July 13, 2007

Great Ballplayers Evade Greatness

By Kevin Weston
New America Media

SAN FRANCISCO — Classic San Francisco weather – blue skies streaked with overcast, white/grey fog and a cool breeze – greeted fans and players as the Bay Area welcomed the baseball world for the 78th annual All-Star Game, this past Tuesday.

The game took place 60 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball and ushered in the modern movement for human and civil rights in America.

2007 finds baseball and the United States in another historic moment not unlike Jackie’s more than a half century in the distance. Less than two weeks ago the Senate rejected comprehensive immigration reform and left more than 12 million people in legal limbo, fear and uncertainty.

More than half of the 16 starting position players for both leagues in this year’s game are of foreign-born/Latino/Asian origin. The starters are chosen by the fans. Twenty-four of the 66 players picked for the game are of foreign-born/Latino/Asian origin — the most ever to play in the mid-season classic.

The immigration debate has almost equaled the urgency of struggle over dismantling American apartheid with ICE raids breaking up families, discrimination and repressive local laws sweep across the country. Sport — and great sports men — could help to decide the future of this country as it did in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1960s.

Back then African-American athletes had no alternative but to advocate and sacrifice for equality. Now with an unprecedented number of foreign-born players representing the American and National Leagues in the game at AT&T Park not one used this moment in history to articulate a human rights vision for the New America, to the baseball loving masses. There would be no baseball without these players, just as there would be no United States of America without immigrants.

Unlike African-American heroes of the early and mid-20th century these well paid boys of summer can choose to ignore the moment and go on playing and getting a fat check while their fellow immigrants – that serve the hot dogs and beer and sweep the floors at AT&T Park – are left with no champions.

Although Jackie Robinson was a catalyst in bringing America into civilization he stood on the shoulders of other athletes that paved the way for his breakthrough victory, most notably Jesse Owens and Joe Lewis. Their one-two punch to Hitler’s jaw in 1936 and 1938 broke the teeth of the idea of the superior white race and helped soften a segregated America to the change that had to come.

Jesse Owens, at the 1936 Berlin/Munich Olympic Games, captured four gold medals, setting new world records in three events and equaling another. Owens suffered discrimination and financial hardship upon returning to the United States. But his victory created a worldwide example of a Black man overcoming tremendous odds to defeat not only his competition but the idea of white supremacy while the beast Hitler sat as a helpless witness.

Joe Lewis destroyed Max Schmeling in a revenge rematch in 1938. Schmeling – the German champion that defeated the Brown Bomber two years earlier was stopped in the first round and all of America celebrated. Lewis instantly became a symbol of the United States’ capacity to fight the Germans, and their white supremacy rhetoric, and win – as Hitler was preparing to invade Poland and loomed over the rest of Europe like a cloud of despair.

Jackie Robinson, who grew up in Pasadena, Calif., was a hero of the civil rights struggle before he laced up his cleats for the Brooklyn Dodgers. As an Army Second Lieutenant he refused to sit in the back of a bus, faced a court martial for the offense against Jim Crow and beat the case. He won the first Rookie of the Year Award, which is now named after him, and led the upstart Brooklyn club to the World Series. He did this in 1947 while suffering abuse and mistreatment from fans, other players and the media. Robinson, because he couldn’t fail under any circumstances, had to bite his lip and take the epithets and hard slides and bean balls and the pressure of an entire people looking to him to overcome.

After his spectacular Hall of Fame career Jackie continued to fight the good fight, setting up foundations for education, marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. and tactfully agreeing with Malcolm X.

The 1960s brought a new militancy to African America and our sports heroes who stood up for truth and justice paid a heavy price.

Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the army in 1967, sighting religious and political beliefs that summed up his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Ali famously said: “I ain’t got a quarrel with them Viet Cong, they never called me a nigger.” Ali spent time in a federal penitentiary for his steadfastness against the war and by the time he was released young America’s opinion of the war matched Ali’s. He went on to recapture the heavyweight title. The Greatest Of All Time became truly great through his ideals and sacrifice.

Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos (who both attended San Jose State University) – while excepting the gold and bronze medal, respectively, in the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics – raised black gloved fists and stood barefoot on the medal podium while the Star Spangled Banner blared from the speakers.

The protest came after a near miss boycott of Black athletes of the games as many cities were still smoldering in the wake of the riots that followed the assassination of MLK. By 1968 it had become apparent to many young Blacks that the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t going to stop police brutality, job and housing discrimination, gentrification, poor health care and inferior education. And King’s theme of non-violence in the face of cruelty started to ring hollow. Both Smith and Carlos were stripped of their medals and banned from the Olympics for life.

The man most responsible for the hefty salaries that many Hispanic and foreign-born players receive in Major League Baseball is Curt Flood. Raised across the Bay in Oakland, Calif., Flood, an All-Star outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, refused to be traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. Flood fought baseball’s “reserve clause” which restricted player movement and tied them to their teams even after they played out their contracts. Flood likened the reserve clause to slavery.

Flood’s legal fight against baseball failed, but it began a process that eventually ushered in the era of free agency that has allowed for baseball players to be some of the best paid figures in the sporting world. Flood left baseball in 1971 having made no more than $90,000 per year.

Latino and Caribbean-born players don’t have to look to African Americans for heroes that transcend sports because of their courage and convictions. Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Rican slugger for the Pittsburgh Pirates, became the first Hispanic to be elected into the Hall of Fame. Clemente was a philanthropist that didn’t restrict his giving to his family or town in the country of Puerto Rico. He died in a plane crash while delivering food to victims of a devastating earthquake that leveled the capital of Nicaragua in 1972.

Ironically it is the kind of money involved in the game now that may be the x-factor in the silence of this generation of sports heroes to injustice — rich trumps race or immigration status.

David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, José Alberto Pujols, Francisco “Frankie” José Rodríguez, Manny Ramirez and their immigrant/Hispanic/Asian colleagues may be great players. But they will never achieve greatness until they are known for what they do, and stand for, outside of the white lines.

Kevin Weston is a writer, the director of New Media at New America Media and publisher of YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.

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