Part of what this site has set out to do is explore the often muddied relationship between baseball and politics. It sets at its core a critical mindset that is very aware of how sports fit into our society. Although it may not be inherently political, the study of SABRmetrics is in itself critical of traditional baseball truisms and therefore it is my view that they fit perfectly into a blog that seeks to challenge what we think we know about the game and about ourselves.
This critical mindset means that much of what is written here can be deemed controversial. In part, it is meant to incite debate, whether it’s about the sustainability of Bryan LaHair’s lightning-hot start, what makes a true ace pitcher, or what role racism and homophobia play in the game.
After all, as Dave Zirin remarks in his excellent documentary “Not Just A Game,” sports should be taken seriously…
“…as a cultural force, a shared social space, and a political force that reflects and in turn shapes our often conflicting ideas and beliefs about who we are, how we view others and how we see ourselves as a country.”
Of course, Zirin is coming from an American perspective, but this applies just as aptly to Canada or anywhere else. And of course, the dominant political discourses of the U.S. permeate nations all around the world, so his quote is apposite on a few levels.
The topic of this particular post will no doubt bring out a lot of controversy as it surrounds one of the most beloved players in the game’s history, Jackie Robinson. Over the last few decades, Major League Baseball has made an admirable and concerted effort to educate subsequent generations of baseball fans on the contributions of Jackie Robinson; this cannot be denied. It is my contention, however, that they have done so in a way that not only whitewashes the importance of Robinson—and other Negro League players, such as Larry Doby and Dan Bankhead—who broke MLB’s colour barrier back in 1947, but also minimizes the very real problems that still exist in mainstream sports regarding race, gender, class and sexual orientation.
The image we have of Robinson is one of bravery, self-assuredness, courage, and self-sacrifice. All of this is undoubtedly warranted, but Major League Baseball also ignores a far more important element of Robinson: His affect on the wider culture as a political activist during and after his baseball career.
As Zirin put it in his film:
“The harder edges of what Robinson was all about were softened into sentiment from the beginning.
In history’s telling, Jackie Robinson just smiled, worked hard, never complained, and eventually broke the colour barrier.”
This version of Robinson’s story fits neatly into American ideals of perseverance and bravery; an individual act of working hard in the face of struggle to achieve one’s goals.
Indeed, the achievements of Robinson, Doby, Bankhead and others were a major catalyst in the Civil Rights movement. Acceptance of black players in Major League Baseball and other sports certainly helped the wider public accept black people as equals in society and the wider culture. Of course, this telling of Robinson’s history ignores the real struggles faced by black people before, during and even after the Civil Rights Movement.
Again, from Zirin:
“…despite his singular achievements, the grossest forms of institutional racism, segregation and inequality were still legal, acceptable and practiced across a broad cross-section of the country.”
This treatment of Robinson also conveniently forgets his contributions to and involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Robinson’s support for the liberation of black people in the U.S. on a broader scale is entirely ignored when Major League Baseball pays tribute to him each year and throughout the year. It’s almost as if this version of Robinson as a contrarian fighting against established state power is unacceptable and somehow not worthy of mention.
You could argue, of course, that it’s this part of Robinson’s story that is the most important and integral to the progression of social justice in the U.S. and elsewhere. In the 1960s Robinson often spoke out against racism and inequality in the U.S. and did so with as influential a voice as anyone at the time, including Martin Luther King Jr.
The following are two quotes that you will simply never hear repeated on any MLB broadcast during Jackie Robinson Day or any other day for that matter:
“As a black man, I find it quite discouraging to look around and find how little has been done to lift minorities from the depths of poverty and despair.”
“All these guys who are saying we’ve got it made through athletics; it’s just not so. You, as an individual can make it, but I think we’ve got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people, not by what happens as an individual. So I really tell these youngsters…certainly I had opportunities that they haven’t had, but because I’ve had these opportunities doesn’t mean that I’ve forgotten.”
These quotes make it explicitly clear that Robinson was concerned with structural barriers that exist in our society, that serve to keep certain people from making individual achievements such as his own. Not exactly the narrative you hear on Jackie Robinson Day, is it?
Of course, the reason we don’t hear these narratives on Jackie Robinson Day has much more to do with the fact that many structural barriers still exist in the sporting world. If MLB acknowledged this portion of Robinson’s history, they’d also have to acknowledge that racism is still very present in today’s baseball landscape. It would also have to acknowledge the lack of progress in terms of the integration of women into the sport, either as front office personnel, commentators and writers, and even as players and coaches.
Perhaps most importantly, MLB and the media covering it would have to acknowledge the blatant culture of homophobia in sports that is so pervasive, not a single active professional baseball player is openly gay.
This whitewashing of Robinson’s contributions to the game and the wider culture has a direct effect on how we view these issues. Might it be easier for a gay athlete to come out while active if MLB did a better job of promoting Robinson’s counter-hegemonic history? Of course it’s impossible to know for sure; but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
I should make it clear that what MLB currently does in commemoration of Robinson’s achievements should be applauded. No other major American sport does anything like it (which is a shame). But, without mentioning the wider implications of Robinson as a man and an activist, we’re being robbed of a central portion of the narrative.
This whitewashing serves as but one example of how dominant ideologies continue to maintain power over those who do not fit into the hyper-masculinised ideal of “the athlete.” Worse yet, this retelling of history serves to discredit the battle for equal rights of groups of people still struggling today.