Activism and Baseball: the Ongoing Battle

Activism and Baseball: the Ongoing Battle

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The surge in politically-active athletes has been growing over the past few years, highlighted recently by the furor over San Francisco 49ers reserve quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the national anthem. That’s led some other players to follow suit in a number of different ways.

When it comes to baseball, activism has surfaced periodically over the past 140 years, most recently with Adam Jones’ endorsement of Kaepernick’s actions. Jones, an outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles, also elicited controversy when he described baseball as “a white man’s sport,” that wouldn’t be as accepting as other leagues have been in this particular area.

Baseball did have its own similar Kaepernick-like controversy back in 2004, when Carlos Delgado, then a first baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays, refused to be on the field when “God Bless America” was played. Delgado’s basis for his action was to protest United States involvement in the Iraq War.

Racial Issues

Over its long history, baseball has been the linchpin for a number of societal issues. These include integration, the presence of unions and alleged cultural insensitivity. In the case of integration, a 60-year “gentlemen’s agreement” to keep African-Americans from playing in the major leagues led to the creation of the Negro Leagues.

It wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson was the first modern African-American to play, leading to a surge of players within this demographic. By the mid-1970’s, just over a quarter of all major leaguers were African-American. However, in 2016, that percentage has dropped to just eight percent, which was the basis for Jones’ claim.

Within this context has been the dearth of African-American managers that have been hired. It took until 1975 for the first, Frank Robinson, to be hired. Since that time, only a small number have since been hired, which has led to protests and many of the same claims that Jones made.

Fighting for Worker’s Rights

Unions in the game were virtually non-existent until the arrival of Marvin Miller as executive director of the player’s union in 1966. Had online sports betting sites been around back then, few would have wagered on the player salaries reaching the levels they’re at 50 years later. However, to get to that point, eight work stoppages over the next three decades would occur.

One player credited with giving power to the union was St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood. After he was traded in 1969, he refused to play for his new team and sued Major League Baseball. The eventual verdict went against him, resulting in his being blackballed by teams for the rest of his life.

Other examples of players being active or vocal in union activities saw them traded or released, causing many star players to avoid taking a leadership roles. Over the past two decades, the two sides have become much more civil, with that practice no longer the case. However, the upcoming labor negotiations could spark new conflict.

Cultural Sensitivity

Baseball has also mirrored football in controversies stemming from team names and logos. The sport’s counterpart for the Washington Redskins is the Cleveland Indians. While many people of all demographics are offended by the nickname, much of their outrage is directed toward the team’s “Chief Wahoo” logo that critics charge is a caricature.

While nothing has changed here, both Major League Baseball and the team have de-emphasized the logo in recent years. This particular issue hasn’t been prominent for players, since only a handful have any Native American roots.

Whether or not more baseball players become more politically active in the years ahead remain to be seen. The usual litmus test will be how many players are willing to risk endorsement contracts to make a political point. The possibility could grow, given that the average salary is currently estimated at $4 million.

By: Lee Flynn