Last spring, I tweeted a joke about Jason Heyward’s first game in St. Louis after signing his eight-year contract with the Cubs.
BREAKING: forty thousand white people boo black man for getting a raise
— zack moser (@BeersNTrumpets) April 19, 2016
The outfielder met a hostile crowd, and many of the Busch Stadium attendees showed no shame in booing Heyward. The new Cubs right fielder had reportedly taken less money to play with Chicago, but the reaction felt disproportionate for a player who had only spent one season with the Cardinals (the result of a trade, at that). It was a reception right in line with the racialized, gendered comments that Adam Wainwright had offered around the time of Heyward’s departure, and it was a manifestation of the white supremacist principles that still under-gird organized baseball, 75 years after the debut of Jackie Robinson.
On Monday night, fans at Fenway Park hurled racist epithets, including the n-word, and bags of peanuts at Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones. Jones, who has commented on racism he’s faced as a major-league player, said after the game that it wasn’t the first time that fans in Boston had called him that word. The fans were reportedly ejected from the park, and the Red Sox, Orioles, and MLB all issued statements on the matter. Several players, including C.C. Sabathia, commented publicly on their experiences of racist abuse as a player in Boston, and many in the baseball fan community online found a variety of historical references to racism at Fenway Park. Even Boston Mayor Marty Walsh commented on the event, saying, “This is unacceptable, and not who we are as a city… We are better than this.”1
But, as we can see with both Heyward and Jones (two of only 62 black American major leaguers), it’s clear that a discourse centered around the platitudes of Walsh rings hollow and ahistorical. Quick was the response to Walsh’s comments, with the germane Boston-specific history regurgitated reflexively in outlets as mainstream as the Boston Globe. Organized baseball dating back to the 1860s and 1870s was founded upon white supremacy and exclusion, the tenets of “legitimate” professions in the wake of stunted Reconstruction. Players and owners alike saw the expulsion of black players from the professional ranks a necessary step in the legitimization of baseball as a “gentleman’s” profession, worthy of white men. This development occurred in conjunction with the establishment of the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams in perpetuity. The major leagues were thus founded on explicitly racist tenets, and, from its inception, the institution bound labor and race and gender (as women were also expelled, although with much less ceremony).
Racism in organized baseball, then, isn’t vestigial. Rather, it’s baked into the very roots of the game, and it still finds expression in myriad ways across the United States and the world, from the major leagues to the lowest minors to the amateur ranks to the youth level. Latin American youth are systematically exploited by the major leagues through the artificial suppression of salaries and signing bonuses. Amateurs in the U.S. are subject to different salary restrictions through the Rule 4 Draft. Latent racism amongst major leaguers becomes explicit in the reinforcement of “unwritten rules,” the de facto codification of whiteness and traditional masculinity in the way that players act on and off the field. Beanballs and comments like Ian Kinsler’s at the World Baseball Classic—about playing the game “the right way” and how American players are “raised differently”2—are the ugly face of a white supremacy that succeeds in obfuscating itself via a twisted Robinson mythos.
Jones’s experience Monday night is the type of banal racism that black players face daily in the majors. The echoes across the league of similar experiences prove that this isn’t exceptional, that this isn’t a rare occurrence: that this is, in fact, who we are, despite Walsh’s overtures to the contrary. It’s the grotesque permutation of the insidious, hidden racism that survives in our beloved institution of baseball.
One need not look far into the past to see evidence of this in the Cubs’ own history. Dusty Baker, Corey Patterson, Latroy Hawkins, and Jacque Jones all recounted racist abuse from Wrigley fans and via letters, sometimes accompanied by death threats. Their experiences are similar to Jones’s. Said Hawkins in 2006, “I thought that stuff was over 30 years ago. I had never been exposed to it… I couldn’t believe people were dropping the n-word on me. People calling your mother a raccoon or you a porch monkey. You can only take so much abuse until you fight back.”3 A few years later, Derrek Lee relayed similar experiences, particularly as he endured slumps and observed teammates and opponents face on-field adversity.
Even last season, the Cubs paraded Japanese infielder Munenori Kawasaki like a mascot, emphasizing his racial “otherness” in a manner reminiscent of the ugliest white supremacy of none other than Cap Anson. Baseball’s cultural milieu exhibits racism blatantly and shamelessly: bootleg t-shirts hawked on Waveland and Sheffield still feature racist caricatures and slogans; Chief Wahoo endures in the form of official caps and old, white men in headdresses; ballparks from Camden Yards to SunTrust Park displace minority communities or abandon them altogether; youth throughout Latin America are exploited by the increasingly international MLB that depends on their cheap labor to fill the ranks of the minor leagues.
This is all a long way of saying that teams and cities are not special. Lording your club’s moral superiority over another fandom is a fool’s task; your team, too, is complicit in the perpetuation of organized baseball’s profitable racism. To recognize that teams are corporations, and that they exist to make money, is to recognize that they do not have a moral mission, and are not capable of acting within a moral framework. This is true of the Red Sox and the Cardinals and the Cubs, no matter what “character counts” proverbs a front office might spew. This is true with regards to domestic violence. This is true with regards to the explicit exclusion of women from the organized game. And, as we were reminded on Monday night at Fenway Park, this is true with regards to racism.
Lead photo courtesy Bob DeChiara—USA Today Sports
1. A.J. Perez, “Red Sox, Boston Mayor Apologize to Orioles’ Adam Jones after Fan Incidents,” USATODAY.com, May 2, 2017.
2. Bill Baer, “Ian Kinsler Doesn’t Think Puerto Rico or Dominican Republic Players Play the Game the Right Way,” NBCSports.com, March 22, 2017.
3. Bob Nightengale, “Baker Endures as Expectations Fall Short,” USA Today, August 20, 2006.