I am a baseball fan. That will come as no surprise to many of you. My heroes are Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, JR Richard, Bob Gibson, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Andre Dawson, Jim Rice, Dale Murphy, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Mark Wohlers (the last because he was the only Democratic ballplayer I knew during the 2000s). Seven of those 12 names were black players. I mean, black, as in African-American, not Latino-American.
I went to a late-season Braves-Marlins game, and I was talking to a friend. She mentioned that she liked Garrett Anderson; I don’t. I think Garrett Anderson doesn’t, as they say in the stupid world of sports talk, “give 100 percent.” He doesn’t take the extra base, doesn’t move runners over, isn’t a wiz in the field.
But as we were talking, it occurred to me: Garrett Anderson was the ONLY black player on the team.
What has happened to baseball? There are few black players, with the exception of black Latino players, whom anyone would consider “stars” nowadays. Why is that?
Is it, as my baseball-fan husband says, because young black athletes are now focusing on basketball and football? Maybe. If so, why?
Is it because they can play one or two or NO years in college and make it in the NBA or NFL, but not in MLB? I doubt it. For every LeBron James, you have hundreds, maybe thousands, of black stars who played three or four years in college. In 1975, 27 percent of Major League baseball players were black; by 2007, the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the game, that number was down to 8.4 percent and dropping. African-Americans comprise about 13 percent of the US population.
Contrast that with the NFL (70 percent) and the NBA (82 percent).
So what happened? Gerald Early, a black culture expert at Washington University in St. Louis, a consultant to Ken Burns on his documentary about baseball and a member of the Board of Governors for the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City (which, if you haven’t gone to, you really should) says it’s simple:
“Black Americans don’t play baseball because they don’t want to.”
He goes further by saying that baseball’s marketing itself as the sports keeper of the “traditional” or the “nostalgic” is off-putting to blacks, for whom the “good ol’ days” of baseball meant not being able to stay at the team hotel, dodging fastballs to the head and enduring racist taunts around the league. Baseball itself has a long right-wing history. Remember when Baseball Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey “disinvited” Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins to a 15th anniversary commemoration of the movie, Bull Durham? (Petroskey ended up resigning over the controversy, but still…)
Baseball, with its storied history of being anti-union, is also one of two industries in the country – the other being the health insurance industry (timely, huh?) that enjoys an exemption from anti-trust laws. That exemption, which has been upheld numerous times by the US Supreme Court on the grounds that “baseball is special,” keeps new leagues out of the business and prevents owners from pulling a Bob Irsay and moving his team from, say, Baltimore to Indianapolis.
You can argue that’s a good thing, but it ain’t free enterprise. And I say this as someone who was seriously pissed off when the Colts snuck off to the Midwest under cover of night, like some 14-year-old kid who was caught rolling his neighbor’s yard.
Anyway, baseball has a hell of a lot of nerve expecting us to love it because of some misbegotten nostalgia for the way things were.
But that doesn’t answer the question, does it?
Is it, then, because inner-city land has become so precious that there is no room for baseball fields? There are still fields where kids play football and, more and more, lacrosse in the inner cities. Is it because football and lacrosse, with their uniforms and helmets, seem somehow “cooler?” Maybe. Or maybe, it’s the action. The “manliness” of those sports (even though girls play both).
Maybe it’s like George Carlin said,
“Baseball is a 19th Century pastoral game. Football is a 20th Century technological struggle. In football, you wear a helmet. In baseball, you wear a cap. Football is concerned with DOWNS. What down is it? Baseball is concerned with ups. Who’s up? In football, you receive a penalty. In baseball, you make an error. Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, late hitting and personal fouls. Baseball has the sacrifice. Baseball has the seventh-inning stretch. Football has the two-minute warning. In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the Field General, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the wall of the enemy’s defensive line. In baseball, the object is to go home. And to be safe.”
Sheesh. You put it that way, why would any self-respecting macho guy want to play baseball?
Still, in 1995, when the Braves won the series, they had, at some point on their roster, seven black players (Terrell Wade, Fred McGriff, Mike Sharperson, Marquis Grissom, David Justice, Mike Kelly and Dwight Smith.) By 2005, the last year of the 14-straight division titles, they were down to Andruw Jones and Brian Jordan. This year, Garrett Anderson. (Brandon Jones made it to the bigs for a cup of coffee before being sent back to the minors.)
In 1981, I went to Fenway Park for the first time. My practice husband (before I got it right) and I were doing Baseball up the Eastern Seaboard for our honeymoon. We were sitting in fairly good seats, lower level between the plate and first base. The Red Sox were trailing, 8-4, to the White Sox late in the game when the woman sitting behind us turned and said to her husband, “You know what’s wrong with this team? There’s too many [n-words] on this team.”
I couldn’t help it. I turned around and, with a politeness I did not feel, I said, “Lady, all your runs came on homers by black guys.” (Jim Rice and Tony Perez, the latter not counting in my definition for this piece’s purposes.)
Wonder if the old bitch is happy now?