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Race and Baseball

Posted in baseball,Current Events by bourdaghs on the April 16th, 2010

Yesterday was Jackie Robinson day in the Major Leagues, which always gives rise to commentaries — some more thoughtful than others, some more original than others — on the current state of race and racism in baseball. Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is quoted in this morning’s Tribune giving a characteristically idiosyncratic interpretation of Robinson’s significance:

“A lot of people have to thank him. We made a lot of money because this guy had the guts to cross the barrier and do what he did.”

Minnesota Twins’ second baseman Orlando Hudson has stirred up a hornets’ nest (well, more accurately, he made a fairly mild statement which the media did its best to use as a stick to prod a swarm of angry hornets) by pointing to the continuing relevance of race in Major League hiring decisions. It’s not the superstars that are the issue here: they get contracts no matter what their skin color. It’s the marginal players, the bench-warming pinch hitters and bottom-of-the-bullpen pitchers, where you can most clearly see this.

The most intelligent response I’ve seen to Hudson’s remarks so far comes from the terrific blogger “Twins Geek” (John Bonnes), who writes:

It’s legitimate to debate the degree which race bias might play when predominantly white front offices evaluate free agents like [Jeremy] Dye and [Gary] Sheffield. It may be significant, or maybe it isn’t. But before that conversation takes place, we need to welcome people, ballplayers included, that raise the issue. We need to recognize that biases exist, and not construct straw dogs that can be easily torn down. We may not get to the truth, but we’ll at least raise some awareness, and on this day, sports fans should be all about awareness.

Check out Bonnes’ whole post here — it’s well worth your while.

This all brings back to mind the best thing I’ve ever read on the subject: former major leaguer John Poff’s remarkable essay, “Donnie Moore: A Racial Memoir.” Originally published in 1995 in Elysian Fields Quarterly (Vol. 14, No. 1; ordering information here), Poff’s memoir provides a remarkably frank, self-reflective account of how for a ballplayer in the 1970s “the consciousness of race pervaded everything in a baseball locker room.”

If you played with or against black ballplayers, you became friends possibly and you might share concerns, values, dope, and yet in all your conversations there was the ongoing subliminal buzz–you’re black, you’re black, you’re black.

Written in the wake of Donnie Moore’s tragic death in 1989 (Moore shot his wife and then turned the gun on himself), Poff gives us a powerful, honest reflection, including of the ways that players of all ethnicities use racism as a tool for acquiring a competitive edge. The impact of racial stereotypes in sports is in fact incredibly complicated and, as both Bonnes and Poff note, we won’t get anywhere in understanding it if people aren’t allowed to raise the issue.

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