On Monday of this past week, MLB celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. In what has become a yearly Tax Day tribute, Baseball commemorated Robinson’s breaking the color barrier on April 15, 1947 by outfitting every player in his iconic #42.
On Friday, MLB closed out that same week by suspending Chicago White Sox shortstop, Tim Anderson (who is black) for getting intentionally plunked by a 92 MPH fastball after hitting a home run in his prior at bat and then calling the offending pitcher, Brad Keller (who is white) “a weak-ass [effing] N-word.” Anderson, who is off to a sensational start this season, had emphatically celebrated his homer by flipping the bat and staring into the opposing dugout. After he was hit by a pitch in his next at bat, the benches cleared and Anderson shouted at Keller.
By suspending Anderson, MLB showed it still doesn’t quite “get it” when it comes to issues of racism.
Perhaps, however, this should come as no surprise. Of all the major sports in the US, baseball has – by far – the lowest percentage of black players. In 2018, MLB announced that percentage of black players in the league had grown to 8.4%. By comparison, the NBA has 74%,while the NFL has 65%. The institutional whiteness of the sport of baseball, however, demonstrates how important it is for MLB to understand race issues and deal appropriately with them.
First, MLB swings-and-misses here by suspending a black player for using the N-word.
As the NY Daily News points out, “If the NBA banned its black athletes from using the n-word in any context, the league would cease operations inside of an hour and we’d be left watching Andrew Bogut’s Warriors battle Donte DiVicenzo’s Bucks in the NBA Finals. And if DiVicenzo’s old tweets are any indication, the rookie guard would probably have to be more careful with his own language.”
For a white person, saying the N-word is a racial slur and is racist. For a black person to say the N-word is not. Finally – and this can be the most confusing to grasp – this is not a “double-standard.”
This can be a particularly difficult issue for white people, like me, to learn and understand. My son listens to a lot of rap music and has asked me this very question: “Why can they say it and its OK, but when I say it, its bad?”
The reason for this is based on the history of the word’s creation and use.
On this subject, I recommend the excellent article, ‘Regarding the Use of the N-Word‘ by Napoleon Wells (who is black):
“When the “N” word is uttered by any White person, it is a slur. Full stop. No White American has had to live with the cost associated with Black skin, none have been granted access to the use of the word as it belongs to an entire other community. This is not academic, there is no science to ground it. For White persons, there has not been the history of transforming the meaning of the word, it remains one thing for that community, and no permission from any misguided Black person can be granted to erase marks that are that indelible . . .
When I use the word, and when those among my extended kinfolk in the community use it, there is an understanding of the motive, and a specific set of applications of the word. There is a history and meaning, there is a tearing down of that word as it was used as a weapon, a siphoning of the emotional poison it is steeped in, when my tribe makes use of it. I know there to be no harm.”
That article is well worth reading in its entirety, perhaps more than once.
Upworthy also has a very helpful video on this issue, here, which explains why there are different consequences to using the N-word, which was created by white people as a tool of oppression against black people, depending on whether you are black or white.
Hopefully this incident leads to more discussion and understanding around this topic, both in baseball and in our society at large.
Second, MLB’s suspension of Anderson stands in stark contrast to its non-actions last year against players like the Brewers’ Josh Hader and the Braves’ Tim Newcomb, in the face of the surfacing of old Tweets of their that were racist or homophobic.
Some have compared these incidents, pointing to different treatment for black players vs. white players.
Acknowledging the difficulties of suspending players for incidents that occurred years ago, those were serious incidents of racism that MLB should have addressed. And, for what its worth, the Yankees just suspended Kate Smith and her (grating) rendition of God Bless America for similar reasons and her statements were made last century.
Finally, apart from the issue of the N-word and racism, this incident shines a light on another hot-button issue about the game itself: whether we should jettison two of the hoary “unwritten rules” of the sport.
One unwritten rule in American baseball is that batters should be stoic at all times. When you hit a home run, you’re supposed to “just put your head down and run around the bases.” No eye contact. Don’t run too slowly. Don’t run too fast. And certainly, don’t exhibit any excitement, by flipping the bat or jumping up-and-down. Any of those are viewed as “showing the pitcher up.”
This certainly isn’t the case in other countries and cultures. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, for example, players are more exuberant in their celebrations. This is what got Jose Bautista is trouble when he let loose an epic bat flip back in the 2015 playoffs after a game-winning home run. And Korea has elevated bat-flipping to an art-form.
I don’t see the point to demanding that players quash the excitement and emotions that come from hitting a bomb. Whether in sport or in life, repressing emotions is a bad thing. But more to the point, those emotions are some of the best parts of sport! MLB baseball has long been a comparative failure when it comes to marketing the sport and its superstars, baseball needs MORE excitement, not less. We don’t need more Mike Trout talking about the weather and the daily grind of the game. Instead, give me more Francisco Lindor and his blue hair hitting a bomb in front of his hometown fans in Puerto Rico and letting loose an energetic boom of emotion.
Back to baseball’s longstanding unwritten rules. There’s a second “unwritten rule” that says that if you or your teammates “show up” a pitcher, he gets to throw a fastball at you and plunk you.
This makes no sense. Is this really what we want to teach kids (or grown-ups)? If you make a bad pitch and get frustrated you get to take out your frustrations by beaning that guy with a 90+ MPH fastball. No. You can seriously hurt a guy that way. And if you made a bad pitch and a guy hits it 450 feet, he got you. Next time, make a better pitch. (I would say the same thing in football; if you don’t want to watch some guy celebrate in the end zone, do your job and tackle him and keep him out of the end zone.)
Anderson got pissed off when Keller – albeit licensed by year’s of baseball tradition – acted like a baby and threw a pitch at him. So he yelled at him. I have no problem with that.
Ironically, MLB tried to show an openness to this more modern accepting view of bat-flipping by posting this on its Twitter:
— MLB (@MLB) April 18, 2019
Later that same day, it turned around and suspended him.
Do better, MLB.
Photo Credit: YouTube (screen grab)