A guy named Carron J. Phillips wrote in today’s New York Daily News, “Boston has a racist history, and so does baseball.” Then he praises the four people who were shown the Fenway Park door after unfurling a huge anti-racism banner on the Green Monster in last night’s Saux-Athletics tilt.
In fairness to Mr. Phillips, what he says is technically true. America has historically had a racism problem. So has baseball. There was a color barrier in the sport that lasted until 1947. The Red Sox infamously had a chance to put Willie Mays in the same outfield as Ted Williams and passed because he was black. They finally broke their own color barrier in 1959 with a guy named Pumpsie Green (career stats: .246, 13 HR, 74 RBI).
For reference, in 1959, Willie Mays hit .313 with 34 HR and 104 RBI, was an All-Star, and finished sixth in MVP voting. It wouldn’t be until 15 years later (1974) that baseball got its first black manager, the same year Henry Aaron’s life was continually threatened because he dared to hit more home runs than Babe Ruth while being black.
The NFL, which isn’t generally considered to have racist baggage, didn’t have a black head coach until 1989–15 years later. It was only two years earlier that Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl. But sure, let’s concentrate on baseball.
As for the country, racism exists here. You are either deliberately blind if you deny it. Or you’re racist.
And the uptick of ugliness lately is both distressing and alarming. It cannot be dismissed. And this country has a history rife with slaver, Jim Crow, and lynching. But we have made progress. To imply we haven’t is simply incorrect.
To imply that racism isn’t part of the human condition, rather than the American condition, is simply wrong. Asians have been victims of racism here (see internment camps). But Asian cultures can also be remarkably racist. African cultures can be remarkably racist, as well (though, in fairness, skin color isn’t typically the discriminator).
None of this is to say that baseball doesn’t have problems. Although it has rich racial diversity, only 8% of Major League players are black, and only 3.1% of pitchers. I don’t think that’s the result of racism, but it does represent a gap in a sports landscape increasingly dominated by black athletes, their magnetism, and their marketing power. There’s a reason the (ahem) Worldwide Leader has de-emphasized baseball.
It’s not to say that Boston doesn’t have problems, either. Earlier this year, Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was pelted with racial slurs. But to be clear, the Red Sox found the people who hurled the slurs and banned them for life. They’re also considering renaming Yawkey Way, outside Fenway, because former owner Tom Yawkey was notably racist. But the Yawkey way is undeniably part of the Red Sox history–a history that took strong cues from the city around it.
Again, none of this to intended to minimize the problems with race in baseball, Boston, and the United States, but to provide context around it.
The great thing about this country is the promise of equality of opportunity. It’s an ideal that will probably always elude us, but one worth pursuing. We hurt ourselves by pretending that we don’t have issues to resolve. But we don’t help ourselves by assuming that progress–threatened as it currently seems–has not occurred.
And as long as we pretend racism is intrinsically American, we doom ourselves to swim in it.