The answer, my friend, is Blowing in the Wind (of the Changeup): Major League Baseball, Black Lives Matter, and Striking out Silence towards injustices
Baseball season is underway, this time with a full 162 game season as opposed to last year’s 60 game season, which was shortened due to COVID-19. It will be interesting to see what happens this season, and not interesting just in respect of box scores, bench-clearing brawls, personalities, pennant races, or even how teams handle COVID-19. It will be interesting to see how players and non-players react to societal injustices that may occur in this country throughout the season. Those who follow Major League Baseball (MLB) and left-wing politics are well aware of last season’s delayed Opening Day that had teams celebrate Black Lives Matter, a sight that was definitely different than any other Opening Day in its previous history. The intersection of politics and sport is nothing new. Perhaps more than anybody else, Dave Zirin has made a fantastic career from writing numerous books and articles about this very subject (e.g., People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play). At the beginning of last year’s uprising stemming from the public murder of George Floyd, and shortly before MLB’s delayed Opening Day, Zirin publicly inquired as to whether any baseball players were taking a public stand:
Zirin points to something here that any honest left-wing baseball fan would corroborate: MLB has been rife with racism and racists, and has historically been dead silent in the face of society’s injustices. At times, MLB has even arguably celebrated injustices, or, at the very least, questionable moral actions. A noted example of this is Disco Demolition night in 1979, which can arguably be seen as a manifestation of white backlash against LGBTQ and black cultural art forms . Another example is MLB’s persistent celebration of not just the military, but militarism in general. A personal anecdote can attest to this. In 2014, I was living in Portland, Oregon and my father, who recently just passed away this past October, was in Charleston, South Carolina. Before his cancer diagnosis, we always made sure to do a baseball outing once a year, and this particular year we met in Atlanta to see the team I grew up going to see with him (Seattle Mariners) play the Atlanta Braves (who used to be in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin). Before the game, which took place on June 4th, 2014, they had a ceremony where they had a few Vietnam veterans out onto the field. To our mutual surprise and disgust, the announcer was telling the crowd how many of “the enemy” each veteran killed during their time in combat. As each vet was introduced, the crowd cheered louder as the “kill count” of each veteran increased. We both turned to each other with a similar look of uneasiness and disgust. I was used to the mandatory nationalism in song form (“Star Spangled Banner” pregame, “God Bless America” in the middle of the game), but this was too much, for both of us in that moment.
As was mentioned, MLB has, like other sports, historically been rife with racism (for more on this, please see Will MLB Confront its Racist History by Peter Dreier). MLB has, to the eyes of the world, a song of its own, one that makes for not so easy listening: it was racially segregated until 1945, and has had openly — one might say, loudly and proudly—bigoted players, from early 20th century Ty Cobb to late 20th century John Rocker. Indeed, MLB has hitherto remained relatively neutral in the face of injustice of virtually any sort. As Zirin mentions, MLB had only gone so far as to pay what amounts as a yearly lip service on Jackie Robinson Day; a pregame ceremony followed by a game where all players wear his number (42). Silence in the face of injustice has not quite been the case with other sports in the United States, particularly in recent history. In the mid 2010’s, the National Football League (NFL) saw players like Michael Bennet and Eric Reid use their platforms to speak prolifically about the interconnected issues of systemic racism and police brutality (Bennet went so far as to publicly endorse Bernie Sanders and come out with a book co-written with Dave Zirin, Things That Make White People Uncomfortable; Reid himself has seen his career take a hit from what some would argue because of his political advocacy, and has said the NFL’s recent shift to appearing to be on the side of anti-racist efforts is mere performativity). Of course, perhaps most visibly and widely-known, Colin Kaepernick, who was Eric Reid’s teammate on the San Francisco 49ers at the time, kneeled on the field during the national anthem in 2016 to protest systemic racism and police brutality, something that cost him his career (he was, however, basically vindicated, both in a court settlement and when the head of the NFL apologized to him because he was proven right over time). In the National Basketball Association, (NBA), we’ve seen activism come from figures such as Lebron James and Kyrie Irving. Whenever MLB players would show even hints of solidarity like Bruce Maxwell, it did not go well. Since George Floyd, things have changed. Do, and will, we see more instances of what some may argue is mere performativity? Sure, perhaps, especially at the institutional level. But do we also see more instances of promise and potential that have not been seen before? To this, I respond: A more resounding perhaps!
The very fact that MLB has a page on its website dedicated to “Diversity and Inclusion” is a sign of such change. While many on the Left have given invaluable insight on the problems with “diversity” within the workplace and corporate sphere, along with the negatives of (neoliberal) identity politics in general (Asaid Haider’s Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Drumpf is a notable and fairly recent example of this), a perusing of this site will hopefully bring a delightfully raised eyebrow to the committed Leftist, sports loving or not. Yes, it includes some work which would cause a fair amount of self-identified anarchists or socialists — or readers of, say, Current Affairs or Jacobin — to roll their eyes. But it also includes work from Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and a noted documentary on the Black Panthers. Surely, these figures can’t be painted as neoliberal feel-good darlings; they are/were status-quo challenging freedom fighters. Perhaps some minds will be enlightened, or even changed, from discovering these resources.
The shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020 had both the players in the NBA and MLB reach a tipping point that saw them withholding their labor. Many will recall that in response the sight of an officer shooting Jacob Blake in the back in front of his children seated in the backseat of his car, NBA players did something hitherto unprecedented: by refusing to take the court, they initiated what was effectively a wildcat strike (not a boycott) that would have lasted longer had it not been for the influence of the former incrementalist in-chief Barack Obama. Not too long after NBA players made their move, my hometown Seattle Mariners decided that day to do what the NBA had done: strike.
Would it have been nice if there was at least a threat of sitting out more games, like the NBA players were considering doing? Yes, no doubt. But remember: MLB is in a different place than the NBA apropos taking public stands against injustice. For the MLB, it sure counts as a start.
All of this is to say that, since George Floyd, Major League Baseball has undergone somewhat of paradigm shift in regards to race and speaking out against injustice at large. This shift can be glimpsed from a number of instances that have occured in the past year: from MLB starting its season openly supporting Black Lives Matter, teams like the Mariners showing their collective labor potential by refusing to take the field, to New York Mets player Dominic Smith being able to freely share his personal story with racism, to a major development seen at the end of 2020 with Major League Baseball retroactively recognizing Negro League players and statistics as belonging to Major League Baseball. And now, to start the 2021 season, a very welcome development: thanks to pressure from below, i.e., the historical agent for real change, MLB has decided to move the All-Star Game out of Atlanta, in response to Georgia’s controversial voting law. Yes, capitalism and corporate institutions are able, and will continue, to continue to co-opt. This idea is nothing new. But in the Georgia situation, it’s preferable see powerful economic pressure — the All-Star game would have been a huge boom for Georgia — applied in the face of actual legalized (primarily PoC) voter disenfranchisement. Also, it’s hilarious to witness the hypocrisy and childishness of the U.S. Right, who have ad nauseum clung to a rhetoric of ‘cancel culture’ and ‘woke mobs’, as they themselves boycott the MLB in response to MLB’s preference to not co-sign on brazen voter suppression. Good luck ‘cancelling’ “America’s national pastime.”
As any good dot connecting Leftist will tell you, the hope is that this will not only continue on the racial front, but that platform-using athletes will connect dots just as Martin Luther King Jr. did in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech 54 years ago today on April 4th, 1967 — tackling “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.”
At least within the context of MLB players using their platform individually and collectively, there seems to be a change in the air. But what was literally in the air this past Summer was smoke coming from climate change fueled wildfires, a reality that may very well be repeated in the subsequent years to come unless concrete action is taken. As the tweet below suggests, the image of players playing before cardboard cutouts in a clearly unhealthy breathing environment truly rings like something out of a dystopian novel. The hope is that they will not only continue to speak out against systemic racism, but to do as Angela Davis and MLK have done: connect the dots linked to racism — economic injustice, environmental injustice, and so forth.
Making the ‘Strokes’ Not So ‘Different’
I’m not saying Major League Baseball, or even any sport, is going to be THE central vanguard for sparking revolutionary consciousness and eventually transformational change. That would be an overstatement and an oversimplification. Besides, the work of historians — such as the late Howard Zinn, who I corresponded with over email as a teenager, and the late Jesse Lemisch, who I personally befriended in the years before his passing — has demonstrably shown that historical change by and large takes place from the bottom up, horizontally. What I have said is that as far as speaking out against “society’s injustices”, as Dave Zirin phrased it, MLB’s players and institutional gatekeepers have been late to the game, so to speak, and have thankfully turned a corner this past year; we shouldn’t look to the suits in the suites, but the players (and coaches) in the clubhouse. Class concerns involving “overpayment” aside, this corner turn has set the stage for increased frequency and volume of players speaking out when new injustices in this country arise. Perhaps those athletes using their platform for political advocacy can be instruments of persuasion for everyday people; that is to say, maybe over time, what I have been describing here can turn otherwise apolitical — or maybe, dare I say, even conservative leaning? — baseball fans into committed advocates for that better world that we know is possible.