It’s been a banner offseason for the Cubs, who have improved significantly both at primary positions and at the margins, all the while keeping a tight grip on their top prospects. The biggest coup of the offseason was clearly signing three top free agents—Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey—to contracts that were reportedly less lucrative than others offered to those same players. Heyward’s contract in particular (eight years, $184 million, and with opt outs after years three and four, respectively) caused a joyous frenzy in Cubs fandom, and, conversely, some axe-grinding to the southwest, in the land of the Cardinals, who until recently employed Heyward themselves.
The most notable example of St. Louis axe-grinding came in an interview Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright did in late December with Bernie Miklasz, a St. Louis radio personality. He damned Heyward with faint praise, acknowledging first that the outfielder was a “great teammate,” and even a “great friend and a great person,” but then quickly detouring into armchair psychoanalysis, suggesting that Heyward simply didn’t want to lead in St. Louis once the current crop of veterans departed. Wainwright then called Heyward out for not having the personality to be “the man,” and ended the interview by, somewhat confusingly, calling the whole matter none of his business.
While Wainwright’s comments are definitely bitter in tone—and that’s understandable, as Heyward’s departure is a significant blow to the Cardinals—it’s the substance of the comments, and not the tone, that raise memories of an ugly history, fraught with complications of race and gender. For the entire existence of organized professional baseball (to be clear—this is no exaggeration) white players, coaches, executives, fans, and journalists have called into question the fitness of black players, including black Latinos, for leadership roles. Let’s talk about that history, first, and then bring things back to Wainwright’s comments.
As baseball attempted to organize and professionalize in the late 19th century, certain qualities became “desirable” in a model player. Chief among them were “respectability” and a certain mode of masculinity—in other words, qualities that aligned organized baseball more closely with other professions deemed suitable for men at the time. And as owners tightened their grip on player salaries and control with the Reserve Clause,i white players increasingly saw a need to differentiate themselves from black players, or be subjected to “wage slavery,”ii using arguments for respectability and masculinity as excuses for instituting color barriers in professional leagues.iii As revered baseball historian Jules Tygiel noted in 1983, “racial and ethnic exclusion often constituted a means to define the distinctiveness of a given profession.”iv To those with the power to alter the organized game’s course, professional baseball was to be the domain of white men, cloaked in their perceived legitimacy and morality. Whiteness, masculinity, and professionalism became entangled, in terms of exclusion and in language.
Once purged from the professional ranks, black players faced fierce infantilization through the prism of white supremacism. Within the white professional game, blacks appeared only as literal mascots, a position that relied on white beliefs of black men as childlike. Cap Anson, the famed Chicago White Stockings first baseman, employed a black man, Clarence Duvall, as the club’s mascot, and the press roundly subjected him to racialized characterizations that wrapped his blackness and supposed childishness in one.v As the only black men permitted to participate in white professional leagues, Duvall and other mascots were the only representatives of black masculinity fans, players, and journalists saw, thereby reifying the preconceptions whites had about blacks’ unfitness for the professional ranks. Whites argued that blacks were overly emotional and could not rein in their feelings, excuses for drawing a hard line of exclusion.
By the 1960s and ’70s, as the era of integration pioneers came to a close, a sense of satisfaction eluded black players. Unlike white players, who were afforded myriad opportunities to remain in the game as managers, scouts, and even general managers and league presidents, blacks retiring from the playing field found gatekeepers who questioned their fitness for leadership. Even as they made gains in the field, they were confronted with a color line that had simply been moved, not eradicated. Institutional shuttering of black managers derived its reasoning from the very same beliefs about black mental fragility that were baked into the organized game during its infancy. Jackie Robinson himself expressed dismay at this fact, mere days before his death. “I’d like to live to see a black manager,” he said. “I’d like to live to see the day when there’s a black man coaching at third base.”
Thus, despite the successes of the integration era, white skepticism of black players’ abilities remained well into baseball’s modern era. Perhaps the most infamous example of these modern doubts came in 1987, when Dodgers general manager Al Campanis appeared on Nightline and fielded questions from interviewer Ted Koppel about the dearth of black managers and executives. When pressed to clarify his comments on the necessity of “paying dues” as a minor-league manager as a reason there were no black managers at the time, Campanis pushed back, explaining, “I don’t believe it’s prejudice. I truly believe that they [meaning blacks] may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager.” Koppel called this reasoning both “baloney” and “garbage,” but Campanis attempted to dig himself out the hole by equating blacks’ supposed natural ineptitude for leadership with their supposed natural ineptitude for playing quarterback, pitching, or swimming.
For Campanis, the interview constituted “professional suicide,” in the words of historian Rob Ruck.vi But his comments weren’t novel, or limited to one person; rather, Campanis was merely parroting beliefs in the lack of mental, physical, and emotional maturity that had existed in the sporting community for decades. Some black players, including Reggie Jackson, believed that Campanis’ comments and subsequent firing brought to light the insidious grip that such ideas had on organized baseball.vii Jackson paired his reaction with an explicit criticism of the lack of blacks in management and executive positions, a poignant commentary that tied the implications of Campanis’ beliefs to their ultimate consequences.
With that history in mind, let’s come back to Wainwright. While he was asked about a specific player with whom he had a personal relationship, and did not frame his comments as an assessment of black baseball leadership as a whole, he did imply that Heyward’s masculinity was of a lesser sort and that his temperament did not fit the mold of a leader.
His reasoning was, therefore, uncomfortably close to the reasoning that whites used to rid professional leagues of blacks in the 19th century, the same reasoning that allowed only the most exceptional of black players entry into MLB in the middle-20th century, and the same reasoning that conditions many to think that black players are only suited for certain positions and not for leadership.
Let’s be clear: I am not calling Wainwright a racist, and have no reason to believe that he is one. I don’t know the man personally, and so this piece should not be read as an accusation. It is not one. But I can say this: by invoking the concept of “the man,” Wainwright tapped into a model of white, male leadership built into the very foundation of organized baseball. There is, sadly, a long precedent for these types of comments.
The same structures of thought underpinned Campanis’ remarks a quarter-century ago, and a general doubt of blacks’ fitness for positions of leadership runs subtly through and under both. And the idea remains, sadly, deeply-seated in contemporary Major League Baseball, and it is borne out in actual representation in the non-playing ranks. Dave Stewart still remains the only black general manager, and the hirings Dave Roberts and Dusty Baker helped make sure we didn’t enter the season with no black managers. There are zero black majority owners of big-league teams.
In the end, Wainwright’s comments probably won’t do much except to stoke the flames of mutual disdain in Chicago and St. Louis. Nor should they. But even the subtle perpetuation of the idea that even the best black players are somehow unfit for leadership roles does have an identifiable impact on representation in baseball’s management structure, and on the way that fans perceive black players on the field. That’s worth talking about.
i Moser, Zachary. “Andre Dawson and the Overlooked Collusion Cases of the 1980s.” BP Wrigleyville, September 21, 2015.
ii Ward, John Montgomery. “Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?” Lippincott’s Magazine, August 1887.
iii Burgos, Jr., Adrian. Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). 6-7, 29.
iv Tygiel, Jules. Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). 14.
v Burgos. Playing America’s Game. 61-62.
vi Ruck, Rob. Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011). 172.
vii Jackson, Reggie. “We Have a Serious Problem that Isn’t Going Away.” Sports Illustrated, May 11, 1987.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports.