The Cultural Barriers of Baseball Still Remain

My son was in the on deck circle preparing to bat when I was ambushed by polite white supremacy.

I make it a rule to avoid small talk with people I don’t know well since I am a progressive black man living behind enemy lines in suffocatingly white, unapologetically conservative Oklahoma. Many have a tendency to assume that I think as they do, so I find it best to keep conversations limited to the weather and sports. I can’t even tell them what I do for a living, because when I tell them I’m a philosopher, they usually tell me about that ‘interesting’ class they had once in undergrad, and if I tell them my specialty is philosophy of race, they tend to want to ask questions that I don’t want to answer.

This day, however, a parent from the opposing team caught me off guard: “Can you believe that black guy said baseball is a white man’s sport?”

Damn. How was I going to get out of this one?

In September 2016, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale discussed the possibility of a Colin Kaepernick-like protest during the national anthem in Major League Baseball with Adam Jones of the Baltimore Orioles. “We already have two strikes against us already,’’ he 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.”

Jones concluded by saying that “baseball is a white man’s sport.’’

He isn’t wrong.

My love of baseball comes from summers spent in Idabel, Oklahoma with my grandfather.

We would throw the ball back in forth as he told me stories of travelling to Kansas City to see players like Satchel Paige and Williard Brown. According to him, a life-long baseball fan, the style of play in the Negro Leagues was much different than that in the MLB. The quality of play was just as good, if not better, but they played the game with more flair and personality. On any given day, you might see a player steal a base and do a little dance upon being declared safe. Or, as legend has it, you might see Satchel Paige tell the outfielders to come into the infield because he was certain that no one would be able to hit the fastballs he threw with his signature mechanics.

Jackie Robinson might have integrated Major League Baseball, but as Ken Burns points out in his epic documentary series about baseball, they were not as open to allowing the players to bring their culture along with them. The same is true of players from Latin American countries.

In April 2015, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig told the Los Angeles Times that he was going to cut back on bat-flips. He said: “I want to show American baseball that I’m not disrespecting the game.” Yet, he did say, “If it’s a big home run or if I’m frustrated because I couldn’t connect in my previous at-bats or if I drive in important runs for my team, I might do it…you never know. I can’t say I won’t do it.” This comes after pressure from American baseball purists who contend that bat flipping and other forms of celebration after home runs are disrespectful to the sport.

As Bomani Jones pointed out, the purists believe that the kind of behavior you find in Latin American and Asian countries (where they bat-flip creatively and proficiently) is not in the spirit of how it should be done within our borders. In fact, later in that 2015 season, Bud Norris, who pitched for the Atlanta Braves at the time, put it like this: “We’re opening this game to everyone that can play. However, if you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years…”

In other words, you can get home runs; you can play in our country, but you must adhere to our (largely white) expectations.

It’s a subtle form of cultural colonialization to allow a player to display their athletic brilliance, but to disallow them from bringing their cultural style of play. I think this is part of why baseball has seen a steep decline in participation (and viewership) from African-Americans. At its peak, black athletes made up over 20% of MLB. Now, black players make up just 8%.

In the NFL, you are allowed to be performative – players dance after they score a touchdown. In the NBA, Stephen Curry shimmies after he hits a three.

In Major League Baseball, you’re supposed to merely circle the bases after you hit a home run. Smile if you want… but don’t show any teeth.

When asked if I could believe “that black guy said baseball is a white man’s sport,” I asked a simple question in response: “Are you mad because he said it; or are you made because it’s true?”

I would have dropped a mic if I had one in my hand.

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