Baseball's Woke Streak

It is shameful to observe Major League Baseball, ostensibly America’s “national pastime,” once again succumb to the phenomenon, so ably dissected by Shelby Steele in his 2006 book, of “white guilt.” In 2021, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, in an unprecedented move, at the last minute relocated the annual All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver as an act of protest against Georgia’s recently enacted voting reforms, which critics had labeled as a form of “voter suppression”—a claim refuted by the increased voter turnout seen in this month’s primaries.

Last week, however, still in fear of being accused of complicity in racism, the commissioner’s office went further, suspending Yankee slugger Josh Donaldson for a game, and fining him, for calling White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson “Jackie.” Donaldson’s dig was an allusion to Anderson’s having compared himself to the great Jackie Robinson in a 2019 interview with Sports Illustrated, claiming that as one of the relatively few (seven percent) African-American players in the major leagues, he felt that he had to “change the game” just as Robinson had done by playing it his “own way.”

Anderson’s boastful comparison was ludicrous. While he is a star infielder, having amassed impressive hitting statistics during the past 4+ seasons of a career with the Sox that began in 2016, it would be more than presumptuous to infer that he is already a likely future candidate for baseball’s Hall of Fame, where Robinson is enshrined. More important, however, is the contrast between any supposed hardships he has endured as a ballplayer and what Robinson had to undergo—as well as the contrast between his self-aggrandizing behavior and Robinson’s.

When Brooklyn Dodger general manager Branch Rickey contemplated bringing Robinson up from the minors in 1947 to become the first black player in the major leagues, he asked Robinson, a man of great pride, whether he also had the inner strength to bear the torrent of racial abuse he would undoubtedly experience (and did experience) from “bench jockeys” on other teams, as well as from some fans, without fighting back. An incendiary response might have turned this first step in integrating the majors into a fiasco. Understanding what was at stake, Robinson promised that he would exercise the extraordinary self-control that Rickey was calling for, and kept his promise. Robinson’s courageous self-restraint in his early years is well portrayed in the biopic 42, as well as in the earlier The Jackie Robinson Story, featuring Robinson himself.

Less than three years prior to his agreement with Rickey, while stationed as an army lieutenant at Camp Hood, Texas, Robinson had been court-martialed, though ultimately acquitted, for refusing to obey a white bus driver’s directive that he move to the back of the bus, pointing out that the driver’s demand contradicted a recent army directive banning racial segregation. Despite being a college graduate, Robinson had had to twist arms to secure his commission as an officer. He wasn’t exactly an Uncle Tom.

By keeping his pledge to Rickey, Robinson paved the way for other stars from the Negro Leagues, starting with the Cleveland Indians’ Larry Doby, to follow his path to the majors starting a year later. And his extraordinary talents in all phases of the game—hitting, fielding, base-stealing—over the next decade would have earned him a place in the Hall, even if it had not been for his status as a pioneer.

Young fans inevitably tend to regard their teams’ stars as role models. Should the grievance politics of Tim Anderson and his apologists really be what we want our kids, of whatever race, to emulate?

As for Donaldson’s behavior, nothing in his ribbing remark (contrary to the claim of renowned Sox manager Tony LaRussa) can plausibly be interpreted as racist. In fact, not only is such teasing a longtime tradition in baseball (just as is “talking trash” in basketball), but in 2021, prior to his acquisition by the Yankees, Donaldson taunted his now-teammate, highly-paid (white) pitcher Gerrit Cole, for an apparent reduction in his pitches’ spin rate, implying (as some others had speculated) that Cole’s performance was suffering thanks to the league’s crackdown on the use of sticky substances to enhance a pitcher’s control. In other words, Donaldson is an equal-opportunity taunter, and anyone who makes it to the major leagues should be fully capable of enduring such raillery.

Anderson, however, along with his manager, the commissioner, teammate Liam Hendriks, and the mainstream media, just couldn’t let it go. Hendriks commented that “Usually you have inside jokes with people you get along with. . . .That statement right there was complete bulls—t.” And Anderson, while professing not to care about Donaldson’s punishment, added an expression of gratitude for the “love and support” he claimed to have received from around the baseball world—and hoped that the punishment had taught Donaldson a lesson.

It might be added here that Anderson’s own behavior on the ballfield has not been spotless: at the start of the 2022 season, he served a two-game suspension—(reduced from three games) for having bumped an umpire (a no-no under all circumstances) during a bench-clearing dustup with the Detroit Tigers that occurred at the end of 2021. Anderson’s only half-apologetic explanation at the time was that he hadn’t at first realized that the person he was bumping was an umpire, but that “he [the umpire] started it. I pushed back because he was in my space and too close.” Needless to say, this incident has not received the press coverage that Donaldson’s purely verbal “offense” has.

Most adults who, like the present author, follow sports at the professional, collegiate, or high school level do so as a diversion not only from their day’s work but from the typically more troubling events depicted on the daily newspapers’ front pages, or television or online news broadcasts. And young fans inevitably tend to regard their teams’ stars as role models. Should the grievance politics of Anderson and his apologists really be what we want our kids, of whatever race, to emulate?

If officials like Rob Manfred turn their leagues into just another venue for pushing racial politics, they are likely to find their audiences shrinking. Just as professional ballplayers should be expected to display a certain mental and moral as well as physical toughness, even if they can’t rival the achievement of Jackie Robinson, so executives should be able to demonstrate that they won’t be cowed by professional race-baiters, inside and outside the media. If Manfred can’t stand the heat, as Robinson might have told him, he should get out of the kitchen.