Last week, Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles, one of baseball’s few remaining black stars, spoke out on why Major League Baseball hasn’t seen a protest of the National Anthem like those started by Colin Kaepernick in the National Football League. Jones was blunt in his assessment (emphasis mine): “Baseball is a white man’s sport,” he told USA TODAY’s Bob Nightengale. “We already have two strikes against us,” Jones said, “so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game. In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us.”
Protests like Kaepernick’s have spread across the NFL, emerging into other leagues like the National Woman’s Soccer League. Meanwhile, NBA stars have spoken out against police brutality since Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012. Even NBA role players have pledged their solidarity with Kaepernick, including Iman Shumpert who promised in a rap track to kneel during the anthem when his season begins. I believe Jones is spot on in his assessment of why athletes in other leagues are boldly speaking out, while baseball has been utterly devoid of protest. It is not unique in American sports that baseball’s powers-that-be are lily-white, but MLB is not beholden to its black talent in the way the NFL and NBA are, and that has allowed baseball owners and executives to enforce their political views in a way their counterparts in the NFL and NBA could never get away with.
This idea goes all the way back to Branch Rickey’s recruitment of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. One part of their 1945 conversation is routinely cited, as it was in Larry Schwartz’s ESPN SportsCentury feature:
Rickey: “I know you’re a good ballplayer. What I don’t know is whether you have the guts.”
Robinson: “Mr. Rickey, are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?”
Rickey, exploding: “Robinson, I’m looking for a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back.”
This is an important quote, not so much for the myth of Robinson but for the myth of Rickey. When the story is told by baseball lifers or in Hollywood productions like 2013’s 42, Rickey’s selection of Robinson is presented as a tactical choice to break the color barrier for all black athletes, regardless of temperament. In reality, however, baseball has remained closed to many black athletes who don’t fall into an acceptable range of personalities or behaviors as determined by the white men who run the game.
Scouts have pushed black players away from positions like pitcher and catcher because they don’t believe black players have the mental or leadership capacity to play them, as Kevin Kerrane detailed in his study of scouts, Dollar Sign on the Muscle. Similar attitudes espoused by executives like Al Campanis have contributed to the dearth of black faces in managerial or front office positions. White managers have treated black players, as Phillies skipper George Myatt did with Dick Allen, as something to be handled. Allen’s response, as recalled in his autobiography Crash: “George, you don’t ‘handle’ people, you treat them. Horses, you handle.”
Gary Sheffield, like Allen, was a multiple-time All-Star who put together a Hall of Fame career, one that unsurprisingly went unrecognized by Hall voters. He expressed similar sentiments to Jones in Dean Chadwin’s 2000 book Those Damn Yankees: The Secret Life of America’s Greatest Franchise:
“You want to know why there aren’t any black players? Because you’ve got to be twice as good as anyone else. If you’re not, you just won’t make it. Why do you think you hardly ever see any black bench players? You better be a star, or you’re not making this team. They don’t want a black player sitting on the bench making money. You got to be white.”
Sheffield has never been one to keep his mouth shut in the face of controversy. He opened up about the anthem issue at an MLB on TBS luncheon Tuesday. “What Colin is doing should be commended,” Sheffield said. “Very rare do you see any athletes speak up, especially baseball because of the money.” He added that he wished more baseball players would speak their minds as freely as he did during his playing career.
But, there have been forces within baseball working against black athletes who would dare speak up for over half a century. These same forces exist to a certain extent in football and basketball as well; look no further than the blacklisting of football’s Paul Robeson during the McCarthy era or Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the NBA in the 1990s. But those sports are both majority black, and they both rely heavily on black athletes for cheap labor, not just in the pros but into the amateur ranks as well. Baseball, rather than recruit more Dick Allens or Gary Sheffield, turned its attention towards Latin America, where labor was even cheaper and could be signed at a younger age, where the athletes had more to lose — they were “hungry,” as Campanis once put it — and were thus less likely to engage in open rebellion.
As such, baseball has remained home only to those black athletes who, as Rickey put it, have the “guts not to fight back.” It takes the star power of a Jones, Sheffield or Allen to speak out, and even then, retribution from management or the media is all but guaranteed. Whereas NFL and NBA teams at least have to maintain a facade of tolerance to attract black talent, MLB, which is now only eight percent black, is constantly enforcing its whiteness.
Nobody understood Jones’s sentiments better than Robinson. Robinson’s agreement to grin and bear the abuse from fans, opponents and even teammates in the major leagues required exceptional emotional endurance. The symptoms of that stress manifested physically in the form of chronic stomach pain and sleeplessness, and he remained uneasy with his decision not to fight back his whole life. In 1972, 25 years after his major league debut, in the conclusion of the preface to his autobiography, Robinson wrote perhaps the sharpest indictment there could be of baseball as a white man’s sport:
“There I was the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but … it was Mr. Rickey’s drama …I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”