April 24, 2007

8.4% is a Sign; It is Not a Statement

I am curious if anyone has surveyed Black professional-ballplayers and asked them what it was like coming through the system into the Major Leagues.

The Associated Press referred to a study that the amount of Black players in the big leagues has dwindled in recent years -- only 8.4 percent of major leaguers last season. Yahoo! Sports carried this in its April 23 report, “Phillies, Astros pay tribute to Jackie Robinson”.

Others tell us that this is down from a height of 30% thirty-years ago. That is a long time ago and a big drop. Well, the last time we were this low was soon after the 1947 Integration which was a result of our sin of Exclusion. The 8.4% could suggest that we are heading towards a future-Exclusion as we subconsciously push them out.

We might ask what does 8.4% mean. It may not be such a mean number.

There are far fewer Black MLB players now then there were before. A drop to 8.4% from 30% is stunning – and more so in thinking of the more than 750 players. It could be that something has changed in our society’s conditions to contextualize this drop. I would like to believe that identification of the cause will enable our self-correction of our actions to the goal.

So let us think about where the Black prospect come from. Let us consider his first official interaction with a representative of Major League Baseball who could be a scout, coach, or front office staff. Let us consider whether this interaction is positive as showing the respect that this could be a long-term partnership.

When prospects are released we might consider if they are given information and resources for making it in the working world as non-Athletes. We can point them towards GED equivalency courses, vo-tech schools, four-year college programs, masters programs. We can give them instructions in signing a lease to rent an apartment, purchasing health-care, writing a resume, dressing for work.

8.4% is a sign and not a statement. We are not clear right now what it is a sign of. If we keep going forward like this, than 8.4% will be a statement about our marginalization of the American Black community. In this way, to do nothing is to choose to confirm the fear and in so doing, really make us racist.

We can do something about 8.4% to redefine the value as the first letter of the answer to the question its asking.

Let us begin to ask our Black professional-ballplayers what happened to him when he came up through our system. His stories will be numbers on which to grow the game for all of our good.

April 17, 2007

Major League Baseball Celebrates Itself Celebrating Jackie Robinson Day.

Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day this past Sunday, April 15. Robinson debuted with the Brooklyn Dodgers in their season-opener on April 15, 1947. In doing so, Robinson became the the first Negro ballplayer to play in the major leagues since the 1880s when organized baseball tacitly agreed to bar Negro [or ‘colored’] players from its rosters.

Sunday marked the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s debut and Major League Baseball commemorated the event. Boy, did MLB commemorate the event.

The Cincinnati Reds’ Ken Griffey, Jr, who had been the first current-player to request permission from Commissioner Bud Selig to wear Robinson’s retired number 42 on Sunday, did wear 42. So did All-Stars Andruw Jones, Derrek Lee, Dontrelle Willis, Barry Bonds, David Ortiz, Jim Thome, C.C. Sabathia, and Grady Sizemore; so did managers Willie Randolf, Ron Washington, and Joe Torre; so did coach Harold Baines, umpire CB Bucknor, and the entire rosters of the St Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, and Los Angeles Dodgers. The Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Houston Astros all had planned for every player to wear number 42 and their games were rained-out.

Every playing field was adorned with the official MLB Jackie Robinson Day trademarked logo. Major League Baseball’s website had the logo as its background on Sunday and Monday. The website’s online store has a section, “Featured Jackie Robinson Day Collection Selections” for all of our JRD apparel and collectible needs. Every player who played on Sunday wore a Jackie Robinson Day patch on his uniform sleeve. They even placed Jackie Robinson Day decals on the batting helmets.

Los Angeles was the heart of the commemorations. The Dodgers held a 90-minute pre-game ceremony at the end of which Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson threw out the first-pitch(es). Bud Selig awarded the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award to Rachel Robinson, Jackie Robinson’s widow, at a press-conference in Los Angeles prior to the Dodgers game.

Mark Newman, writing on MLB.com yesterday, referred to number 42 as “sacred”. The headlines of the articles on MLB.com echo this theme: “Sabathia cherishes wearing No. 42”; “Cameron proud to wear No. 42”; “Andruw wears No. 42 with pride”; “Anderson has deep respect for No. 42”.

Something is wrong with this picture.

It is not that something is wrong with our desire to honor Jackie Robinson. But when we need a 657-word article on MLB.com telling us how much C.C. Sabathia cherishes wearing the number, I begin to wonder. This is not a knock on C.C. Sabathia, who may be among the top five pitchers in MLB right-now. But multiple 700-word articles reporting how honored/special each individual team-All-Star feels to wear it, decals on batting helmets, and painted trademarked logos on every field are a bit much.

We might be trying trying too hard to convince ourselves.

Jackie Robinson is a hero. He is a hero in baseball where he began the process of MLB-integration. He was an outstanding player and was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He was an advocate for the inclusion of Negro League players into the Hall of Fame and for the hiring of managers of color in MLB. Playing for the Dodgers in 1947, he faced sharpened spikes on the base-paths and death-threats off of them. You bet Jackie Robinson is a hero.

Rituals like the retirement of a players’ jersey and public display of the number and name at the ballpark, anniversary commemorations, feature articles in the press, and achievement awards all serve to pay our respects to those who paved the roads on which we walk. More so, these commemorations educate our children, and re-educate ourselves, giving us models of conduct and reminders of lessons that we must often relearn.

Major League Baseball retired number 42 in honor of Robinson in 1997 and number 42 is now displayed in all 30-ballparks across the League. If there is a stadium in which it is not displayed, well, it should be. April 15 is an entirely appropriate day to remember Robinson, and the 10-year mark (50th anniversary, 60th anniversary, etc.) is a natural plateau for longer commemorations.

But decals on batting helmets and multiple 700-word articles saying the same thing seem less about Jackie Robinson and more about Major League Baseball’s marketing department.

The more MLB pushed Jackie Robinson Day with its logos and decals and ceremonies and patches, the more MLB made the day seem like it was about MLB and less about Jackie Robinson. MLB shifted the focus from the man and his achievement to the way in which MLB was celebrating Robinson. In this sense, I was less sure that MLB was celebrating Jackie Robinson in 1947 than that MLB was celebrating itself celebrating Jackie Robinson in 2007.

I write this because reading about Robinson, I have the sense that he was a man suspicious of official gestures when the deliverable fell short of that which was promised.

MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn invited Robinson to appear before Game Two of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati where the Reds were hosting the Oakland Athletics. Robinson resisted, hesitant to support MLB when not one African-American had yet been hired to manage. Kuhn promised Robinson that he would encourage the owners to do so and pressed Robinson to attend. Robinson did and Kuhn presented Robinson with a plaque at what was then the 25th anniversary of his debut. Robinson used the public stage to speak his truth to the baseball powers when he said, “I'm going to be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”

Robinson also spoke out against the marginalization of black players in Major League Baseball when he chastised Commissioner Kuhn and the Baseball Hall of Fame for its planned treatment of Negro League players. The Hall of Fame did not admit a Negro League player until 1971 when it formed a special committee, the Committee on Negro League Veterans, which selected Satchell Paige in February 1971 as its first honoree.

However, these Negro League admits would not be Hall of Famers. After all, they had not met the criteria for induction that they have played Major League baseball for a minimum of 10 years. Instead, they would be honored as part of a new exhibit in the Hall for the contributions of Negro League players.

Robinson protested this arrangement. The Baseball Hall of Fame’s Memories and Dreams, in its May-June 2006 issue, reports Robinson as having said, “If the blacks go in as a special thing, it’s not worth a hill of beans. It’s the same rotten thing all over again. They deserve to be in it, but not as black players in a special category. Rules have been changed before. You can change rules like you change laws if the law is unjust.”

Robinson might have wanted to be hanging out with Billy Williams on Sunday. Williams played for the Chicago Cubs and Athletics from 1959 through 1976 and was elected himself to the Hall of Fame in 1987. The Associated Press reported yesterday, April 16, that when Williams was asked about MLB and its relationship to black fans and players, he responded, “We look at the problem, read about it, talk about it and nothing much changes.”

Look at it another way – there are thirty major league teams each of which has a five-man rotation of starting pitchers. This is 150 starting pitchers. How many of these starting pitchers in 2007 are African-American? Two. Dontrelle Willis and C.C. Sabathia. When one watches a baseball game, on which player does the camera focus the most attention? Yup.

It took Major League Baseball 15-years before it hired its first African-American coach, Buck O’Neil in 1962. It was not until 1975, three years after Robinson passed away, that Frank Robinson was hired as the first black manager. Today, where do we stand? There are two black managers, one black general-manager, and zero black owners.

It is a lot easier to celebrate ourselves celebrating Jackie Robinson than to celebrate Jackie Robinson.

April 10, 2007

Chief Wahoo Rides the Pine During MLB Civil Rights Game

April is Black History Month for Major League Baseball. The United States marks Black History in February, orienting the commemoration to the February birthdays of Frederick Douglass, born February 17, and Abraham Lincoln, born February 12. But in February, MLB is still in winter hibernation with spring training games not beginning prior to March 1.

Nope, Black History is April for MLB. Jackie Robinson reintegrated Major League Baseball when he played in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ season opener on April 15, 1947, against the Boston Braves. Born in Jim Crow Cairo, Georgia, in 1919, and a product of Negro League baseball, Robinson was the first ballplayer of color to play in white baseball since the 1880s; he joined the International League’s Montreal Royals for the 1946 season. In 1947, he and the Dodgers reopened the gates of the Major Leagues.

In 1987, Major League Baseball commemorated the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s debut. For example, when the Philadelphia Phillies opened the 1987 season in Atlanta against the Braves, there were pre-game activities and second-base was decorated with a blue number 42 in Robinson’s honor.

Ten years later, in 1997, then-president Bill Clinton, who Toni Morrison would label “the first black president” in The New Yorker in October 1998, presided at the New York Mets’ Shea Stadium – the Mets are the historic combined-standard barer of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants – as Major League Baseball announced that uniform number 42 would be retired across all American League and National League clubs in honor of Robinson. Those players who were then wearing the number would continue to wear it until they retired – like National Hockey League players grandfathered to be allowed to skate without helmets in the 1980s after the headgear was made mandatory during the 1979 off-season.

Across Major League Baseball stadiums, the number 42 joined the banners and flags and displays of those uniform numbers previously retired by each individual club. In Philadelphia, this royal-blue 42 joined the scarlet-red numbers 1, 14, 20, 32, and 36 that hung in the outfield backdrop at the Phillies’ Veterans Stadium. In addition, every team wore a sleeve patch during the 1997 season with Robinson’s signature stitched on it along with the words, BREAKING BARRIERS. It was a season long celebration.

This year, 2007, is the 60th anniversary of Robinson’s debut; celebrations and commemorations are planned for this Sunday, April 15. Commissioner Bud Selig has granted a dispensation to allow every player on the Los Angeles Dodgers to wear Robinson’s number 42 on Sunday. It will be an army of Jackie Robinsons. Similar events are planned around the League. Ken Griffey, Jr. will wear 42 for the Reds and Jimmy Rollins will do the same for the Phillies.

This brings us to the subject of this week’s article, MLB’s Civil Rights Game and the Cleveland Indians.

In keeping with its dedication to honoring the legacy of black ballplayers, Major League Baseball added a new annual event to its yearly calendar, the Civil Rights Game. Last December 4, MLB announced the creation of the exhibition game, which was designed, in Selig’s words, as reported on MLB.com on 12/04/2006, "to commemorate the Civil Rights Movement, one of the most critical and important eras of our social history.”

The city of Memphis was chosen as the site of the game due, in large part, to the location of the National Civil Rights Museum. The Museum was built in 1991 in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. One can view the balcony on which Dr. King stood when he was shot; the museum traces the Civil Rights Movement in almost a day-by-day manner. MLB plans to play the Civil Rights Game the weekend prior to Opening Day which will play it every year in the days prior to the anniversary of Dr. King’s murder.

This year’s game was played on Saturday, March 31. The St Louis Cardinals were a natural choice. Memphis is home to the Memphis Redbirds, the AAA minor-league team of the Cardinals. Memphis is relatively close to St Louis and the Cardinals were playing the following night at home in the season opener.

Cleveland was the second major league team to reintegrate, and the first in the American League, when Larry Doby debuted with the club in July 1947. The following year, Cleveland would win the World Series with both Doby and long-time Negro League phenom Satchel Paige.

For the game, the two teams were outfitted in special uniforms. (Like every piece of special commemorative sports-wear, the caps and jerseys are available for purchase online). The Cardinals were designated the home team and they wore white while Cleveland wore gray. Each team had its city spelled-out across the front in a plain san-serif font (this article appears on your screen as a san-serif font) and wore caps in the team’s primary color – red for the Cardinals and navy for Cleveland – with a white STL for St Louis and C for Cleveland.

Where was Chief Wahoo?

Banished to the back of the proverbial uniform-bus was Cleveland’s American-Indian mascot, Chief Wahoo. Since the 1950s, Cleveland has represented itself with the red skinned, hooked nose, grinning smile of its mascot. He is called Chief Wahoo. Since 1986, when he replaced a red and white full-block C, he has adorned the club’s primary game cap.

If you go to the Indians’ ballpark in Cleveland, Jacob’s Field, you will meet the team’s furry stadium mascot, Slider. Slider is a good guy as far as mascots go, and looks something like a purple love-child of the Phillie Phanatic and a Growth Hormone -Muppet (not that MLB is testing mascots, yet). Slider is no Indian and he does not look like Chief Wahoo – which is a good thing because a life-size version of the chief might scare children, both young and old.

We as a nation have become increasingly conscious of how we label and portray groups and people in this country that we have long marginalized. We might cringe at the capacity for political correctness to overreach itself, and, that being said, it would be hard to argue that we do not do well to be careful about how we speak of or portray people who we have historically used the law to injure or harm.

The Atlanta Braves have consciously fazed out their use of the screaming-Brave logo that you will see on its uniforms, on baseball cards, and official team letterhead going back to the 1950s when the club played in Milwaukee. Sometime in the past few years, the club ceased using it in official capacities. Today, the club’s logo is the team name with a tomahawk. Say what you will about a tomahawk, it is not a screaming Mohawked brave.

I am not suggesting that Atlanta change its nickname nor that even Cleveland does. (Although it would be cool if Cleveland used one of their nicknames from the early part of the twentienth-centory, like the Naps or Blues.)

We need not go that far.

The Civil Rights Movement, as embodied by Martin Luther King, and towards which Malcolm X might have been moving after his pilgrimage to Mecca, was about breaking barriers for everyone in this country, and not only the country’s people of color. It was not a black-nationalist movement – which in contrast, the Black Power movement saw itself to be. It is very peculiar for Major League Baseball to be patting itself on the back celebrating the Civil Rights Movement when one of it’s 30-club members adorns its game uniform with a relic of our collective cultural prejudice.

Cleveland released an alternate game cap a couple years ago, which it now wears for home games with its white jersey-vests. It is a navy cap with a cursive-looping capital-letter I in red and white. Let them wear this for every game and let this be an additional way in which MLB continues to celebrate Jackie Robinson.

April 02, 2007


Outfield Grass will not be published April 3 due to the first-day of the Passover holiday.