Is baseball still America’s sport – that is, where we take “America” to be the United States? I think so, especially in light of the new discussion of race and baseball. The new discussion: the crisis (for better or worse, that’s the rhetoric) of falling African-American participation at all levels. The statistics have taken a pretty simple and straightforward trajectory: from 17.25 percent in 1959 (year following integration) to 30 percent in the mid-seventies to 8 percent this season. That’s stark. That’s strange. That’s certainly worth thinking about. What does it all mean? Some thoughts…
I can start with this: I hope more African-Americans play baseball in the future. Actually, let me be more precise: I hope it is possible (which is very different than necessary) for more African-Americans to play baseball in the future. Folks can play whatever they want to play. But making this possible means all sorts of things, summarized by Dave Winfield as “cost, continuity, and competition.” Winfield is a smart guy, I adored him as a player (sat in right field at Dodger Stadium, the only one cheering him when he played for the Padres), and this interview posted at MSNBC’s website lays out the basic thoughts of his new book. I like Winfield’s approach, generally, and hope he’s successful. Major League Baseball has plenty of cash and can do whatever they want.
My concern is more with how this sort of problem is framed. What follows, then, are much more wandering thoughts than fully formed positions, and none of them dispute the basic idea that increasing African-American participation in baseball is a good thing. Three things come to mind:
First, I wonder about the idea that there ought to be African-American interest in baseball, especially – if not exclusively, in this discussion – as participants. The “ought” underlying a lot of the conversation about race and baseball is strange and needs some consideration. My suspicions about this “ought”-frame of the discussion goes in a couple of directions. There is firstly the question of the commodification of African-Americans as athletes. Where does that compulsion come from? Why is it so important that “we” see African-Americans on the field? This “we” is my second suspicion. Is there something about these genuinely striking percentages that complicates – if not outright denies – the story of baseball in relation to white guilt-then-redemption? Do “we” white Americans need to see African-American (not just black) players to continue that story? You know, the one about how “we” confronted our problem of race on the field, watched it disappear in athletic meritocracy (thereby becoming the model for liberal anti-affirmative action arguments), and even cheered Hank Aaron as he passed The Babe. (Everyone of that generation imagines they did; we know that couldn’t be true, given Aaron’s actual experience.)
Second, I get uneasy when the idea of marketing is the obvious (and it is) strategy for remedying this racial gap. This is quintessentially American, of course, and so quintessentially unnerving. How do we address a social problem? Create a new market that labors against the problem! No other strategy seems to make any sense, really. And so, on the one hand, this strategy simply recognizes that tastes like sport-preference are largely, if not completely, socially constructed. I get that. You address the problem as it is presented to you. No point in reinventing the whole cultural system at this particular moment. On the other hand, the whole strategy imagines that African-Americans can only be imagined as a blank-slate of sorts, neutrally desiring consumers in search of a product. And baseball can be that product with the right kind of images on television, magazines, and whatever else. So goes the story. “We” never imagine that real preferences have just shifted. Surely “they” are passive and awaiting new interpellations. See? There are a lot of hidden premises in this strategy. More than I can treat in this post.
Third, and more widely, the whole conversation takes place against a backdrop of what it means to be an “American.” Or, perhaps more pointedly, it reproduces certain nationalist fantasies – perhaps we should call them progressive nationalist fantasies – about what it means to be an American at the very moment we (re)visit racial anxiety and racial justice. That is, “we” get concerned about the future of African-Americans in baseball (progressive moment) while reifying ideas of “our sport” in “our land” (conservative moment). There are of course plenty of black people in baseball, but those black people are Caribbean and Latin American. And all of those people are Americans, really, so this shift is technically the Americanizing of the American tradition. Thinking of the United States as the real America. So, the progressive moment is also completely conservative: our sport, for our people, dominated by us.
In these three senses, then, I think we can see the conversation about African-Americans in baseball as a gathering point of so many anxieties. I can’t feel anything but positive about efforts to get Af-Am kids into baseball. Of course. Who wouldn’t? But the attendant anxieties are really something different and deserve their own attention.
And so, in the end, I worry most about revisiting the idea that we, as a nation, work out our racial anxieties on a sporting field. Not simply because I think there is a link between that past “working out” and the really damaging ideology of “meritocracy,” but rather because the whole prospect is suspect. I don’t think we mean it. We just like to say it. If we want to really start taking race seriously in the context of baseball, let’s start with the “Negro” Leagues. To begin, what’s up with that name? I know, it is the historical term. Whatever. Preserving it in how we talk about those players today genuinely degrades the history of the game. After all, what is so interesting about baseball as a national sport is how legends and records exist in a timeless space. They really do. Unless we’re going to talk about pre-1959 (pre-integration) MLB as the White Leagues, it doesn’t make much sense to me to keep say Negro Leagues. I think it resonates differently – importantly so – if we say “African-American Leagues.” Keeps it timeless, as we always do – or should do – in baseball. I like national traditions, timelessness, myths, especially when they’re as potentially innocent as home runs and strikeouts.
While we’re at it, making African-American Leagues timeless, can we start talking about Josh Gibson as the home-run king? He did hit more than anyone else, it turns out. Best catcher ever. Maybe best player ever. It’s in the numbers, after all, so let’s keep the meritocracy stuff straight if that’s our game. If you doubt the numbers, let’s get some hungry graduate student on the case. I’m thinking that, hey, if we can travel to Mars, we can tally home runs through the historical record.
This turn, this taking pre-1959 baseball as seriously as any other period, is really so necessary. Otherwise, I have a hard time reading seriously – and so without so much suspicion – all this public discourse about African-American participation in baseball. That’s a lot to ask. Then again, in one form or another, it’s only the question we’ve been asking since, well, what seems like forever in this country. Rightly so.