At a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston this week, Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones was peppered with racial epithets by fans, including one who threw a bag of peanuts at him.
A perennial all-star, Jones is one of the most visible African-American players in the major leagues. That the incident occurred less than a month after Major League Baseball celebrated the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the so-called color line speaks volumes about not only the challenges of diversity faced in the sport, but our nation at large.
To be sure, the verbal abuse that Jones faced is nowhere near the level that Robinson experienced during his rookie season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. This is the second incident involving Jones, who had a banana thrown at him at a game in San Francisco in 2013. Whereas Robinson was lauded for his restraint in the face of racial hatred directed towards him, Jones has been outspoken about issues about race in the sport – and responses to his criticism highlight the racial fault lines in baseball that go beyond these isolated incidents.
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Last fall, during the early moments of quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s “kneeling” protest, Jones was asked why baseball players didn’t engage in such protest, as exemplified by those in the NBA or in the collegiate ranks. Jones’ response – that baseball was a “white man’s sport” – received much attention. Indeed, African-American players make up less than 9 percent of league rosters, which averages to a little more than two per team on a roster of 25.
Jones’s point was that if he were to “step out” on issues of social justice, there were likely few who would step out with him. As Jones noted, “In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us.”
In response, Hall of Fame manager and general manager Tony LaRussa not only dismissed Jones’s comments, but asserted that if one of his players did what Kaepernick did, he “absolutely would not allow it ... If you want to make your statement, you make it in the clubhouse, but not out there. You’re not going to show it that way publicly and disrespectfully.” La Russa’s comments speak palpably to the ways the sport has historically sought to police the expression of African-American and Latino ballplayers.
Hall of Famer and retired New York Yankee star Goose Gossage has built a virtual cottage industry around his yearly rants about what’s wrong with the sport, and his targets, more often than not, are Latino ballplayers. One of Gossage’s favorite targets is Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista, who often dramatically flips his bat after hitting home runs in a way that is reminiscent of the flair and enthusiasm that Latino players have brought to the game. Asked about Bautista, Gossage replied “Bautista is a … disgrace to the game...He’s embarrassing to all the Latin players, whoever played before him.”
Gossage is among a generation of former players and analysts – Bob Costas among them – who talk regularly about the purity of the game and how it should be played. But what they might be overlooking is the spirit of competitiveness exhibited by some non-white players. Bautista’s teammate pitcher Marcus Stroman, an African-American, was recently criticized by one of the team’s on-air analyst, Gregg Zaun, another former white ballplayer, for being too demonstrative at the end of a game that he helped win. One wonders if Zaun would have been so demonstrative in his criticism if Stroman were white. Stroman was the first number one draft pick ever taken from Duke University, and though Stroman left school after his junior year, he returned to Duke to earn his degree while rehabbing an early-career injury. Stroman is the kind of player the league should be going out of its way to celebrate.
Ironically, as baseball struggles to replenish older generations of fans and develop sport-transcending stars like basketball and football have done so successfully, it needs both the controversies and the style of play that instigate such controversy in its attempt to remain relevant and appealing to diverse sports audiences.
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African American Studies and English at Duke University, where he directs the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship.