|Squeeze play: Baseball's troubling issue|
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist
We're about to discuss "race" and baseball.
So bring a lunch.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was around 12 (wink) and a tyro on the Giants/A's beats, one of my fellow "journalists" wrote an article speculating (hoping?) "like the California condor," African-American players might soon be gone from big-league baseball (parenthetically, I felt he meant "good riddance").
"Ask them," I said to my fellow man.
Now, this was not a response worthy of Jules in "Pulp Fiction," a "Well, allow me to retort" reply and comeback. I just didn't know what else to say.
Twenty-five years later, the question is now being asked anew: "Why have American-born blacks disengaged from baseball?" And: "Will they be gone soon? Their numbers are dropping, you know ..." Instead of me replying, or even Jules from "Pulp Fiction," we have Dusty Baker, a successful African-American big-league manager, retorting about how black and Latin players can take heat better because, "That's what (blacks) were brought here for."
Both speculations are na´ve, half-baked and disingenuous.
So ... allow me to retort.
First, if you will, check out the All-Star Game rosters. Its been pointed out there are only two African-American starters in this year's All-Star Game -- Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield from the NL -- and one for the AL (Garret Anderson, who replaced the injured Manny Ramirez).
There are also low numbers of "American-born blacks" in the minor leagues, and minuscule numbers of African-Americans in college baseball. (If we want to get technical in our parsing, we should say "native-born U.S. blacks," an esoteric category, since "African-Americans" can mean anyone from all of the Americas -- North, Central or South America -- with discernible African ancestry. If that's the case, the NL starters jump to four "African-Americans," and the American League starters jump to four as well.)
It is pointed out that 30 years ago, there were more starters in the All-Star Game who were American-born blacks (four), so what has happened since?
Is baseball racist?
Or are American-born blacks just not into it?
Baseball has issues along these lines, no doubt about it, but the issues are not intrinsic to the playing of the game itself. Baseball is the most democratic game of all, in terms of performance. Two AL starters in the 2003 All-Star game are of Japanese descent, and six, including DH Edgar Martinez, are of Hispanic descent, while the NL has four starters of Latin descent. And you can look for some Korean-born All-Stars in the not-too-distant future.
You could drop the other shoe first and say "only" one AL starter -- Troy Glaus -- is of Euro-American descent, and two NL starters --Scott Rolen and Todd Helton -- are likewise white guys. Nobody wonders if white guys are disappearing from baseball. Why should they? By this point, by knowing some of the history of baseball and actually being in on it for a quarter-of-a-century, I can say pretty definitively that I believe there will always be some of everybody playing big-league baseball, and thus, making the All-Star Game from time to time. The beauty of the game of baseball is this egalitarian inevitability, with everything else being equal.
Which, of course, everything else never is.
Another beauty of baseball is that it is played out of time, which can be both a bad thing (its ways and mores, from bigotry to round tins of smokeless tobacco, for good or ill, mostly the latter, tend to be as timeless as the game itself) or a good thing (it is unique among major American sports). There is no clock, and this timelessness in an era of pro football and basketball, with clocks winding down, and 200 cable channels, Internet, hip-hop hooraying millionaires and a million other things to do and ways to go with your life, is actually a nice place to be, where everybody knows the pace is more relaxed.
Baseball has a Problem, a deeply rooted Problem, but it is not the pace of the game, or the performance or interest level of any human sub-grouping; no, it is baseball's uneasy truce with the social construct called race. And in that way, blacks are accustomed to being asked, "How does it feel to be a Problem?" Either way. W.E.B. DuBois pointed this out 100 years ago, in "The Souls of Black Folks." Never attended a big-league game in his life that I know of, though I'm told he had a soft spot for Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants of the original Negro National League, formed because blacks were said to be unfit for duty in the bigs. Couldn't handle pressure.
The Problem now, 100 years later, is in the lower levels of baseball
Consider places like south-central Los Angeles, which was once the near-perfect warm-weather breeding ground for baseball players of all stripes, including black ones. This is no longer so much the case, much to the lamentations of people like my old friend, Eric Davis of the Cincinnati Reds, who believes that, in south-central L.A., exposure to and a sense of rootedness in the game would be helpful in cutting down on delinquency and aid in gang resistance.
On the other hand, baseball thrives up the coast, in the Eastbay of the San Francisco Bay Area, Oakland particularly, which puts out so many good brown baseball players, it's like they are coming off an auto assembly line.
From Barry Bonds to Dontrelle Willis, Jimmy Rollins to C.C. Sabathia, and other "American-born blacks," they come from Oakland Babe Ruth, or Alameda, or adjacent counties, and wind up in the big leagues.
Why is that?
Because that's where they are nurtured in the game.
Make no mistake, baseball is a strictly inherited game; it's not something you can pick up on the street like basketball or even football. It is a game of acquired, refined, specialized skills that are hardly translatable to any other sport. It is a game of inherited knowledge. Its Byzantine set of rules, skills, dimensions and culture are so esoteric and oftentimes so bizarre that they must be explained, passed down, by rote, statistic, history, usually from father to son, most often from an early age. This is where, normally, another statistic would be spouted, like "63 percent of young black males grow up in single-parent homes where the head of household is a woman who doesn't have time, inclination or knowledge to make baseball part of the kid's daily bill of fare ..." This is a baseball killer in places like Maryland, Georgia, even L.A. But somehow, Oakland has gone unaffected in terms of player production.
It's almost to the point that if only Oakland were producing "American-born blacks" for baseball, that alone would be enough to keep the big-league allotment filled for the foreseeable future. That's because the infrastructure of the youth game is already in place there; male adults teach the game and basically welcome all players in, including black ones. And let's not forget, baseball was never that welcoming for black players in the first place, which is why they had to form their own leagues in the first half of the 20th Century, if they wanted to play. It wasn't until 1947 that Jackie Robinson integrated the big leagues, and, frankly, we are still waiting for the day when American-born blacks are treated with like respect in the game.
It is usually the American-born blacks' records and place that are resented instead of celebrated. For example, it's the stolen base that is denigrated as a weapon by baseball sabermaticians like Bill James, at precisely the time when a Rickey Henderson steals 130 bases in a season. There are sour grapes when a baseball man uses stats to tell you a stolen base isn't important. Any time a baseball manager will give up an out for a base, as with a sac bunt or groundball to the right side, any time a base is so precious, then it goes without saying that the stolen base must be important. Not the CS, the caught stealing, or stats of success rates, but the stolen base itself.
So Rickey Henderson becomes, in the media and our oral history of the day, a bad guy, "this guy," who did something meaningless, and refers to himself in the third person and, oh yeah (with a decidedly sour look), maybe the best leadoff hitter ever, whatever that means. Barry Bonds becomes somebody who is excoriated for the limitations of his personality, even though we do not know him as a late-night talk-show host, but as a big-league baseball player. That skill set is all that should matter. But anything to keep from judging him on those merits. Look at the personalities of most timeless baseball stars; Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio -- none of them was a day at the beach.
But not being a day at the beach becomes Bonds' full metal straitjacket.
So there is this general underlying resentment of the black baseball player, I feel, and it's spun now so that this dogged resentment comes from blacks themselves. In a way, it's like the notion that doing well in school is "acting white." Sure, there are black kids who wind up saying baseball is "a white man's game," and even believing it, but that's not their concept. That is what they have felt, sensed as the general societal tenor, and they picked up on it.
My son played varsity baseball, because I took him out there at any early age. We went to games, he learned to read box scores, he was schooled on the game, and he had his own modest but undeniable skill set for the game. He played Boys and Girls Club baseball, learned it, and played on a county championship team, then played high school baseball on a good team, a state championship contending team, for four years, in the state of Maryland, and he played pretty well, but before it was over, I wanted him to have the experience of playing ball in Oakland, so that he could just play, and not worry about all these other ramifications of who wanted him to play well, who was threatened by him playing well, being the only black kid on the bus going to play, being judged by the standard of Willie Mays, etc.
Cole was born on the same day as Willie, May 6 -- he could run, was a good outfielder, read the angles very well, could "go get it," had a very good arm, pitched some, could hit, but he was not Willie Mays. Even Willie Mays was thought to be no Willie Mays at first. "You have to be three times as good (if you're a black player)," Mays said back in the 1950s, the same decade when a man, a white man, named George Powles, developed big-league outfielders Vada Pinson, Curt Flood and Frank Robinson out of one high school, Oakland McClymonds. It was a man like George Powles' commitment to instruct the game, pass it on, to those who were willing and talented and who had nascent ability, that was critical.
In fiction, we celebrate a George Powles.
In fact, his example isn't followed, and may be grumbled about.
If you do a study of the levels of baseball below the big-league level, you will find a dearth of black participation. It has nothing to do with LeBron James' Nike contract. Most young boys, black or otherwise, have no hope of becoming that, and mostly they know it, deep down. Most people just tend to go first where they feel they are most welcome. To me, this doesn't affect who finally winds up playing in the big leagues, because that level, I think, will always reflect everybody from Koreans to Japanese to Latins to blacks to whites, even if American-born blacks are represented by offspring and/or siblings of big-leaguers like Bonds, Ken Griffey, Dmitri Young, or simply by the issue of the baseball playgrounds of Oakland, California. It isn't just a matter of Pinson, Flood and Robinson being from Oakland, or Oakland Babe Ruth. It's a matter of Joe Morgan, Curt Flood, Lloyd Moseby, Rollins, Willis ... so many more. In other words, the cream will almost always rise.
I say "almost," because none of that helped Rickie Weeks.
Weeks went to Lake Brantley High, in Orlando, Florida. He was a starter on the high school baseball team. But somehow, all those in-state high-level college baseball programs like Florida State and Miami didn't offer him a scholarship, so he went to a historically black university, Southern U. in Baton Rouge, to be developed, and ended up as the No. 2 pick overall in the amateur baseball draft in June and just won the 2003 Golden Spikes Award as the best amateur player in the country. In fact, if you look at college baseball, you see few schools recruit blacks, and it may be just as well, since as Richard Lapchick's latest study shows, college baseball graduation rates are almost nonexistent, not only worse than football or basketball grad rates, but worse by far. College baseball is just another form of minor-league baseball, developing possible talent for the major leagues, and very few young black players are recruited into it.
Unfortunately, the people who run baseball on all levels below the big-league level are not the most egalitarian sort (although it must be said that I think Bud Selig is) and big-league baseball has come a long way in terms of the field manager position, and a good way in the front-office positions of the structure of MLB itself, and some piece of a short way -- OK, right into a solid brick wall on all sides and a steel ceiling above -- in the front-office positions of the individual teams. Comparatively, at Little League, Boys and Girls Clubs, Babe Ruth, American Legion, high school, college and at all the minor-league levels, the racism, bigotry or just plain good old American nepotism run rampant. So it's almost like, if you want an "American-born black" kid to be involved with baseball, and that kid is not the next Willie Mays (and maybe even if he is), then you have to be a parent and take him through the channels yourself, coach him on each level, to give the optimum grounding in the game, understanding of the game, and chance at the game.
And that's why when my son Cole was 15, I took him out to Oakland, to play in the Hank Aaron Classic All-Star Games with the Oakland Babe Ruth All-Stars. He played right field, made some sparkling plays, hit .667 for the two-game set, scored runs, was encouraged to run, to take the extra base, and sent gunshot relay throws through to get two runners trying to advance. It was a fast league, but he was able to raise the level of his game to match it. When the games were over, he was much more secure about his game, and comfortable in the game, being in a place where his spot in the game was based solely on what he was able to do on the field. The second baseman who relayed those throws from Cole was named Jonny Ash, who last season played third base for Stanford. (The other black on Stanford's team was the son of former K.C. Royals first baseman John Mayberry). Jonny's father is a baseball man named Wil Ash. And if I had any more sons, I would have no problem sending them to Wil Ash, or to Ed Abram, or to Jim Saunders. Cole pitched off the hill to Wil Ash, so Wil could see what he had. Wil came back to me and said, simply, "He can dominate." That was it. No big deal.
So Cole played out there in Oakland, then came back and played his last two years of high school ball in Maryland, where, in his last game, after playing for four years, and contributing in the state semifinal title game of his senior year, he got sat down for a junior whose dad had made more concrete fiscal contributions to the team than my lowly 250 bucks. I felt sort of bad for Cole, that he didn't get to take his last hack as a senior (we lost because the extra-base hit from what was his spot, to deliver the runner from first base with two ours in the last inning, did not come), but he said he didn't feel so bad about it. He'd learned something. I shuddered to think what, but knew it was something he had to know. He gave up playing. Too much trouble to stay in it as a player. But it's his game, too, no matter what. At least he knows the game, can pass it along, not just as a participant, but also in the watching of the game, the understanding and following of it. He was the one who told me to watch out for Jonny Ash, Corey Patterson, and later, Dontrelle Willis.
Cole is an "American-born black," which surprises me if he's described that way, because, to my mind, he's a son, and a pretty decent kid. He's also now a man who knows baseball, only because I halfway lined him up that way.
* * * * *
As for Dusty Baker, all we can say for sure is he is no anthropologist.
Ironic, because something else was going on there, I felt. I felt Dusty's comments were a reaction to a perceived threat. You see, beat writers and the manager develop a rhythm during the course of a season, or seasons; I sort of know this because I've been there, with people and personalities as far-ranging as Billy Martin to Joe Altobelli to Frank Robinson to Ray Miller to Cal Ripken Sr. to Cito Gaston to Bobby Cox to Tommy Lasorda. I don't know what rhythm had been established between Dusty and the beat writers he was speaking to. I do know Dusty knows baseball exceedingly well, and something of the historical role of black players in baseball; after all, he was on the Braves team when Hank Aaron, who Baker and the rest of the Braves called "Supe," as in "Superstar," was chasing the Babe's home run record.
I also know going from managing in northern California to managing on the north side of Chicago is a quantum leap backward sociologically in baseball and probably other areas too. We heard what Dusty said, but we didn't hear what all was said to Dusty, or about Dusty, leading up to his out-of-the-blue statement that sounded to me like a man trying to back people up. It was defensive, offense being the best defense. Dusty said it like he was wielding a club, trying to get a bear off him, like saying, "Back up off me, now."
That's just my gut feeling.
It's almost like the famous baseball manager Alvin Dark, who said black players put on their baseball caps one way (clapping the cap on the head and pulling it down by the bill) and white players another (sitting the cap on the head and then sliding down the crown of the cap in back). So what? What did that prove? Cap-hanging and weather preference don't hit the curveball. But maybe Alvin Dark felt threatened by something, deep down inside.
What about all those people who died in the cane fields of the Caribbean and the cotton fields of the American south? Did they mind the heat? Could they take it? And there is no straight line running from those poor doomed people to Dusty Baker anyway. The blood of more than one continent flows in most of our veins by this point, and certainly in Dusty's; or if not in Dusty's, then surely in his youngest son's. What heat are we talking about? Societal heat, or hot weather? Guys in their pajamas playing a sedentary game for five hours on a summer day, without having to do much running, taking breaks every half inning, sitting in the shade every half inning, getting water any time they want, repairing to the clubhouse if they want, wearing Oakley sunglasses? This is not exactly heavy lifting in the broiling sun from can't-see-in-the-morning to can't-see-at-night. It really slaps all those untold, uncounted people who died in the sun and after the sun went down, for Dusty Baker to be so cavalier with their history, merely because he somehow thought it served his self-interest for him to type them all thus.
Dusty Baker is a baseball man, all right.
Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."