A Season of Reckoning For a 'White Man's Sport'

As the most immigrant-dependent and racially diverse sport in the United States, baseball this year seems primed to either lose its politically aloof pose at last or look progressively ridiculous.

John Lingan is writing a nonfiction book about the last honky-tonk in the Virginias, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2018. He lives in...

Paint the Corners is a new monthly column about baseball.

Baseball is infamous for making fools out of prognosticators, but there’s one thing we can say with near-certainty about the 2017 MLB season: it’s going to be a let-down. No game played this year has a chance of matching the multilayered, prolonged tension and release of the final game of the 2016 season, and there’s a good chance no game will come close for the rest of our lives. I have no allegiance to the Cubs and frankly had a slight rooting interest in Cleveland, but a five-hour, white-knuckle World Series Game 7 is the kind of thing that makes this lugubrious, frustrating sport seem like a grand adventure. We will be boring small children with the details of this game in our old age: multiple comebacks on both sides, heroics from a deserving veteran and the humiliation of an utter villain, and even an after-midnight rain delay that would have been cut from a movie script for heavy-handedness. The Cubs played three games facing elimination, and their final ten November innings ended the longest championship drought in pro sports: even the box score reads like a Russian novel.

Thankfully, baseball doesn’t require this kind of drama to be wonderful. It’s almost a relief to return to the first days of a new season, when stakes are low and enjoyment is all in the finer details: well-executed double plays, loping curve balls, no-name players finding sudden glory, beer in the sun and hot dogs under the lights. This game is all about atmosphere and small pleasures, the endless repetition of a few set movements that somehow creates a meaningfully different outcome every time. It rewards obsession, almost demands it, because context and history are its lifeblood. They are what add grandeur to the odd, pastoral scene of men in tight pants and button-up shirts attempting and failing to circle a dirt path.

And while 2017 will almost definitely lack the on-field excitement of last year, it could very well end up being an epochal season in other subtler ways. Only days after red and blue confetti blanketed Michigan Avenue, the presidential election made baseball, as everything else, feel helplessly small and potentially endangered. Whatever happens on the field this season, it will take place against a background of multiple daily unfolding scandals and moral atrocities. History and context will be everything. Major League Baseball and the larger culture around the sport tend to ignore any political discussion, but this will be the first season amid a modern political regime that is expressly dedicated to fighting immigrants and minorities. As the most immigrant-dependent and racially diverse sport in the United States, baseball seems primed to either lose its politically aloof pose at last or look progressively ridiculous. Regardless, this is a new kind of test for a game that thrives on continuity: baseball during Trump. No aspect of our lives or society is safe from politics now, or from the threat of enormous disruption, and this is true even for the sport that requires constant, mantra-like assuagements from its players that they’re “just focused on the game,” “taking it one day at a time,” or “trying to give the team a chance to win.”

Not even ballplayers have the luxury of that kind of single-mindedness anymore. Not when ICE raids are terrorizing the urban Latino communities that comprise an essential part of MLB’s future growth and outreach, and not when Trump’s approval rating hovers near that of gangrene in the densely populated regions that host pro ballparks. Perhaps in recognition of this, Trump has already forsaken tradition by declining to throw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals’ home opener, and none of the other twenty-nine MLB teams appear interested in pressing the issue. This is meaningless but still unprecedented, and illustrates Trump’s bizarre indifference to the dream-come-true opportunities of the office; no president since Taft has avoided the supreme executive privilege to lob a meatball fifty feet and wave. Even his absence is a challenge to the game’s no-politics front.

The cracks in the façade really began to show late last season, after Trump won the Republican nomination around the All-Star break and Colin Kaepernick dominated coverage of the NFL’s first weeks. Asked why no MLB players had attempted a similar protest, Adam Jones, the black center fielder and default captain for my Baltimore Orioles, told USA Today that “baseball is a white man’s sport,” and black players don’t have nearly the sway they hold in football. He then broadened the conversation to address wider double standards: “We make a lot of money, so we just have to talk baseball, talk football. But most athletes, especially if you’re tenured in your sport, you’re educated on life, and on more things than most people on the outside. But because Donald Trump is a billionaire, he can say whatever he wants, because he’s older and has more money? And when Kaepernick does something, or says something, he’s ridiculed. Why is that?’’

Only a month later, the Los Angeles Dodgers traveled to Chicago to face the Cubs in the National League Championship Series and stayed in a Trump-owned hotel. Beloved Mexican-American first baseman Adrian Gonzalez opted to stay elsewhere, though like a good ballplayer, he made no great show of it. When the story leaked to the media through a Dodgers’ broadcaster, Gonzalez responded with the requisite caveats: “I don’t want this to be a story… I wasn’t doing it for the publicity… I don’t intend to create a political debate.” Just trying to give the team a chance to win.

Jones and Gonzalez are both wealthy veteran players, scandal-free family men, and the faces of their franchises. They should have as much clout to speak their minds as anyone in the sport. And yet both made headlines for staking out relatively cautious positions, and both expressed publicly that they are constrained in various ways from taking greater action. Given the hysterical objection that Kaepernick still inspires—including from Trump himself—who could blame them? And Kaepernick plays a game that’s majority-minority.

To that last point: baseball occupies an odd space in the spectrum of U.S. sports. It is both the most genuinely diverse game and, as a result, also the most white. According to the current Racial and Gender Report Card published by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, MLB players are fifty-nine percent white, twenty-nine percent Latino, and eight percent black. That’s more than double the percentage of white players in either the NBA or NFL and a small fraction of the percentage of black players in those leagues. Neither basketball nor football fields a statistically significant number of Latinos or Asians, and MLB’s increasing reliance on those demographics also lends it a diversity of nationalities that the other leagues can’t touch.

Polyglot rosters have been a hallmark of the MLB for ages; in the earliest days of “townball” and regional teams throughout New York state, baseball was a largely immigrant game. The most iconic teams in the modern era, the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers of the ’40s and ’50s, were, in the judgment of historian Jules Tygiel, models of racial equality. The Dodgers of that era, needless to say, fielded Jackie Robinson, while “the Giants lineup,

with Whitey Lockman, Don Mueller, and Larry Jansen—had a substantial contingent of German extraction. Sal Maglie, Carl Furillo, [Ralph] Branca, and Roy Campanella were the sons of Italian immigrants. Clem Labine was of French-Canadian heritage; Andy Pafko, Hungarian; Ray Noble, Cuban. Along the benches sat players with ethnic surnames like Abrams, Hermanski, Palica, Miksis, Koslo, and Podbielan.”

Ironically, baseball’s very diversity may account for some of its small-c conservatism and squeamishness towards social justice issues. In a locker room with that many skin tones and backgrounds, it may be hard to find political consensus, and so politics in general can become a third rail. But diversity also doesn’t signal equality, and even in mid-century, when the definition of “white” was far more limited, the sport was largely native-born white guys: “a majority of the [Giants’] players hailed from the American South and Midwest,” Tygiel acknowledges, and today, despite the MLB’s genuinely global player base and audience draw, that remains the case.

Even if a player doesn’t match that profile, there’s a good chance that their road to the majors will require them to live around people who do. Major League teams may play exclusively in urban (or at least suburban) markets, but the vast amateur and minor-league networks through which players travel upward—what Donald Hall deemed baseball’s “peripheries”—are far more rural (and far more white). Look, for example, at this map of each MLB team’s minor-league affiliates. The world-champion Cubs, trademark franchise of America’s third-largest city, draw on a farm system that plays in Peoria, Des Moines, Knoxville, and Daytona Beach. And those are relative metropolises compared to the farm-system satellites for other clubs. The Kansas City Royals, champions in 2015, incubate their talent in Idaho Falls, Springdale, Arkansas, and Burlington, Iowa.

Then there’s the so-called “JuCo” baseball circuit, the surprisingly fertile network of junior colleges that serve as de facto MLB training grounds, largely in the southeast and Gulf Coast. Ever heard of Chipola College, near the eastern edge of the Florabama line? Me neither, at least until I learned that this 2,200-student campus has supplied the world with a staggering 164 current and former major league baseball players—a list that does happen to include this past offseason’s most prized free agent (at least in his own mind), José Bautista, but also my hometown hero Steve Clevenger, who routinely crushed my own hapless high school team back when he played for Mount St. Joseph in the Baltimore suburbs. Clevenger went on to play a few years with the Orioles, but ended the 2016 season on a ten-game suspension without pay from the Seattle Mariners for tweeting that President Obama and Black Lives Matter protesters deserved to be “locked behind bars like animals.” During the offseason, he was joined by Cleveland Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, someone who is widely known for being smart, in the pantheon of Twitter-enabled conservative baseball rubes—a gang whose North Star, Curt Schilling, played JuCo ball at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona.

This isn’t to say that every rural-raised American or junior-college ballplayer is a Republican or a Trump supporter, just that a good number of the MLB’s players spend their professional lives in areas far less cosmopolitan and diverse than the cities they wear across their chests in the pros. And in a country where political fate is now closely aligned with population density, baseball’s geographic, ideological, and ethnic diversity have forced it into atypical relevance: it resembles the U.S. in all its multicultural, reactionary complexity better than any other sports league.

In just the past few months, for example, the Royals lost pitcher Yordano Ventura to a fatal car crash along a dirt road near his Dominican hometown, and saw a white reliever miss spring training after tumbling through the roof of his Oklahoma barn. What other sport can claim such a broad range of backgrounds among its players? And how could such a sport plausibly claim separation from politics while our president yammers endlessly about walls and exclusion and real Americans?

Baseball, of course, isn’t nearly free of that kind of bluster, as new St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler found out this winter. After daring to express modest concern about Trump’s initial Muslim ban, Fowler, who was born in Atlanta, heard a chorus of “Go back where you came from” and plenty worse across social media, as might be expected from the fans that made their own Darren Wilson jerseys in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in nearby Ferguson. Baseball has been walking this tightrope for generations, balancing between inclusivity and tradition, urban teams and rural culture, the  “America’s Pastime” mythos and the most immigrant-dependent recruiting structure in American sports. But in 2017, with these battles spilling into every aspect of our society, baseball will have no choice but to acknowledge them outright. I suspect it will not be pretty. It will certainly bum out the “just play the game” set. But the sport will be more fascinating for it.

John Lingan is writing a nonfiction book about the last honky-tonk in the Virginias, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2018. He lives in Maryland.