Sunday, April 01, 2007

Civil Rights Game

Last night Major League Baseball played its first Civil Rights Game, which in essence was a glorified final spring training game, in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis is certainly significant, as it's the location of the Civil Rights Museum, formerly the Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in cold blood in 1968, and was racially segregated along Jim Crow lines into the late 20th century, and Tennessee itself, obviously, was a slave state and member of the Confederacy. The aim of the game was to highlight the progress the league has made since Jackie Robinson integrated it in 1947, and to call attention to the precipitous drop in African-American players, who once constituted some of its biggest stars and nearly 1/4th of its players, but who now are a diminishing presence on most clubs, with some, like Houston, having not even one African-American starting position player or pitcher. While there were never a lot of Black catchers or pitchers, there are less than a handful of Black Americans starting at either of these two positions (though two of the best younger pitchers in each league are African Americans) in the entire league.

What tends not to get articulated by man in the media is that Black American baseball players have to a great degree been replaced not just by Latino players, but by Black Latino players; many of baseball's contemporary stars are Latinos of evident African descent. The majority of these players are from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico or Cuba, all of which have complex racial histories and sizable-to-majority populations of mixed-race people. The racial demographics and economies of all four countries include people who are outright considered "Black," with variations based on class, region, and history, though when this is translated to the racial logic that now holds in the US, ethnicity (Latino) almost automatically cancels out race (Black)--though sometimes not the case for Cubans and Puerto Ricans. The most common name cited in support of the presence of Black Latinos in the major leagues is Sammy Sosa, but I would assert, isn't Orlando "El Duque" Hernández Black? David Ortiz? Manny Ramírez? Carlos Delgado? José Reyes (shown above)? Albert Pujols? Not African Americans, at least in the ethnic sense that term denotes, but aren't they Black people?

The presence of Black Latinos, however, doesn't mitigate the waning number of Black American players. In part, the replacement is the result of neoliberal economics and market forces; it's cheaper to groom and sign impoverished talented and determined young men from the Dominican Republic or other countries than to fund programs for Black Americans here--and why more Black baseball players have not banded together to create such programs and push the extremely wealthy major league franchises to do more is beyond me--and baseball now competes with a host of other sports that draw African American young people, from basketball and football, whose professional leagues are predominantly African-American, to other sports such as boxing, ice hockey, soccer, tennis, track and field, lacrosse, and so on. Baseball is also increasingly drawing on an international talent pool, as Japan's leagues have made it easier to draft its best players, and South Koreans, and Canadians and Australians also are increasingly being drafted. (One of the most talented younger starting Black catchers is from Canada.) A delegation that included the New York Mets' Dominican General Manager even went to Ghana to sell the sport there and scout new sources of talent. It's also the case that African Americans have in recent years excelled in sports that once had little to no Black presence, such as golf, rowing, and fencing. Yet talented African Americans continue to vie to enter baseball's major leagues, only in far smaller numbers, and continue to excel, which may perhaps mask the problem. Last year's National League MVP was the Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard, an extraordinarily talented Black American born in St. Louis. (The AL MVP was also Black, but a native of the Dominican Republic, the beloved Big Papi, David Ortiz.) The World Series runners-up, the Detroit Tigers, have had as many as five Black Americans rotating through their starting lineup (two went to the new Washington Senators) in recent years, while other teams, like the Florida Marlins , the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (whose entire starting outfield consists of Black Americans), and the Los Angeles Dodgers, actually have managed to find a number of young Black American and Black Latino players. Yet the fact remains that some teams have shown little interest in the issue, or have made no demonstrative effort to field Black American players, and in the case of Houston, had only one non-White starter as recently as a year ago.

I watched a little of the game, which pitted last year's World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals (my favorite team) against the Cleveland Indians, who've been up and down over the last few years. The Cardinals played like the season had begun, and won 5-1. During the broadcast, a number of Black American Hall of Famers, like Lou Brock and Dave Winfield, as well as Spike Lee, journalists and others concerned with the issue, spoke about the problem of declining African-American presence, but I have to say I heard little that was really informed about race or economics, or about concrete steps anyone was going to take to rectify things. Really, is a symbolic game going to bring about any changes? Will it put any pressures on the ballclubs or owners? Will it lead to new programs? How many young African Americans even watched the game, and why isn't baseball marketing Howard and other younger Black American players more? I also thought about the two teams who participated in the game: the Cardinals currently have only one Black American starter, Preston Wilson, among its position players, and no Black starting or relief pitchers, while Cleveland has no Black American starting position players, and one very good Black American starting pitcher, C.C. Sabathia. Both teams have a number of Latino players of African descent; Saint Louis's star is Albert Pujols, one of the best younger players in the game, and the starting catcher, Yadier Molina, is Puerto Rican, while Cleveland has several younger Black Latino players, like Jhonny Peralta, Andy Marte, Fausto Carmona, and Joshua Barfield. The first three are Dominican, and Barfield is Venezuelan. By the discourse that predominated yesterday, none of these players was Black--and any sense that they might inspire young African American players seemed lost on the commentators, even though many young Latino players cite African Americans like Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, and others, as inspirations, and certainly Roberto Clemente, one of the greatest outfielders ever, also a (proud) Black Puerto Rican, inspired African Americans during the years he played. During the 50th anniversary celebrations for Jackie Robinson's play, I noted--and certainly I wasn't the only one--that some of the Black Latinos openly paid homage to Robinson and to the Negro Leaguers, and the New York Yankees even have a Dominican player, Robinson Cañó, whose first name is an homage to the revolutionary pioneer. Did I hear any mention of this connection or others yesterday? No. Were promising younger Black American high school or college players brought to watch the game? Not that I know of, but I may have missed this aspect of the program. Indeed, I didn't even hear anything about inspiring the huge and increasing population of Mexican-American young people to participate in baseball. (Truth be told, I've pretty much given up on any sophistication or nuance in mass media discussions of race and ethnicity, particularly involving African Americans and Latinos.)

Tonight the Cardinals will open the season against the Mets, who have no African-American starters, but one of the most racially and ethnically diverse teams in the league. I'm rooting for the Cardinals, but I'm also rooting for baseball--and Black baseball players, current and retired--to help turn things around.

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