Baseball’s Black Problem

Whenever Chris Rock speaks, I listen [and then I usually laugh].

Rock is a comedic genius or the one comic who possesses the outstanding ability at least to disturb my good manners time and time again with belly-aching guffaws. He has thrived in his role as my generation’s most successful black humorist, plying his craft in multiple media forms from film to sketch comedy. Rock’s brilliance can be glimpsed particularly in his stand-up routines where he shrewdly blends irony, timing, wit, and unconventionality to deliver jar-jabbing jokes that provide as much punch as they do punchlines. He is especially skilled in his capacity to marry humor to tragedy in such a way as to produce comfortable laughter amid unavoidable lament.

Chris Rock (Wikimedia Commons)

Chris Rock (Wikimedia Commons)

In no instance is Rock’s tragicomedy on fuller display than in his discussions of race. Rock is not just unafraid to address controversial racial issues; he lives for it—it is part of his shtick. His comedic performances depend on it, much in the way that Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor in previous eras relied on race to entertain black and white audiences across America. Like Murphy and Pryor, Rock has dispensed his brand of racial comedy to the delight of mainstream America. But he possesses greater cachet than his predecessors despite his willingness to go off the cliff in joking about very painful, taboo racial topics. Still, he has proven capable of convincing Americans of having a conversation on race that they otherwise have avoided. Rock, in essence, has made a career out of locating the nations’ sweet spot on race with candor and cleverness that have eased the tension Americans ordinarily feel every time the country’s black-white affairs are engaged publicly.

I have nodded and uttered mmmhmms on many occasions listening to Rock dissect American race relations. Thus, I was eager to hear his comedic analysis explaining why black people have fallen out of love with America’s pastime. During a segment on HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, Rock expressed his disappointment with Major League Baseball’s cold-shoulder treatment of African Americans. “It’s the only sport where there’s a right way to play the game—and it’s the white way,” Rock drolly asserted. He referred to himself as an endangered species—“a black baseball fan”—and impugned the game as being “old-fashioned and stuck in the past” with the “white hair, white guy announcers [and] cheesy old organ music.” This led to Rock to wonder, “Where’s the Beats by Dre?”

Rock, moreover, bewailed baseball’s infatuation with tradition, its love affair with reenacting games first played in the mid-19th Century when slavery abound, and its insistence on building antique stadiums that hearkened back to the 1930s and 1940s when black Americans confronted white segregationist violence in its quotidian variety. He also sneered at the MLB’s dullness, its seeming penchant for being anti-fun. While the Caribbean Leagues have transformed baseball games into carnivals and the Korean Leagues have ritualized bat-flipping, Rock taunted MLB’s knack for keeping America’s pastime boring. It is not as if baseball has not tried to adopt more entertainment and swagger. As Rock stated, “Baseball has tried every trick in the book to be hip.” Unfortunately, it has never come off the right way. Rock, for example, ripped MLB for making even President Barack Obama and rapper 50 Cent appear un-cool, citing their awkward delivery of opening-game pitches. These developments, Rock insisted, have driven African Americans—both as fans and players—away.

Rock’s assessment has legitimacy. As of the 2015 season, only 7.8 percent of MLB players are black—a stark contrast to the all-time high of 19 percent in 1986 when Rock’s own favorite team, the New York Mets, captured the World Series with black baseball stars like Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Kevin Mitchell, and Mookie Wilson. Since that time, the percentage of black baseball players has dropped precipitously. The 2014 National League Championship Series is illustrative of the decline in African American Major Leaguers. Neither the San Francisco Giants nor the St. Louis Cardinals featured a black player on their respective teams. As Rock put it, “How can you ever be in St. Louis and see no black people?” Worse, the crowds have been over 90% white—a disparity that might only be resembled by the Ferguson Police Department. The decline in African American baseball interest can even be observed at HBCUs. The predominantly black Stillman College has thirty-six players on its baseball team—all but one is white. Howard University ridded its baseball team while keeping sports like lacrosse and volleyball intact.

So none of what Rock said was incorrect. He was, however, incomplete. Absent in his breakdown was a deeper insight into MLB’s racial past and its ongoing rebuff of African Americans that repeatedly have turned off and/or away would-be black baseball enthusiasts and participants.

Integration was a Process, Not a Moment

Baseball’s racial prohibition against black ballplayers ended in 1947 when Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers team. That same season, Larry Doby, in an oft-neglected event, dismantled the color line in the American League by joining the Cleveland Indians, and, in doing so, consolidated Major League Baseball as an integrated game. Notwithstanding Doby’s significance, the ‘Jackie Robinson’ moment has been frequently historicized, perhaps to the detriment of understanding baseball’s Jim Crow era (1880s to 1947). Lost in most of these historical retellings has been the process that was undertaken to break organized baseball’s color barrier. Rather than a meteoric rise, epitomized by Robinson’s ascent, black baseball players underwent a long-drawn-out process to realize the goals of racial equality in MLB.

Moses Fleetwood Walker, now a mere footnote, became the first African American to play organized baseball in 1884. That year, the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association, then a major league organization, allowed the talented catcher to join its team after spending the previous year on its minor league club. Walker’s brother, Welday, an outfielder, later played for the Blue Stockings though he only competed in six games. Moses, for his part, suited up in 42 games and batted a respectable .263 while dazzling spectators with his flamboyance and speed.

In spite of his exceptional talent, Walker was nonetheless unable to outrun the color line. Racial inclusion had been nothing more than a few experiments; the additions of African American baseball players were never a part of a league-wide effort and were not driven by a unanimous support of integration as a sporting ideal.[1] It was not a surprise, then, when Hall-of-Famer Adrian “Cap” Anson adamantly refused to have his team play against Walker and the Toledo squad. Eventually, Anson succumbed as he was admonished “to play with Walker on this team or take his [Anson’s] nine off the field.” Anson was unable to impose a color restriction that day but avowed that his teams would not “play [again] with the nigger in.” Four years later, Anson succeeded in blocking the National League’s New York Metropolitans from acquiring Walker and George Stovey, another gifted African American.[2] Anson’s efforts to erect racial blockades were bolstered by the segregationist practices in the major and minor leagues that militated against the aspirations of African Americans to partake in the national pastime. By 1889, baseball had established an entrenched color line that lasted nearly 60 years.

Baseball, then again, was not devoid of diversity. Prior to Walker’s arrival, baseball had already permitted individuals from the Spanish-speaking Americas to enter its doors. Esteban Bellán and Vincent Nava launched professional careers in the early 1870s and 1880s, respectively, just as organized baseball was still in the process of negotiating its color line. Bellán and Nava were harbingers of what was to come—a game that increasingly has become browner even as the average fan has conceived of the Latino baseball invasion as a post-1970s development, sans Roberto Clemente’s appearance in the 1950s and 1960s.

Minnie_Miñoso_1953_BowmanThere is a huge benefit to challenging popular ignorance on baseball’s Latino influx. By revising America’s memory on the earlier inclusion of persons from Spanish-speaking countries, we also are able to glean insight into the parallel relationship between African Americans and Latinos to structure opportunities for both groups in the national pastime. It is commonly assumed that baseball’s infusion into Latino cultures was solely an outgrowth of U.S. imperialism. But such a narrative obscures the transnational exchange—the way that Latinos were able to give the sport their own sense of meaning even as they were granted spots on major league teams. This story also overlooks how black and brown communities interacted within what could be called the “long history of [baseball’s] integration.” According to Historian Adrian Burgos, nearly all Latinos played in the Negro Leagues, not in the majors. Just as Latinos complicated the color line in organized baseball—creating an opening for persons like Robinson and Doby in time to integrate MLB—the willingness of Negro League managers to embrace Spanish-speaking players granted the latter the chance to put their talents on full display. After Robinson and Doby broke baseball’s color line against African Americans in 1947, it gave Orestes “Minnie” Miñosa, an Afro-Cuban, the space to make his debut two years later for the Cleveland Indians as the game’s first black Latino player.

This “long history of integration” demonstrates the lengthy battle waged by African Americans just to participate in America’s game. It does not strip away the importance of the “Jackie Robinson’ moment but it reveals the protracted struggle that African Americans endured to convince organized baseball they belonged—a campaign that one singular event did not end just as legal and legislative remedies have not completely eradicated discriminatory racial practices.

That Rock failed to mention this history, along with the interdependent connection between black and brown communities that ultimately shaped baseball’s integration, exposes a limitation to his argument on the disappearance of African American baseball players. Clearly, baseball was reluctant to sanction black membership. But in the wake of its global ambitions and imperial motivations, baseball organizers were compelled to accept Latinos and inevitably African Americans who benefited from a deteriorating color line.

The Reward of Segregation

In spite of the long and grueling fight to remedy Jim Crowism in organized baseball, African Americans profited from the Negro Leagues that emerged under the guidance of Andrew “Rube” Foster. Black players, like Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Satchel Paige, excelled in the Negro Leagues. The Negro Leagues also help to hone the skills of African Americans like Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams who, alongside Jackie Robinson, were given failed tryout bids with the Boston Red Sox ahead of baseball’s integration in 1947.

Chicago American Giants (1919) (Wikimedia Commons)

Chicago American Giants (1919) (Wikimedia Commons)

But the Negro Leagues offered more to African Americans than the prospect of attracting the attention of MLB as a part an integrationist ideal. The Negro Leagues also provided an outlet for black baseball players—a precinct in which not only their capability and contributions were taken seriously but additionally where their interests in the game could be both cultivated and fulfilled. Chris Rock was quick to offer a rebuttal to those persons who have argued that the game is too expensive. To frame his counter argument, Rock cited as evidence the fact that the game is played in the Dominican Republic (what he referred to by the outdated term “Third World Country”) though he acknowledged that Dominicans basically have fashioned equipment out of discarded materials—what French Anthropologist Claude Lévi Strauss might call “bricolage.”

Contrary to Rock’s belief, however, baseball does have a money problem. And this pecuniary issue stands opposed to baseball’s black aspirants. After the Negro Leagues finally disbanded, it left a void for African Americans who wanted to participate in the game. It is not as if some racial reformers did not see this coming. Supporters of integration, to be certain, adopted what Historian Patrick Miller has termed “muscular assimilation” or the strategy of utilizing black athletic achievement in integrated spaces to demonstrate the readiness of African Americans for full participation in America’s economic, political, and social life. But behind the scenes, some of these same individuals calling for an end to organized baseball’s color line predicted how integration would lead to the demise of the Negro Leagues.

Wendell Smith, former editor of the Pittsburgh Courier Journal, was an ardent supporter of abolishing the racial restrictions that existed in MLB but felt it necessary to insist that African Americans support its own institutions, specifically the Negro Leagues. It should also come as no surprise that black baseball leaders were reluctant as late as 1943 to go on record to champion the cause of integration. Their lack of enthusiasm for integration, though in some ways misguided, stood as an omen for black disinterest in organized baseball.

Fast-forward to today and the results of dismantling of the Negro Leagues can be witnessed by examining how costly it is to participate in baseball as well as how much its absence has weakened the fervor African Americans once had for the game. “Before integration,” as the Historian Rob Ruck stated in his an article he wrote on the subject for Salon, “African American boys learned the game of baseball on the other side of the racial boundary demarcating American sport.” He continued, “They played for sandlot and Negro League teams organized and managed by African-Americans. When that sporting infrastructure crumbled after integration, no alternative black-controlled institutions emerged. Black youth were left with fewer ways to learn the muscle memory, intricacies and lore of the game.”[3]

Ruck’s line of reasoning has tremendous merit. Today, hopeful baseball players sharpen their skills on travel teams that are pricey to join but where exposure is most likely to be gained. This dilemma affects African Americans, especially those young men from fatherless households where poverty and privation is rampant. It also hurts that college baseball has become the chief source of native-born professional talent. In 2005, for instance, MLB chose twice as many college baseball players as it did high school prospects in its annual draft. As of a decade ago, only 4.5% of college baseball players were black and that number is believed to have waned. Part of the problem is the prohibitive scholarship limit in college baseball that only provides 11.7% of full rides to be spread thinly for the 35 players who comprise each team.[4] African Americans in the other two major sports, basketball and football, respectively account for 42% and 32% of all full scholarships.

It should not come as a shock, then, that baseball has become an afterthought for African Americans. A 2005 Harris Poll substantiated black indifference to baseball as 47% of African Americans named pro football as their favorite sport while only 6% chose the national pastime.

All I See is Humiliation and Scorn

“Bryce Harper,” according to Tim Keown, Senior Writer for ESPN, “is baseball’s version of LeBron James.” This is an interesting comparison, to say the least, since Harper is white. Forget that most African Americans do not know of Harper to be remotely offended by Keown’s association of the talented outfielder to the beloved James. It is a curious assertion, nevertheless, because it reveals the lack of outstanding black players populating the game nowadays. Spectator interest is often driven by having a sense of commonality with the individuals we cheer. Racial background influences spectatorship as we tend to participate in sports that produce heroes with whom we can identify. Consider the rise of black interest in sports like golf and tennis after the successes of Tiger Woods and the Williams’ sisters, respectively.

Ozzie Smith (Wikimedia Commons)

Ozzie Smith (Wikimedia Commons)

Where are the black baseball stars for African Americans to emulate? There are black Latino players who certainly fit the bill, and as previously suggested, black and brown interdependency needs to be explored more deeply as it might offer the best chance to reinvigorate baseball’s appeal in African American communities. But outside of black Latino players, the presence of African American household names is too few and far between. The stardom of individuals like Ryan Howard, Matt Kemp, and Justin Upton pale in comparison to past generations. When I was growing up, I followed players such as Barry Bonds, Cecil Fielder, Ken Griffey, Jr., Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Bo Jackson, Ozzie Smith, and Frank Thomas. This might have been a golden era of black baseball if not for the legends like Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray, among others, who dominated preceding eras.

It is difficult to be a fond of a game where it is hard to locate players whose success in baseball drives your motivation to be like them. It is also problematic to maintain any long-term interest in baseball when African Americans continually encounter humiliation and scorn. African Americans have long been suspicious of the vilification of Barry Bonds for allegedly using performance-enhancing drugs. This feeling was not in any way diminished after the U.S. Justice Department’s zealous-though-failed prosecution of Bonds, which costs $55 million in taxpayer dollars. At a time when investigations into the murders of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, and now Freddie Gray in Baltimore sear African American consciousness, seeing the Justice Department waste money on Bonds seems like a witch-hunt that might only be rivaled by MLB’s own persecution of the game’s all-time homerun leader. Famed sports writer Dave Zirin has contended that Bonds should now be inducted into the Hall of Fame but, thus far, such entreaties have fallen on deaf ears. Still, African Americans have watched the treatment of Bonds and see MLB as a racist institution that has denigrated a player who might arguably be its greatest ever.

Black Americans also have witnessed the maliciousness shown toward the Chicago-based Jackie Robinson West team that captured the Little League Baseball Championship. This punitive actions resulted from the efforts of Chris Janes, a whistleblower…err, a league official whose team lost to Jackie Robinson West 43-2. Janes accused the team of “blatant cheating,” claiming that the Jackie Robinson West squad’s great play had been boosted by talent recruited from outside its Chicago boundaries. Like Bonds, supporters of Jackie Robinson West called the inquiry “a racially motivated witchhunt [sic].”[5]

Lastly, African Americans are not at all pleased with the mockery of any of its ongoing causes. As black protesters have assembled in cities across the nation to declare that “black lives matter,” certain segments of America have responded with harsh criticism and ridicule. Unfortunately, MLB has not been immune from having some of its participants poke fun at black pleas for justice. In the wake of Freddie Gray’s death in Baltimore, local black residents took to the streets in riotous protest that eventually led city officials to implement a curfew. Thus, when the Baltimore Orioles met the Chicago White Sox, no fans were in attendance due to security concerns arising from the ongoing civil unrest. Caleb Joseph, a catcher for the Orioles, made fun of the moment by pretending to sign autographs and to receive applause from nonexistent fans. To Joseph, it was an attempt at levity. To African Americans frustrated with seeing another unarmed black man killed because of extralegal violence, it was derision that reflected an apparent disregard for their justifiable rage.

It may seem reaching to contend that black disinterest in baseball will only increase in the wake of Joseph’s inconsiderate gesture. Yet, it is safe to say that African Americans will not feel any need to come running back to a sport where some white players, in a manner similar to the segregationists who managed and played the game in the early 20th Century, are inclined to such contemptible behavior.

So, again, Rock’s criticisms of baseball for the disappearance of black fans and players are well-founded. They just deserved more historical context than his seven-minute comedic vignette offered.

Take Me Out to [not Out of] the Ballgame

I recently attended a Detroit Tigers game. For the 13th year in a row, the Tigers hosted Negro Leagues Weekend. I enjoyed the game with my wife and two daughters. I listened intently for the chamber music that Rock deplored. It was there, right around the seventh inning stretch. But so, too, were songs by black and brown artists, including a nice mix of hip hop and Latino music that might have reflected Detroit’s multiethnic roster (even though its predominantly white audience danced to what they heard). The team features a black player, Rajai Davis, and a sleuth of Latino stars.[6] Yet, I could not help noticing that hardly any black fans were in the stadium despite this seeming commitment to diversity [by the Tigers] as well as the relatively inexpensive costs to attend a MLB game. That MLB was unable to draw the predominantly black Detroit out for a game celebrating the Negro Leagues attest to the concerns that Rock raised. Baseball, indeed, has a black problem. And while Rock’s arguments bearing out this view might be inadequate, it won’t change the fact that African Americans, by and large, see the national pastime just as he did—as a game still organized like “100 years ago, when only whites were allowed to play.”

Tyran Steward is a Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Michigan. His research focuses on American race relations, black politics and sport. Follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Tyrankai


Notes:

[1] Adrian Burgos, Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 53-4.

[2] Ibid, 54-5.

[3] Rob Ruck, “Where Have African American Baseball Players Gone?” Salon, March 5, 2011.

[4] Tim Keown, “What the MLB Committee Will Find,” ESPN, April 19, 2013.

[5] Dean Reynolds, “The Whistleblower Who Reported Little League Team’s ‘Blatant Cheating,’” CBSnews.com, February 11, 2015.

[6] There are two other African Americans on the Detroit Tigers team: Anthony Gose and David Price. Both players, however, were out of the lineup on the day I attended the game.

 

3 thoughts on “Baseball’s Black Problem

  1. Pingback: Multi-Purpose Stadia and African American Baseball Fans | Seth S. Tannenbaum

  2. Pingback: Sport in American History

  3. Pingback: Week 6 Blog: Baseball’s Range of Diversity | HIS 3538 | Spring 2017 | Sports+Americas

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