Race Matters, Part 2: Baseball, Obama and a Better America

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“Ethnic prejudice has no place in sports, and baseball must recognize that truth if it is to maintain stature as a national game.”– Branch Rickey

When Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947—effectively breaking the segregation color barrier that kept blacks from playing Major League Baseball—he knew it would not be easy. At the time there was tremendous opposition to a black player in MLB, and it was a widely held belief on the part of many Americans that colored players simply could not compete on the same level as white players. Rickey felt otherwise, but at the same time he knew there was a lot resting on both his shoulders, and even more on the shoulders of Robinson. Rickey told him, “Jackie, we’ve got no army. There’s virtually nobody on our side. No owners, no umpires, very few newspapermen. And I’m afraid that many fans will be hostile. We’ll be in a tough position. We can win only if we can convince the world that I’m doing this because you’re a great ballplayer, a fine gentleman.”

Part of the reason Rickey brought Robinson to play for the Dodgers was in fact because he was a great ballplayer and a fine gentleman. Robinson was not, however, necessarily the best black ballplayer of his time. There were other great players in the Negro League—the all-black league that officially formed in the 1920s— who were widely considered to be better than Robinson. Some, like Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige would eventually go to the Major League, while others like Josh Gibson—with his reputed 800-plus homeruns—would never get past the Negro League. But as far as Rickey was concerned, Robinson was the right man to desegregate baseball, a move that would eventually help change the country for the better.

The important thing to know about Rickey was that for whatever altruistic motivations led him to bring Robinson to the Dodgers, there was also an incredibly shrewd business sense driving that decision. Baseball, just like much of America at that time, was segregated. And while there were many great white players in MLB, there were just as many great—if not better—players in the Negro League. There was money to be had in the form of black fans that religiously attended Negro League games, but seldom went to MLB games, in part because of segregation laws in certain areas, but primarily because there were no black players. This, factored in with New York State’s 1945 passing of the Fair Employment Practices Act, followed by the Quinn-Ives Act that banned discrimination in hiring, led Rickey to break the color line.

Baseball was an incredibly popular sport in America, even without black players. But the fact that some of the best players in the country were not allowed to play the sport at its highest level meant that the sport itself was not all that it could be. The very concept of black players being allowed on the field at the same time as white players, side by side on the same team, infuriated and terrified many people. It was seen as something that would never work; but in the end it made baseball a better sport.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Much like baseball before Jackie Robinson came along, the government of the United States has been a playing field made up primarily of white men. This is especially true of the President of the United States of America, who has never been anything other than a white man. And because of this, coupled with the myth of white superiority, there are many who believe no one other than a white man can be president. This thinking has led this country to where it is at this moment—a nation on the brink of financial ruin, engaged in a war built upon lies and deception, and wildly unpopular throughout the rest of the globe. By and large, it was white men who got us to where we are now, which thoroughly disproves the notion that only white men are fit to run this country.

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Of the candidates currently campaigning for the office of president, is Barack Obama the best person for the job?

Yes, he is. But for many people, the color of his skin is too great of an obstacle to overcome. People use the argument that he has not had enough experience in politics to be President of the United States, forgetting that George W. Bush only served one term as governor of Texas before being “elected.” Hillary Clinton has only held elected office since 2001. And Abraham Lincoln, widely regarded as one of the greatest presidents of all time, only served as a member of the House of Representatives for two years, before being elected as president twelve years later.

No, the real problem that people have with Obama is the same problem people had with Jackie Robinson, and to a similar extent with Earl Lloyd, the first black man to play in the NBA when it was believed that blacks lacked the physical ability to play basketball as well as whites. Notions of race, ethnicity and gender are so ingrained in our brains, and with them all the myths of superiority and inferiority, that some people cannot accept the possibility that Obama is the best person in the race (pun intended).

I realize that some of what I’m saying is merely me preaching to the choir. Many of you reading this have already made the decision to back Obama, and by reading this essay, hopefully I have helped to reinforce that decision. We all know people, however, who have yet to decide who they will vote for, and some of these people are likely those that would never back Obama under normal circumstances. The problem is we are no longer living in “normal circumstances.”

We are in a time where this nation is in desperate need of change on many levels. I don’t want to get on my soap box and sound like I am mentally superior to the vast majority of people (even though I am), but this nation as a whole needs to think, see, and understand things differently. There are people out there who need to be intellectually encouraged, which is what I’m trying to do, and what everyone reading this should try to do.

I wrote this essay not for myself, and not for the people like myself who support Obama. I wrote it for those that are trapped in the old ways of thinking. This essay is for those people, who whether than can admit it or not, would have been opposed to Jackie Robinson crossing the color line and playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Granted, many of them will never read this, but you are reading it. And you can sit down with these people—many of whom are your family members and co-workers—and you can break it down the way I have broken down. Take my thoughts and use them to hopefully help people see things in a different light.

There is no way to successfully argue politics. People do not change their minds politically unless they change their minds personally. Political arguments are not the way to enlighten people. The only way to help a person to grow mentally is through intelligent discourse. Don’t use political opinions to sway them, use historical facts. And engage them on levels that we can all relate to, using ideas we can all understand—like baseball.

ali.jpgTo those convinced that Obama is a pawn of Islam, remind them that when Cassius Clay became a Muslim, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and refused to be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, he was one of the most hated men in America. But now Ali is considered one of our greatest heroes. Remind the naysayers that when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act—freeing the slaves and ending segregation, respectively—there was strong opposition to both, and many felt that these two acts would destroy this country in the same way Jackie Robinson would destroy baseball. But remind them that the truth of the matter is that whenever this nation has moved closer to racial equality, and embraced the diversity that exists within this country, things got better.

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One Response to “Race Matters, Part 2: Baseball, Obama and a Better America”

  1. Bonnie Walker Says:

    David really knows how to tell it like it is; sometimes I am awestruck. If any of you know someone working for Obama; I’m thinking that it would be a plus for his campaign to have David writing for him. If after reading this piece you still are not certain about were your vote could lead you…..this is beyond a black-white thing. Anyone who may not be a WASP-male (and even those of you who are), can help to bring about a postive change by thinking and voting outside of the WASP-expected-box.
    I have not been political for a number of years. But back-in-the-day, I did my share of organizing, marching, protesting, petitioning, letter-writing, etc. I still “hope & wish & pray” for world peace and even though I fully realize that the world today and our country in particular are in the midst of dismal times, backing Obama for President feels like there may indeed be hope for a more cause and just future. Thanks David for your eloquent words. Vote Obama. Free Leonard Peltier! PEACE

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