Monday, March 06, 2006

Black Ball by Gerald Early

I am a passionate baseball fan. I have been a Cardinals season ticket holder for many years. I resell a lot of the tickets, and some I just give away, but I still go to 25 to 30 games a season. Whenever I look around the stands, I see very few black people, often fewer than 50.

In the entire St. Louis region (both city and suburbs), blacks make up about 19 percent of the population (50 percent of the population of the city itself). The Cardinals almost always draw 35,000 fans a game, and often more than 40,000. Yet I never see anything approaching 7,000 to 8,000 blacks at the park. The Cardinals are a very successful franchise with a strong fan base. Plus, the team has been particularly successful the last two years, winning more regular season games than any other major league team.

Why don’t black people go to baseball games? Some blacks I know suggest that the game is too slow. But why would only blacks find that objectionable and not than any other group? Besides, wouldn’t that mostly affect the young, who have shorter attention spans and the need for MTV-like editing? Don’t middle-aged blacks like baseball?

Some have suggested that not enough African Americans play the game anymore. Less than 10 percent of major league players are African American. Most “colored” players today from Latin America and the Caribbean and consider themselves Hispanic or Latino. Black Americans do not necessarily identify with them, nor do they necessarily identify with black Americans. But the problem with this theory is that it supposes that blacks are only attracted to sports where they have a dominant or pronounced presence, like professional football or basketball. The opposite is clearly not true for whites. After all, most of the people who attend professional sporting events in America — including football and basketball — are white.

If this theory is true about blacks, what does it say about them? Do they have a need for a certain level of representation because they are a minority? Sports are supposed to encourage a larger sort of identification, beyond the merely racial. Athletes are supposed to possess a larger sense of representation. If not, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters would not have amounted to so much in our culture.

Others say blacks don’t go to baseball games because they are too expensive. But blacks make up a somewhat larger portion of the attendance at football and basketball games, and tickets to those events are even more expensive. Within reason, expense does not stop the average person from consuming something. Some have argued that blacks don’t feel welcome at baseball games because too many whites are there. This is the price one pays for being a minority. There are too many of the majority everywhere. It doesn’t stop blacks from shopping at suburban malls.

Or maybe black people have never really liked baseball that much, even back in the days of segregation, when they briefly had racial leagues. For some or maybe all of these reasons, black people and baseball have become a form of nostalgia in America. We indulged in a bit of that as a culture this week when 17 people from the Negro Leagues and the era preceding them were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. We might look back now on the era of segregation as a time when black people loved baseball and supported it. We might also look back at it as a time when blacks owned and operated the business of baseball. This aspect the game’s history was also commemorated with these elections and rightly so.

But as is usually the case with dealing with blacks in America, the celebratory (which is the only way we seem able to speak about black history now) imperils intelligibility. Indeed, the need to celebrate becomes almost patronizing — as if the fact that blacks accomplished anything is now worth giving them a pat on the head. (The victims organized and did something!) Celebration can even imperil the primary importance of an achievement, by turning it into a simplistic story about the triumph over adversity. The Negro Leagues now exist in the American Valhalla of sports mythmaking as the triumph over racism and segregation.

I suggest that view is blatantly dishonest. The Negro Leagues were the result of racism and segregation, not the triumph over them. The Negro Leagues were a sign of black people’s weakness and inability to function fully in American society. The Negro Leagues were a sign, not of black people’s pathology, but of America’s pathology.

Effa Manley was largely the focus of the news stories about the special election because she became the first woman inducted into the Hall of Fame (our society loves firsts). The fact that she was a white woman passing for black makes her all the more intriguing. What the newspapers gave us was an image of Effa Manley, the famed co-owner of the Newark Eagles, as a fiery, independent woman who fought for black baseball and tried to protect her players. But the Negro Leagues, with the exception of the years during World War II when black income exploded, were never solvent, always undercapitalized, didn’t control their venues, and were, in most cases, hardly a league at all, except on paper.

Most of the teams couldn’t afford to confine themselves to league games. There was little unity among the owners. They couldn’t even come together to enforce a reserve clause to keep players from team-jumping. And Manley was not the most impressive of the lot. Executives like Cumberland Posey, also elected this year, and Gus Greenlee, who was nominated, were more visionary. Alex Pompez, another inductee, was a far more important figure to Negro League baseball than Manley. Pre-Negro League figures like Ed Bolden and Sol White, whose book “The History of Colored Base Ball” is one of the most valuable sports books written by a black, were more instrumental by far in keeping black baseball alive, against overwhelming odds. Manley was colorful, and that, in this age of celebrity, apparently goes a long way.

Manley, like most whites and blacks who ran businesses that were made possible solely by segregation, never wanted integration in the way that it came. She wanted the Negro Leagues to become a minor league for professional baseball, to be the special place to create the black ballplayer. In essence, she wanted a sort of institutionalized segregation so that a black business could maintain itself. But racialized businesses confine both the black entrepreneur and the black consumer. I point this out not to disparage Manley but to point out the dilemma of black institutions in the United States, of which Negro League baseball was one.

Because of the conditions under which black churches, black colleges and universities and black businesses were established, it is impossible not to see them in a stigmatized way. They were established not to make black people independent nor even to help them establish a culture but to remind them every day that they were inferior to whites. Because of this, I think most blacks have wound up secretly hating both segregation and integration. Disappointed by institutions of their own making, they ended up desiring alien institutions with a history of saying they weren’t good enough to be there.

The story of blacks and baseball is not a nostalgia story but a story about the group memory of institutionalized racism. It is a complex story about ambivalence and adaptation, precariousness, limitation and pride. It is not a story of triumph or tragedy. It is the story of a conflicted people trying, with some success, to make the most of their conflicts.


Blogger Umberto said...

This is an important article that essentially explains America's current (and shaky) state of affairs in relation to race. As you well know, America has constructed a racial hierarchy as it pertains to Blacks in the African Diaspora(American, African, Latino, etc.) in an attempt to prevent a solidified power base, that could essentially improve the social and political condition of "colored" minorities. This unsettling reality has been carried over to various aspects of life, and baseball is no exception. The Caribbean, and Latin America, are regions that consist of different races, including people of Black African descent particulary in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Brazil, Jamaica, as well as parts of Puerto Rico, where the African presence predominates. What happens of course is that given our country's legacy of post-slavery oppression (Jim Crow Laws), the American Black experience has been a badge of shame for many people of color in this country, and in lieu of this reality, those who are in power have exacerbated this feeling of racial discomfort through systematic racism and discrimination by emphasizing the heterogeneity of the world's black cultures; helping some groups and dismissing others, in an attempt to prevent unification, which if black people were fortunate enough to realize, would lead to prosperity for all people of color. The issue of race and its relation to sports is that the feelings of shame have led to stagnation and an acceptance of prescribed cultural (and stereoptypical) roles. Black American success in Basketball and Football has led many to feel that these sports are prescribed for Black Americans only and that Baseball, Soccer, and Hockey, are showcases for Black foreigners. This mindset rears itself in all walks of life, and has crippled a Black American culture who appears to accept prescribed roles over social growth and stability. The African American culture is a multitalented group that has alot to offer with respect to its capabilities, but must redefine what it means to be Black American by moving beyond assigned racial borders in the areas of sports, music, and education if it will ever experience true success. Jackie Robinson, one of the greatest players of the game was proof that American Blacks have the ability to play Baseball, and now that those doors are still open, they should continue to play the game that the culture once loved.

8:59 PM  

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