In 1943, while Americans of all stripes were fighting in World War II, Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey sought and gained approval from team ownership to find a Black player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier. He found him in 1945, and on April 15, 1947, Georgia native Jackie Robinson made his major league debut. But you know that story already.
Combating racism was a lifelong endeavor for Rickey. While coaching at Ohio Wesleyan – forty years prior to signing Robinson – Rickey’s Black catcher Charles Thomas was refused accommodation at a team hotel. Rickey managed to get him into the hotel for the night and, when asked about it later, said “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.”
As it turned out, Rickey’s actions did do something about racism in every field. Robinson spent his post-baseball years using his platform to advance the cause of Black people throughout the commercial and industrial world. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that Jackie Robinson was a “legend” who “challenged the dark skies of intolerance and frustration.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said Robinson’s “efforts were a monumental step in the civil-rights revolution in America.” He was the first Black person to serve as vice-president of a major American corporation (Chock full o’Nuts). He co-founded Freedom National Bank, once one of the largest Black-owned and operated banks in America. He established the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for low-income families. And he was able to do all this because of the opportunity afforded him by Branch Rickey, whose only error was thinking he wouldn’t be able to do something about racism in every field.
Millions of young kids across America idolize baseball players. They wear shirts with their names on the back, decorate their bedrooms with pictures of them. These kids want to be them. The players are the kids’ heroes. Then those kids grow up, most of them don’t become professional baseball players, and they learn that ballplayers usually aren’t heroes. Some are nice guys and some aren’t, but very few of them are heroes. Jackie Robinson was a hero. Although he was only briefly a player and there probably aren’t any jerseys with his name on the back, Branch Rickey was a hero. And by integrating the game seven years before Brown v. Board of Education and seventeen years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, Major League Baseball as a whole was a hero.
Major League Baseball has another chance to be a hero. It’s time for them to stand up for civil rights again.
MLB’s All-Star Game is scheduled to take place this July in Atlanta. Last week, Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp signed arguably the most blatant voter suppression bill in more than half a century. President Joe Biden called it “Jim Crow in the 21st century.” (He also said it “makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle,” which I guess was kind of funny.) The bill imposes new voter ID requirements for absentee ballots, limits the number of ballot drop boxes, bans giving food and water to people in line (which sounds like the plot of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta), and, most horrifyingly, strips the secretary of state and local counties of the right to run state elections and transfers it to a state board that is dominated by conservative Republicans, which in laymen’s terms means a Republican-controlled board very nearly has the power to decide statewide elections themselves. These prohibitions are specifically geared at dense urban populations, a group that is rather heavy on non-white people. That this law was passed in the immediate wake of Georgia electing two Democratic senators – one Black and one Jewish – and voting for Joe Biden in the 2020 election is obviously not a coincidence.
Tony Clark, the Black Executive Director of the MLB Players Association, has said that “players are very much aware” of the law and that they “look forward to having a conversation” with the league about the All-Star Game’s location. Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who, like our vice-president, is Black and Asian-American, has indicated he would likely decline to manage the game if it is played in Georgia.
There are precedents for states backing away from oppressive laws after being hurt in their pocketbook by major sporting events. In 2017, the NBA moved its own ASG out of North Carolina after they passed a state law demanding that transgender people use public bathrooms based on their gender assigned at birth (it’s always the bathrooms with these people). In 1993, the NFL moved the Super Bowl out of Arizona because of the state’s refusal to acknowledge Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a federal holiday (yes, in 1993). Until as recently as 2015, the NCAA banned South Carolina from hosting championships because the confederate flag flew on Statehouse grounds. In each case, the state relented.
Voter suppression is wrong and the Georgia state officials who made the law know it. They made the law because they want to live in a pre-Jackie Robinson world, a world where there are just certain things that only certain people should get to do. Like, choose the president. Or drink water while they’re waiting in line to vote. They would rather live in that world than adapt to this one.
I understand the mindset of the person who just wants to watch sports for the fun of it without having to think about the troubles of the world. It’s tempting to want to use sports to escape. Similarly, I understand the instinct of many players and officials to avoid getting too political and potentially alienating a large swath of their fan base. I think these feelings are valid and I certainly don’t think sports need to get involved in every political issue. But sometimes they need to draw a line and say enough is enough. I was very impressed last summer with the attention paid to police brutality and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and I was especially impressed when six teams canceled their games in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. I hope that commitment to civil rights spreads throughout Major League Baseball this year and they decide to stand up to voter suppression.
Please don’t hold the All-Star Game in Georgia, MLB. Please. Pretty please? Pretty please with a multi-cultural democracy on top?
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