Thursday, April 17, 2014


Baseball is what makes life coherent, said Plato or was it my step-son? I’ve never known him to be wrong about such things.  Seen up close it contains all the elements of human existence  from humility to Hubris, from heroics to dumb hustle. It also mirrors the racism that infects the American soul and the attempts to remedy our pathology.

Today is Jackie Robinson day. Every player in Major League Baseball wears his number 42 and ceremonies are conducted at each stadium to memorialize his achievement. Robinson was the first four-letter athlete at UCLA. A national Track & Field champion in the long-jump, he led the country in punt returns for the football team and started on their basketball team. He also excelled nationally in tennis. Baseball was his worst sport.

He enlisted in the army after Pearl Harbor, rose to 2nd lieutenant and was then court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a bus in Texas. He was exonerated and received an honorary discharge.

By 1947 he had honed his baseball skills and broke through the segregated color-line in baseball. Much is made of the way he swallowed the threats and humiliation aimed at him. This has always struck me as the White man's fantasy of an acceptable Black man. I prefer to remember him as one of the most competitive and daring base-runners to play the game. I would say he and the score of Black players who followed changed the way the game is played.

Baseball is a stoic sport governed by unwritten rules of behavior which regard displays of emotion as show-boating. Robinson’s game was to taunt the pitcher when he got on base. He rattled pitchers with his long leads and fake sprints.  Nineteen times in his abbreviated career he stole home, arguably the most exciting play to watch. It took stealth and guts.

Robinson brought a new dimension to the sport. He made every appearance fraught with possibility. He ignited the crowd, generated a charge and enlivened the game. Six times in his ten year career the Dodgers won the pennant.

Today only 8% of players are African-American. That works out to 2 per 25 man roster. Thirty years ago the number was twice as high. Actually three teams have none, the St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks. Apparently the best Black athletes favor basketball and football where more scholarships are available and the jump to pro level is much faster. Baseball in the inner city is a tough sell.

However baseball has far more players from the Caribbean with black skin than ever before. It is the ticket out of abject poverty. Again the culture of the game is undergoing change. Recent defectors from Cuba have brought with them more emotion and risk-taking than we’ve ever seen before. Some of it has been called dumb-hustle which can put an entire career in jeopardy but it all goes under the heading of entertainment which is what fans come to see. It hardly needs to be said that the ugliness of human trafficking would disappear if our administration had the courage and political will to end the embargo and normalize relations with Cuba. 

Baseball needs to be goosed periodically. If it takes swagger, dugout dances and in-your-face antics so be it.  There are enough geometry and stats already. Bring on the loosey-goosey and unexpected elements that cannot be quantified.

No comments:

Post a Comment