June 13, 2002, Episode Six:  The Social Context of Baseball

Like everything else of interest to our crack research staff, baseball is organized. The characteristic, one notes, is not restricted to "organized baseball." The term "organized baseball" is usually applied only to major league baseball and the affiliated minors. It is not applied to the independent minors, leagues outside Canada and the U.S., and the uncountable number of amateur programs, including college baseball, designed to identify the best players at each age level and funnel them into situations that will facilitate the development and assessment of their skills. The taxonomy is sprawling and decentralized, the leagues and other associations are marked by arcane local mores, and the specifics change annually, with exhaustive information not to be found in printed sources. In short, the environment is an organizational dynamics researcher's dream come true.  I spoke with Terry McKaig by telephone on May 30th. McKaig is the head coach of the University of British Columbia baseball team. The program had drawn my attention for two reasons. First, UBC is a member of the NAIA, a collegiate athletics organization based in the United States and until recently composed solely of U.S. college and university athletic programs. Second, Jeff Francis, a pitcher on the team, had been the first Canadian collegian to make Baseball America's preseason all-America team and, as anticipated at the time of this interview, Francis went 9th overall in the recent college draft by Major League Baseball.  He will be playing for the Colorado Rockies.

When baseball fans discuss baseball they use statistical records, RBIs (runs batted in), ERAs (earned run averages), on-base percentages, number of homeruns in a season and so forth.  These numbers lead to the assertion that one player is worthy of more attention than another because they are compared over time to other players.  But can the numbers from players in the nineteenth century really be compared to players in the twentieth century?  At what point can one say that "modern baseball" began?  Some say at the turn of the century.  Some historians say 1871, 1876, 1901, or 1920.  Carl makes a case for the late 1940s when the colour line of baseball was broken when Jackie Robinson became the first recognised African American in the previously white leagues.  The text of his argument is below.

How is baseball sociological?  Looking at how college baseball is organized and issues across international boundaries and racial boundaries shows that baseball lives within a context that is social and political in nature.  Like all human activities, in order to be acceptable as entertainment, baseball must be legitimate in the eyes of others.  Labels such as NAIA affiliation or Major League Baseball provide those legimitations.   


I perceive that major league baseball began in the late-1940's, not in 1871, 1876, 1901, 1920, or any of the other dates commonly cited by so-called baseball historians. I support this claim by noting that the top Caucasian professional baseball leagues that existed before the color line began to go down in the 1940's cannot reasonably be called major league baseball.

My defense will not be reliant upon the social utility of drawing the line as a way to get even with bigots, although I personally find such reciprocity not without appeal. It is rather an internal attack on the "major league baseball" of those prewar years, dismantling the notion that the games and pennant races could have been legitimate in and of themselves in the context of the race issue.

My initial motivation for such specificity in setting a single date on the dawn of major league baseball was the perceptible lack of agreement as to how long the top North American professional leagues have been playing essentially the same game they do now. Television announcers regularly report on a player having broken one "modern" record or another, with closer inspection revealing that the date of transition used in the particular case may correspond to, tautologically, nothing other than the last time another player was more successful in the given category. Examination of the more perceptible discontinuities in major league play since the first professional team was formed in 1869 is instructive in other respects. The central precepts of team sport were violated in the days of the color line to an extent that severely contextualizes, and perhaps entirely invalidates, American League and National League standings and statistics before that time and the violations stem with logical inevitability from the ban itself.

It is imperative to the integrity of an event that is competitive and presented as such that all sides attempt, as a matter of good faith, to win. Otherwise, what transpires is not a contest but an exhibition at best, a farce at worst. The 1919 Black Sox scandal was not about the Chicago players intentionally playing poorly as much as it was about their intentionally playing less well than usual. The point of law, as it were, had to address the latter act, else any player who threw a game could counterargue that he hadn't done anything to hurt his team, he had only declined to help it as much as usual on that particular day. This rhetorical ploy was known by early-20th century baseball fans and adminstrators to be used by would-be game fixers in approaching players thought to be potentially helpful. The popular term for intentional underperforming was "laying down," implying a more passive (and less detectable) variety of subversion than flagrant misplay.

The ban on blacks playing in the American and National Leagues created a conflict of interest in players that discouraged them from full display of their talents. As in Las Vegas, where every successful new strategy employed by gamblers is made illegal upon discovery by the casinos and the biggest individual winners are rewarded with an "informal" request to leave Nevada and never return, the professional baseball players of the day were subject to attack on the race issue if they became too good at what they did. Babe Ruth himself was suspected of being a "secret Negro," a claim which he felt compelled to deny frequently throughout his career. His denials may have been rooted in whatever racism he harbored personally, but the prospect of his being removed from his profession, however slim the probability, must have motivated him as well. Did it perhaps motivate him, and others with a little extra ability to burn, to keep a lower profile on the field? It cannot have encouraged better play on his part.

Less prominent players also had to be concerned with passing the "race test." For example, teams wanting to use Cuban players had to establish that the players in question were "true Cubans," that is, as opposed to black ones. Some of the players so examined passed the test and some failed.

Player abilities are largely developed by the individual player. A young person begins to hone baseball skills at an early age. The young person spends certain amounts of time and energy on batting, throwing, running, and other skills. Development is largely a function of this allocation. Later, when coaches and managers become involved, it is still the young person who has to execute, and the physical and mental processes that accompany every action of the eventually-mature player can still be said to spring from the player's own past and present regimen to a great extent. The color line could not have been reasonably ignored by a prospective professional ballplayer. Players had to allocate a certain amount of their stamina and intellect to beating the ban continuously, evading it every moment of their pre-professional and professional lives. Certain players did not have to worry as much as others about it, which only added to the inequities it caused. And, as with Ruth, those who survived the entrance exam still had to worry, at least in theory, about becoming good enough at the game to draw negative attention and possible witch hunts, with the resulting absurdity that it was possible for a player to be "too good" in what was supposed to have been a competition. Taking practical steps to prepare for race scrutiny, or at least the player's anticipation of its becoming a nontrivial influence on his career, necessarily compromised player training effectiveness and performance in league games. The resulting contests were not entirely about who played baseball the best.

As the ban was an informal one, never appearing as black-letter law in any official American League and/or National League documents, the individual teams were technically at liberty to field black players from the beginning of the 20th century (and before). That they did not attempt to do so, preferring to participate in the unspoken moratorium, violated the principle of competition as well. Some cooperative elements, inevitably, must exist for league games to be held. But blanket immunity for collaboration cannot be granted in an environment in which competition drives the validity of the enterprise to such an extent. It is difficult to blame the successful teams for preferring the status quo; it is easy to blame the perennial losers for not hiring all of the black ball stars they could and going to any extreme to see to it that none of their opponents got too rambunctious with the new talent. The Athletics of the late-1910's, the Red Sox of the 1920's, and the Phillies of the 1930's would unquestionably have benefitted from having had Rube Foster, Martin Dihigo, and Ray Dandridge respectively. Preferring to take the easy route, these teams effectively threw season after season in the same way the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series. They couldn't be bothered to try.

Is there anyone who can explain why watching a game in which one team is losing on purpose is worthwhile? I am not referring to situations such as the insertion of the mop-up reliever in baseball or the third-string quarterback at the end of a football game. Those situations are marked by the presence of two mitigating factors: the teams are cutting their losses so that they have a better chance of winning future games, and the personnel on the field, given their identities, are still trying to win the game if possible. No conflicts of interest exist. Even conceding for the sake of argument that the athletes in the American and National Leagues were in general superior to the black ball mainstays in prewar times (a "concession" that one might well prefer to describe as "falsehood"), the former were compromised in their ability to pursue the goal of winning to a perceptible extent by the side effects of the color line. Teams that abdicate the goal of winning in favor of deliberate suboptimality are not teams. They reduce to triviality the completion of the "games" in which they engage, games which are the only evidence their league has to offer of its legitimacy and worth. A thrown game is no game, and the games played by the American and National Leagues during the days of professional baseball apartheid were thrown games in the strictest sense of the term.

The prewar pennant races took place in the shadow of conditions that were measurably more racist in certain major league cities than in others. St. Louis and Boston, for example, were often cited as worse towns than most for blacks. To claim that the racism, and regional fluctuations therein, were irrelevant since there were no black players in the majors at that time is like saying that racism is not a problem in all-white neighborhoods. For example, Forsyth County, Georgia, became noteworthy in the early-1990's for not having had a black resident in several decades. Closer examination suggested that the absence was a result of conditions so inimical to blacks that none had remained in the county long enough to have been rightly called residents. It was the social condition in question that had caused and maintained the demography.

The concept of the level playing field is not strictly enforced in baseball, with franchises building their teams around their parks and, on occasion, their parks around their teams. However, there are, and must be, some restrictions on home team advantage. Minimally, killing off or maiming for life opposing players is, and must be, implicitly forbidden. Such an observation may seem ridiculous now, unless you have lost a relative to a lynching, and there are quite a few people alive who have. It has been nearly fifty years now since Brown vs. Board of Education was first addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court. A lot of people who were around then are around now, or at least their first two or three generations of descendants are. Or they should be.

It would be petty to assess the historical effect of regional pockets of racism solely in terms of how they have influenced baseball games. That is not to say that one cannot, conversely, assess the games in terms of how they have influenced by regional pockets of racism. Why should the manager of the Chicago Cubs, for example, have to cave in to those who would maintain a hostile environment in St. Louis by leaving any of his players home when playing road games against the Cardinals? If I had been managing the Cubs in 1935, I would not have left Gabby Hartnett home for a road game against the Cardinals. Had I been managing the Cubs in 1998, I would not have left Sammy Sosa home for such a game. The implications for fair play of having to leave any number of players home for road games are obvious. Racism did have a casualty count, and the pervasiveness of its more violent aspects was such that not even a baseball game could take place in certain parts of the country without being influenced by it.

One hears often that history is written by the winners. Examined more narrowly, history is written by those who are still around to write it today. It follows that any version of history which a given group promulgates at the expense of other groups' ability to compile, not to mention circulate, other versions, must be looked upon as suspect.

It is not petty to mourn the effect of genocide on discourse. Eliminating persons with knowledge of a culture has been a historically effective way of curtailing the presence and influence of that culture in general discourse. As the individuals who sustain the culture are dispatched, the culture itself naturally succumbs to attrition. Is there a black American, Canadian, Mexican, Cuban, Honduran, Salvadorian, Belizian, . . . , or Falkland Islander alive who will maintain that the exclusion of "colored men" from the American and National (and, indeed, Federal) Leagues between 1884 and 1947 had no measurable effect on the game as played by these leagues? To claim that "the damage is done [and cannot be undone]" and that it is best to "let bygones be bygones" is to accept and reinforce the aims of the initiators of the "color line." If one dismisses the loss incurred by the game (never mind the persons thus excluded) as not worth examining, one is guilty of upholding the "color line" oneself in the sense that the "color line" was a line of propaganda that was sustained by passive as well as active destruction of opposition and evidence that might serve opposition. So far from having no choice but to accept what transpired under such twisted circumstances as valid, one has no choice but to throw out the results. This practical and theoretical imperative is binding for scientific reasons as well: "reality control" encompasses diddling with the conditions before the testing has begun as well as throwing out subsequent results that one does not like.

Without taking the statement to be true in the extreme, I note that history is consensual. Some range of popular assent would be a necessity in redrawing the line initiating modern major league baseball history if it were to be put into practice. To maintain that the "color line" was not of sufficient import to merit selecting 1946 or 1947 as when modern major league history began is to take on the counterarguments of quite a few black Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Cubans, Hondurans, Salvadorians, Belizians, . . . , and Falkland Islanders in addition to taking on the responsibility of coming up with a more logical year for candidacy. Are you so worried about Babe Ruth being stripped of some of his statistical legitimation that you never even think to extend the same amount of concern to Josh Gibson?

Did YOUR parents have to use the side or rear door to the stores in their home town? (The doors are still there in the rural south, by the way, their isolated and architecturally-inefficient presence along otherwise-featureless long brick walls a tangible and measurable reminder of exactly how willful the segregationists were about ensuring their ideals.)

Did YOU have an older sister with a gift for numbers who nonetheless received little or no math education while not-too-bright kids went to "public schools" that were better-funded than your siblings' by several orders of magnitude? (We won't even talk about the so-called "literacy" tests that were administered in the United States to blacks but not to whites to prevent the former group from voting.)

If you really think that Jackie Robinson was an inadequate augur of the world to come, don't convince me, convince a black woman or man, or better still, convince someone who wasn't "really" black but who got pigeonholed as such early on and never escaped the label. Because until you do, you will never, ever get the "consensus" necessary to establish any other time as historically more significant. And, if brushing them off in the hope that they will ultimately grow weary of arguing and go away is your preference, I remind you that it was the failure of this approach that allowed the color line to go down in the first place.

It may seem hard-headed of me not to believe the pre-1946 American League and National League to have been "major league baseball." With Ruth, Wagner, Mathewson, Gehrig, Hornsby, Cobb, et. al. spending their careers playing in one or both of the two leagues, one might ask how I could not regard them as having been "major league"? My response is that, on the contrary, I didn't regard them as having been "baseball." "Race" is a term that is often used, not without cause, synonymously with "assigned social role."

Assignment of a given player to the "white" group or the "black" group was ultimately at the discretion of the commissioner's office, which was the authority of last resort on such matters during Kenesaw Mountain Landis's term in office. The assignment of status was even made explicitly by Landis in some cases, with a given organization trying to classify a player as "white" but being thwarted. This operationalization of "whiteness" was such that once it was in place, "competition" among the teams in the white leagues could not possibly have retained integrity. This was in part because a team wasn't truly at liberty to improve itself under such a system. An upwardly-mobile team could not freely scout, recruit, acquire, develop, or trade for players under such a system, since their fortunes might ultimately hinge on whether Landis's temperament would favor them in a particular case. With such a spectre at the end of the tunnel, teams gave up on certain players "just to be on the safe side," with some of the players being dismissed before they had had a chance to play for the organization at all.

Even more of a conundrum, given the simple-minded taxonomy employed by the baseball establishment, must have been the issue of how to deal with Cubans and Polynesians and native Americans and Arabs and Mexicans of heterogeneous ancestry and so forth. The ban on "blacks" presupposed that race was univariate, dichotomous, and discrete. With such tepid assumptions as the foundation of their conceptual model, the racists made it impossible for Landis or anyone else to be "fair" within the context of its application, there being no logically consequent standard against which "fairness" could have been judged. I expect the racists would have said that they "just knew" who was white and who was black, a statement whose articulation would only have supported my case.

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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