Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Integrity and Sanctity of Baseball

I just read this column by the Daily News's Bill Madden. It' mostly about A-Rod, but one of the themes of the piece is that baseball is a game of integrity and sanctity.

Recently, while watching a Yankees' game, I saw an ad for the MLB Civil Rights Game, a game honoring the Civil Rights Movement. As the first major American sport to officially desegregate, Baseball often celebrates its own history with regards to race and civil rights. But it's not clear to me why we should celebrate Major League Baseball's role in desegregation rather than lament it's role, prior to Jackie Robinson, in segregation.

A quick Google search tells me that MLB dates back to 1901 (one of the leagues dates back to 1875 but MLB, as we know it, has two leagues so I'll go with the later date). That means that from 1901 to 1947, MLB was a segregationist entity (Yes, Jackie Robinson signed in 1945, but he didn't play his first Major League game until 1947). That MLB broke the color barrier is only worthy of applause if the baseline from which you judge meritorious action includes the acceptability of things like legal segregation, burning crosses, and lynchings. If that is not the baseline from which you judge, then desegregation doesn't merit nearly as much applause. It is simply a step towards the baseline from which we would actually judge an action to be meritorious.

What Jackie Robinson did deserves more admiration than it could ever receive. Mr. Robinson desegregated baseball at a time when it was de facto legal to kill a black man on a white man's whim in much of the country. The same whim which Major League Baseball endorsed and legitimized for the first 46 years of its existence.

Forty-six years. Longer than I've been alive. Forty-six years condoning a caste system centered on utterly arbitrary physiological markers. Is that what we call integrity? Sanctity?

Some will argue that that was then, it was a different country and a different time. But is being awful for 46 years more acceptable if the country was collectively awful?

To say things were different 'then', or that we've come a long way, is to say it was okay then, which is to say that the baseline from which you measure a fair and equal society is one in which black bodies may be indiscriminately hung from trees, which is to say that lynchings (or 'separate but equal') would be okay now if only the practice received broader social acceptance.

If that's your position: fine, say so. If not, please drop the whole integrity and sanctity of the game nonsense. It's an insult to every player who was denied participation in the Major Leagues prior to 1947, and to all that Jackie Robinson had to endure because MLB chose to function as a segregationist entity for 46 years prior to his first game as a Dodger.

If you murder someone, no one praises you for not murdering anybody else since then. So why do we praise MLB for not participating in a regime that cost many persons their lives since 1947?

Perhaps Bill Madden, as a white male, has never concerned himself with such questions. I don't know, and this isn't intended to start an 'is Madden racist?' debate. That's not really the point, and the column clearly was not driven by any racial animus anyway. But there is a certain level of white entitlement and privilege expressed when one talks about Baseball as a game of integrity and sanctity.

I think it's about time we tucked that discourse away. It's not befitting anything that is, at days end, simply spectacle ('Ooh, that guy hit a ball really far!'). Especially when part of that spectacle was an almost 50 year endorsement of white supremacy.


Rich Mahogany said...

Madden is confusing sanctity with sanctimony (his own).

In addition to decades of segregation (and violent racism displayed toward Robinson, Hank Aaron, and other black players since desegregation), baseball has endured:

-A pre-free agency contract system that made players the property of their teams and gave players little or no say in where they played or how much they were paid

-Collusion by owners against free agents

-George Steinbrenner's vicious conduct that got him banned from running his own team

-Players' rampant and flagrant use of amphetamines and other stimulants

-MLB's tacit approval of PED use during the McGwire-Sosa home run chase, and failure to institute any kind of PED policy until years later

-Players faking their names and ages to improve their chances of getting MLB contracts

-Two of the games' greatest players ever, Bonds and Clemens, being tried for perjury and obstruction of justice (and Bonds being found guilty of the latter)

-The game's all-time hits leader getting banned for life for gambling on baseball

-Dempster hitting ARod out of personal spite and getting a slap on the wrist by MLB

Actual baseball isn't Field of Dreams. It's a massive business full of despicable liars and cheaters, and those are just the owners. ARod may be unjustly accused, or he may be a thoroughly dishonest and nasty person, or he may be both. But it's Madden's job to help figure out what's true about ARod, not come up with a tired old narrative about ARod besmirching the game's honor.

Roberto E. Alejandro said...