Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Would Jackie really be all that pissed?

I'm not going to even bother wondering exactly when it is 60 year anniversaries became such a huge fucking deal; I can understand MLB's desire to celebrate Jackie Robinson's career as often and loudly as possible, so there's not much of an argument to be had there. But, not surprisingly, amidst the increasingly tired platitudes and trite stunts, no small amount of discussion about the relative paucity of black players in the game has been generated.

Here is a prime example of the standard operating procedure for these position pieces.

Looking beyond the truly fetid writing (which, admittedly, is difficult) one finds an even more troubling phenomena: The idea that a lack of black players is a problem -- a net negative for the game -- as opposed to it being simply neutral. But I'll get to that in a second.

As is often the case with important historical figures -- particularly civil rights leaders -- Robinson has assumed a deified status in America. And, if there were ever anyone primed for such a role, I guess it would be Robinson. He's practically unimpeachable as both a person and player (at least as far as we know, and I suppose there's no real profit in attempting to prove he was not) and spent his post-playing days using his pulpit for good causes, not the least of which was the civil rights movement. While his effect on the country at large is probably overstated, the same can't be said about his effect on the world of sports. By breaking the color line in baseball, he made it impossible for the other sports leagues to tolerate any kind of discrimination. I think it's safe to say that Robinson is the most important athlete in this country's history.

But the basis for Robinson's status is, I believe, misunderstood by many fans and even more pundits. And that's never more clear than it is in the story I linked to, or the 15 episodes of Outside the Lines running for these two weeks dedicated to exploring Robinson's legacy.

Bottom line: The number of black players in baseball is totally and utterly irrelevant, and I do believe Jackie would feel the same way.

Robinson's fight wasn't in an effort to increase the number of black players in the major leagues, despite what others will claim. It was a fight to turn baseball (and ultimately sports) into a true meritocracy. The tragedy of segregation as it related to baseball was that the accomplishments of some the game's greatest players have been marginalized. Josh Gibson would have been one of the two or three best players in the majors had he been allowed to play; Satchel might have been the best pitcher alive in his prime. But we don't know because there were variables present in the selection of major league baseball that trumped pure ability. In the years following Robinson's (and Branch Rickey's) bold step, the game slowly stripped away a lot of that bullshit and got down to just playing the best talent.

Despite some specific obstacles -- mostly the long-term contract, which Robinson, an outspoken advocate for players' rights who was one of Curt Flood's most vocal supporters, would surely see as a huge positive -- baseball and the rest of sports today are perhaps the last example of a pure meritocracy we have left in our society. It's lunacy to think that a GM or manager wouldn't put the best talent available out on the field to accommodate any prejudices he might have (with the notable exception of Ned Colletti, who simply hates young players and would like to see a minimum age requirement [his suugestion: 37]). And isn't that really what Jackie wanted after all? He didn't play second for the Odgers because he was black; he played because he was a superlative talent.

To take it a step further, I think people have it all wrong when they bemoan the lack of black baseball players these days. Beyond the fact that a large percentage of those "few" black players are bona fide stars -- guys like Bonds, Howard, Rollins, Crawford and Dontrelle -- the "flight" of the black baseball player to other sports suggests unparalleled levels of access and equality within the entire body of athletic competition in this country. A schoolboy in the sticks can still choose freely between basketball, football and baseball, or any combination of the three. That, in my mind, is the true hallmark of success of the racial equality front.

C.C. Sabathia proclaimed a few weeks ago that the lack of black baseball players represents a "crisis," and laid the problem at the feet of MLB, which he thinks should do more to promote the game in the inner city. At the time I simply thought it was another example of an athlete speaking before he thought, but the more I've considered it, I actually think it's pretty insulting. Black kids aren't choosing basketball or football over baseball because the NBA and NFL are doing more to promote the sport in the inner cities; it's because the kids like those sports more. And, really, what's the problem with that anyway? I may think baseball is the best sport in the world, but that doesn't mean I think anyone disagreeing with me on that point does so out of ignorance.

On a related note, this was an interesting story.

1 comment:

St said...

No, Connor, it was Tiger Woods who broke the most important color barrier -- in golf, that most popular of international games -- and in so doing became the biggest sports star in the universe. Get your shit straight.