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Baseball’s Race Problem

Roger Angell, who turned 100 in this year of pandemic and upheaval, is one of the best and most beloved writers on baseball, in large part because of his lyrical, sinewy prose. Over the decades, he has cogently analyzed the “summer game” and its importance to American life. Baseball, he wrote, boasts “the most enviable corporate image in the world.” Its evocations, overtones, and loyalties, firmly planted in the mind of every American male during childhood and nurtured thereafter by millions of words of free newspaper publicity, appear to be unassailable. It is the national pastime. It is youth, springtime, a trip to the country, part of our past. It is the roaring excitement of huge urban crowds and the sleepy green afternoon silences of midsummer.

Without effort, it engenders and thrives on heroes, legends, self-identification, and hometown pride.

Yet even as far back as 1964, when Angell wrote those words, he knew that this bucolic corporate image had been smudged and distorted by exploding television revenues and the owners’ avarice for newer, more profitable locations for their teams. The brusque departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants for the West Coast seven years before, he wrote, left those teams’ fans bereft and with “the new knowledge that baseball’s executives cared only for the profits inherent in novelty and new audiences, and sensed no obligation whatever…to the fans who had built their business.” Still, because much of the American psyche was for so long tethered to baseball, the game remained at the very least a symbol of national continuity, even consensus.

Whether you liked baseball or not, you at least knew what it was, how it was played (three strikes, etc.), what it represented, who its stars were. And how you related to it (or didn’t) still connected you to a part of the country’s soul. Despite more shifts of franchises and players from one city to another, despite Astroturf, cocaine, collusion, strikes, steroids, Pete Rose’s gambling bug, Al Campanis’s bigoted ramblings, and tackle football’s all but total conquest of America’s athletic dream life, baseball endured. If none of those could kill the grand old game, it can certainly withstand a mutilated regular season with cardboard cutouts in the stands instead of people.

What was also telling in 1964 was that the racial integration of baseball that the owners had fought—even after Jackie Robinson first took the field for the Dodgers in 1947—had altered more than just major league rosters. Black players brought to major league ball a kind of base-running dynamism and defensive flair that hadn’t been prevalent since the early 20th century, before Babe Ruth went to the New York Yankees in 1920 and inaugurated the boom, so to speak, of home-run appeal. The contrast between 1964’s National League pennant-winning St. Louis Cardinals, with their roster of slick, speedy, and strong Black stars like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Curt Flood, and their American League counterparts, the once-mighty and soon-to-decline New York Yankees, with an aging roster that featured Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford, demonstrated how far the AL still lagged the senior circuit in signing African Americans. (The Cards won a tough seven-game World Series, with Gibson’s gritty pitching sealing the deciding game.)

Today, more than half a century after Black Americans helped reenergize the sport, baseball once again has a color problem: a steep decline of African American interest and participation in the game. The trend was most trenchantly detailed in a 2015 visual essay for HBO’s muckraking Real Sports by comedian Chris Rock, who argued that such problems have their roots precisely among the nuances, subtleties, and grace notes nostalgically exalted by the Roger Angells of the world. Rock is a middle-aged New York Mets fan, as am I. And as 50-and-over Black baseball fans, we are in no way happy with—but also in no way surprised by—the difficulties that baseball has connecting with younger fans, Black and white.

“Baseball,” Rock said, “wants everything to stay the way things used to be. But the world has sped up, but the game is slower than ever…. It’s old-fashioned and stuck in the past…. [It’s] the only game where there’s a right way to play the game: the white way. The way it was played a hundred years ago, when only whites were allowed to play.”

ed note: the author identifies Peru as a "powerhouse" for producing professional baseball players. There is currently one Peruvian Major League baseball player. It is likely he meant "Venezuela" or "Colombia." 

Read entire article at The Nation