monumental: a white man standing in support of baseball’s only black player against the oppression he was facing that very moment, and every other day of his life. Many who are aware of the event have called it the finest moment in American sports (Kahn, 2001, p. 40). A statue of the embrace sits outside MCU Park in Brooklyn, NY, intended to serve as “an inspiration to visitors, especially children”. Today, however, I believe this statue and its significance should serve as an inspiration to every member of society, sports fan or not.
Anthem kneeling, the latest social protest in sports led by football’s Colin Kaepernick, has been the topic of many newsrooms, classrooms, and living rooms for the better part of three months now. It’s a protest against the violence and injustice towards people of colour in the United States, alluding to the large issue of systemic racism in American society. The silent but powerful movement swiftly spread across a number of sports and leagues, both professional and amateur, but has managed to evade Major League Baseball.
In September, Baltimore Orioles All Star Adam Jones spoke to that fact:
“We already have two strikes against us already, so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game. In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us. Baseball is a white man’s sport.”
This statement is loaded with social implications that I will address in three distinct parts in order to analyze the complex nature of race relations in America. Why is baseball seen as a “white man’s sport” and how does that impact the players involved? In other words, why is a black baseball player’s voice silenced or less relevant than a black football player’s when it comes to open protests? The comments also force us to look at what the future holds for athlete activists in a society where racism manifests itself in both visible and covert forms.
The rhetoric surrounding baseball has always been highly romanticized—it is, after all, America’s National Pastime. As the first professional sport to allow an African American player to pass through its ivory gates, baseball has been viewed as “democracy in action” (Elias, 2001, p. 10). To this day, baseball is held up as a “cultural mirror”: a reflection of U.S. society, providing a revealing metaphor for America as a nation, its values and ideals (Elias, 2001, p. 7-8; Smith & Leonard II, 1997, p. 327). To some, Jackie Robinson’s legacy is reflected in the fact that Major League Baseball boasts players from a range of ethnicities, and therefore “demonstrates the racial and ethnic mobility that occurs in an egalitarian, opportunity society both for immigrants and natives alike” (Elias, 2001, p. 11). To look deeper into issues of race in the game of baseball, however, is to reveal a number of unsettling truths about race relations in American society. The anthem protests provide a perfect example: if athletes across America have joined in this public protest, then how can baseball—the first sport to break through the barrier of race—remain silent?
“Baseball is a white man’s sport”
The first step in unpacking Jones’ comments is to start with the root of his argument: why is baseball a white man’s sport? Here, we see a contrast between the democratic ideology of baseball and the reality of American society. In 1947, Jackie Robinson opened the door to desegregation in baseball. However, after 1981 the percentage of African American ballplayers began to drop dramatically in Major League Baseball (Wiggins, 2014, p. 190). Today, about 60% of players are white, while African Americans represent just 8% of players in the MLB.
Perhaps the simplest explanation is that African Americans don’t choose baseball from an early age due to the financial costs. Compared to football and basketball, baseball has a relatively more expensive skill and development cost. But it’s not enough to simply look at who is on the field—to understand the full nature of baseball’s demographics, we must also pay attention to where players are on the field. Even if young African Americans can afford to pursue baseball enough to become a professional player, they deal with further inequalities on the field thanks to “stacking”: the practice of placing black athletes in certain positions while denying them access to others (Smith & Leonard II, 1997, p. 323). Marshall Medof (2004) found that black players are underrepresented at “central positions” in baseball, where greater amounts of leadership, decision making, and control over the outcome of games are assigned (p. 89). From 1965-2012, 60% black professional baseball players were in the outfield, a non-central position, while white players made up the vast majority of pitchers, catchers, and middle infielders, all central positions. Ultimately, the historical persistence of stacking as well as the economic disadvantage faced by African Americans both reflect structural discrimination in American society. The consequences of many African Americans’ lower socioeconomic status proves to be a massive hurdle towards their increased participation and leadership in the game of baseball (Volz, 2013, p. 48; Smith & Leonard II, 322).
But baseball’s representational issues with race do not end here. Off the field, racial inequality is even more prevalent in the demographics of managers. It’s worth noting that since 1975, 82% of Major League managers have been former players (Volz, 2013, p. 33); and it turns out, there is a correlation between what position a player played and their chances of managing a Major League team. Brian Volz (2013) measured a variety of factors and found that black players are over 74% less likely to become a Major League manager than white players, primarily due to the fact that white players occupy the majority of central positions and are therefore assumed to have greater leadership, authority, and better decision making skills. These findings show that “any racial segregation by position will impact the racial composition of future managers” (Volz, 2013, p. 48). In fact, 16 of the 24 managers from last season who were former players have two things in common: they’re white, and they played either catcher (11) or shortstop (5) during their career. The two black managers were both former outfielders.
Whether it’s central positions on the field or management positions off of it, for African Americans, the path to positions of power in America’s National Pastime is marred by a long line of structural inequalities. These inequalities between white and black players can be closely compared to the racial inequality of everyday life in America:
“The only real differences between societal discrimination that does not allow African Americans equal access to housing and that which confines African-American baseball players to specific positions is the arena where this drama is played out.” (Smith & Leonard II, 1997, p. 329)
Answering the question of why baseball is a “white man’s sport” involves taking a holistic view of race relations in America. The promise of the “American Dream” has gone relatively unchanged, where dedication and hard work guarantees individual mobility and success (Elias, 2001, p. 5). Unfortunately, far too many people believe in the fairytale that baseball is a diverse arena where everybody has equal opportunity to succeed. In this narrative, sport often exists as a vehicle that can take an African American boy away from a life of poverty and crime and towards equality (Wiggins, 2014, p. 195); and while this has proven to be the case for a select few, the reality is that there are far more opportunities for African Americans to achieve success or social mobility in sports like basketball or football. In a world where the poor are getting poorer (King, 2008, p. 338), the lower socioeconomic status of many African Americans serves as a precondition to pursuing sports in the first place, and in many communities across America, baseball is simply not an option.
Minorities have accounted for approximately 40% of major league players over the past decade (Volz, 2013, p. 31), and for most people that’s enough to say that race relations in both baseball and America are healthy. But if baseball is a “cultural mirror”, how do we explain the fact that 8% of its players are black in a country where 13.1% of the population is black? The answer is perhaps best articulated by John Thorn, who illustrates baseball’s flawed association with the “American Dream”:
“The lie of baseball is that it’s a level playing field. That there’s equality. That all the inequalities in American life check their hat at the door. That they don’t go into the stadium. That once you’re there, there’s a sort of bleacher democracy, that the banker can sit in the bleachers and converse with the working man next to him. This is a falsehood. You have class and race issues that mirror the struggle of American life, playing themselves out on the ballfields.” (Elias, 2001, p. 17)
Jackie Robinson’s legacy was an important first step in the civil rights movement, but integration only goes so far. Conversations about race in baseball have adopted a colour-blind perspective that ignores systemic racism and inequality (Hylton & Lawrence, 2015, p. 767). Baseball’s rhetoric of acceptance is designed to ignore race, but in doing so, baseball constitutes an indirect defence of the status quo, masking the systemic power imbalances between white and black participants (Glover, 2007, p. 205). When we look closely at who is on the field, where they are playing, who is managing those players, and who owns the teams, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that baseball and American society in general have learned anything from Jackie Robinson’s legacy.
“You might as well not kick yourself out of the game”
The implications of racial representation are important in their own, but we need to consider another question: what could life hold today for a black activist in a white man’s sport? Adam Jones believes that to protest against racial inequalities as a black baseball player is essentially a suicide mission. Is he right? Probably not. But he recognizes the reality of the harsh backlash that athlete activists often receive, especially when athletes become involved in progressive social and political causes (Kaufman, 2008, p. 216). And when you have black athlete activists in a sport dominated by white men, it’s like putting those risks on steroids (pun intended). Again, we see how baseball acts as a “cultural mirror”: the fear of open protest and potential for violent backlash that exists in the streets and communities of America is reflected on every baseball diamond.
This issue raises another crucial point about the state of race relations in American sports which is the need for white athletes to legitimate the protests of black players. In September, African American defensive end Michael Bennett of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks addressed this:
“You need a white guy to join the fight. The white guy is super important to the fight. For people to really see social injustices, there must be someone from the other side of the race who recognizes the problem, because a lot of times if just one race says there’s a problem, nobody is realistic about it.”
Now, if this is the case in football, imagine the implications it holds for baseball. Bennett’s comment brings racial inequality and white supremacy together in a very eye-opening way. The unfortunate reality, but one that is hardly surprising, is that protests made by black athletes have little if any real salience if they are not visibly supported by white athletes. If you think that this is somehow a new phenomenon, remember that Jackie Robinson needed Pee Wee Reese to put his arm around his shoulder to legitimate his integration into professional baseball.
There have been white athletes today who have joined the protest: Megan Rapinoe was one of the earliest visual supporters. But so far, America’s dominant social class—the white heterosexual male—has completely remained absent. Is it realistic to expect this to change in a sport like baseball, where notions of integration overlook and perpetuate inequality and white supremacy? While players might not be kicked out of the league as Adam Jones suggests, his point is accurate enough: it is difficult to imagine that a sport with such obvious racial dichotomies would jump to the support of black athletes in their stand against racial inequality.
“In baseball, they don’t need us”
This last part of Jones’ comment is perhaps the most troubling and most crucial. It is also a statement that could not be further from the truth.
If we buy into baseball reflecting the values of America, then accepting the idea that baseball doesn’t need black athletes is essentially giving up on fighting racism altogether. Jackie Robinson’s legacy was a political victory brought about by his own social protest, at a terrible personal cost, which caused the nature of society came under scrutiny (Dreier, 2001, p. 47; Kahn, 2001, p. 40). If black athletes need to be reminded of anything today, it is this:
“Jackie Robinson’s willingness to speak out against exploitation and bigotry suggests that he would be dismayed by the failure of baseball’s high-salaried ballplayers, whatever their race, to engage in today’s political and social struggles” (Dreier, 2001, p. 56)
For black baseball players to remain silent in the face of racial inequality and injustice is to completely disregard the process that it took to allow them to reach the Major Leagues in the first place. Robinson’s actions on and off the diamond helped pave the way for America to confront its racial hypocrisy (Dreier, 2001, p. 48). He also gave black Americans a tremendous boost of pride and self-confidence (Ibid.). These outcomes still represent the power of an activist leader today, one that is sorely needed in the sport of baseball once again.
Adam Jones is well aware of this. Last year, violent racial protests in Baltimore caused public access into Camden Yards to be blocked, resulting in the first ever MLB game played in front of zero fans. Adam Jones later addressed the situation by showing his support for the protesters. Dave Zirin wrote this in response:
“The words of Adam Jones have the power to not only resonate with Baltimore protesters but to reach those Orioles fans who are hard-wired to hate them. The power of his words is rooted in the fact that Adam Jones actually ‘sees’ the young people who are self-organizing against police violence and poverty. In this climate, just ‘seeing’ them and granting them their inalienable humanity is in itself a radical act.”
This is precisely the reason America needs black baseball players to stand, or kneel, in support of those fighting against racial violence and inequality. While the power to legitimate black social movements continues to rest in the hands of the white population, black athletes hold the crucial power to render these movements visible, act as cultural symbols for their support, and eventually, as Jackie Robinson first demonstrated, force us to look at the nature of society, suggest avenues for change, and move closer to our ideals (Dreier, 2001, p. 56).
The recent election results have thrown a new element into this discussion. Many believe that with Donald Trump as President, racism will proliferate in America. It’s a hard argument to refute, but only provides more reason for black athletes to stand as social activists in the face of racial inequality. NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently wrote that, for African Americans, “America just got a little more threatening…a lot less hopeful. We feel like disposable extras, the nameless bodies who are never part of the main cast.” These words mirror parts of Adam Jones’ statement, that baseball doesn’t need black athletes.
Dave Zirin recently interviewed sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, who has advised athlete activists such as Muhammed Ali and Colin Kaepernick. When asked how a Trump presidency will impact athlete protests against racism, Dr. Edwards stated that it’s only going to accelerate them, not kill them.
“This thing is going to ricochet throughout sports and I think that athletes will respond. I think we’re looking at an escalation in terms of athlete responses to this systematic racism and most certainly to the misogynistic racist that a majority white population has put into the White House.”
Dr. Edwards sees hope for the success of these protests in creating change in America because, under the circumstances that African Americans are presented with today, there is no choice other than to stand up against the injustice and racial violence. It is now and in the coming years when black athlete activists will be needed more so than ever to become symbols for the larger black community and society in general, to communicate that “we have an obligation at every level to organize, to mobilize, to establish coalitions to fight this madness”.
“We already have two strikes against us”
To tie this all back to the “cultural mirror” metaphor I have been using, many have written that fixing baseball’s shortcomings can enrich and even rescue American society (Elias, 2001, p. 24). Robinson, Ali, and other athletes of the past have taught us that irrespective of the personal and individual cost, we need athlete activists to serve as symbols for the rest of society, reflecting the need stand in opposition to a society that perpetuates inequality. The MLB has supported initiatives that exist to promote baseball in some of America’s disadvantaged communities so that baseball can become a more attainable and affordable sport for African Americans to pursue. This addresses part of the problem, but we need to make sure that baseball is not just an escape from lower socioeconomic status, but also a platform for black athletes to promote racial equality and justice.
For now, Adam Jones believes that the risks for black athlete activists in the game of baseball are too great to kneel during the national anthem—that black players already have “two strikes” against them. I think a fitting counter argument to this assessment, or simply a reminder to all black athletes wrestling with this same issue, is a quote by baseball legend Babe Ruth:
“Don’t let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.”
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Elias, R. (2001). Baseball and the American dream: Race, class, gender, and the national pastime. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
Glover, T. D. (2007). Ugly on the diamonds: An examination of white privilege in youth baseball. Leisure Sciences, 29(2), 195–208. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/doi/full/10.1080/01490400601160895?scroll=top&needAccess=true
Hylton, K., & Lawrence, S. (2014). Reading Ronaldo: Contingent whiteness in the football media. Soccer & Society, 16(5-6), 765–782. doi:10.1080/14660970.2014.963310
Kahn, R. (2001). The greatest game: From Jackie Robinson to Sammy Sosa. In R. Elias (Ed.), Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, Gender, and the National Pastime (pp. 37-42). Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
Kaufman, P. (2008). Boos, bans, and other backlash: The consequences of being an activist athlete. Humanity and Society, 32(3), 215-237. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/docview/61787562?accountid=13800
King, C. R. (2008). Toward a radical sport journalism: An interview with Dave Zirin. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 32(4), 333-344. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1177/0193723508323716
Medoff, M. H. (2004). Revisiting the economic hypothesis and positional segregation. The Review of Black Political Economy, 32(1), 83-95. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/docview/60506346?accountid=13800
Smith, E., & Leonard,Wilbert M.,, II. (1997). Twenty-five years of stacking research in Major League Baseball: An attempt at explaining this re-occurring phenomenon. Sociological Focus, 30(4), 321-331. Retrieved from http://proxy.lib.sfu.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/docview/61566719?accountid=13800
Volz, B. D. (2013). Race and the likelihood of managing in Major League baseball. Journal of Labor Research, 34(1), 30-51. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1007/s12122-012-9153-x
Wiggins, D. K. (2014). ‘Black athletes in white men’s games’: Race, sport and American national pastimes. International Journal of the History of Sport, 31(1-2), 181-202. doi:http://dx.doi.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1080/09523367.2013.857313