Racism

What Baseball Teaches Us about Race

254px-orioles_outfielder_adam_jones_looks_on_before_the_al_wild_card_game-_283013627424629

Adam Jones, Center fielder for the Baltimore Orioles

I have always considered baseball to be a reflection of the world around us. There are so many life lessons to be learned from the sport—learning from failure, working together, exhibiting patience, and evaluating the situation. We also see that baseball is an international sport that brings numerous cultures and ethnicities together. We see players from North, South, and Central America, Asia, Europe and Australia sharing the field. This season the first African-born player made it to the Majors.[1] Much has been accomplished in Major League Baseball related to race since Jackie Robinson first broke the color barrier in 1947. Unfortunately, the events surrounding the game between the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox on May 1 demonstrate that baseball and society have a long way to go.

Baseball news has been full of reports that Adam Jones, the 5-time All-Star and 4-time Gold Glove winning center fielder for the Orioles, was the object of racial slurs from fans at Fenway Park. Jones told Bob Nightengale of USA Today, “A disrespectful fan threw a bag of peanuts at me. I was called the N-word a handful of times tonight. Thanks. Pretty awesome.”[2] In response, the Red Sox ejected the fan who threw a bag of peanuts at Jones. ESPN reports that the Red Sox ejected around 30 fans from that game.[3] Jones added that he had experienced racist taunts at Fenway Park before, but this was the worst of his 12-year career.

If the words and actions of the game were not enough, other players have stepped forward to say that they have also been subjected to racial slurs at Fenway. CC Sabathia, a pitcher for the New York Yankees, said that he has heard racial slurs directed at him from the stands in Boston. In addition, David Price who pitches for Boston said he has been the recipient of similar attacks at his home stadium. Finally, Dusty Baker, the manager of the Washington Nationals, said he wasn’t surprised by the treatment of Jones by the fans.[4]

Nightengale further reports that the problem extends beyond Boston. He writes:

The hideous and repulsive reality is that this isn’t limited to Boston. It happens virtually every day. In almost every ballpark. Just ask every African-American player who has played the game, and you’ll hear the chilling stories. They’ll talk about the slurs coming from the stands, the racist mail delivered to their mailboxes and the ugly behavior exhibited when alcohol gives fans liquid courage.[5]

The behavior was so bad on May 1 that Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement on behalf of the league. He stated:

The racist words and actions directed at Adam Jones at Fenway Park last night are completely unacceptable and will not be tolerated at any of our ballparks. My office has been in contact with the Red Sox, and the club has made it clear that they will not tolerate this inexcusable behavior. Our 30 clubs will continue to work with fans and security to provide a family-friendly environment.  Any individual who behaves in such offensive fashion will be immediately removed from the ballpark and subject to further action. The behavior of these few ignorant individuals does not reflect the millions of great baseball fans who attend our games.[6]

If baseball represents a microcosm of our culture, what does this say about our society? Unfortunately, it says we have a long way to go when it comes to race. On one hand, I feel confident in what Manfred says at the end of his statement about the fact that these few fans do not represent the millions of great fans. On the other hand, I know that we all have to search our hearts and ask what our hidden prejudices and sins are.

From a biblical standpoint, there are two main ideas that speak directly to the question of racism. First, we read in Genesis 1:26–27 that God created all people in his image. Scripture states, “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness. . . .’ God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” There is no distinction made on the basis of ethnicity, gender, or any other characteristic in regards to the image of God. We are all image bearers and have inherent dignity and worth in the eyes of God. We cannot make a distinction in people based on their ethnic or geographic heritage. This is confirmed as we read the words of Paul in Acts 17:26–27, “And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us.”

Second, we must recognize that we are all in need of a Savior to deliver us from our sin, no matter our ethnicity. Apart from faith in Christ, we are all dead in our trespasses. Through faith in Christ, we become united as heirs of the Kingdom. Yet, there is still no distinction in regard to race. In Galatians 3:26–29 Paul writes:

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.

Across all racial and ethnic lines, we suffer the same fate apart from Christ. However, we also receive the same salvation through faith in Christ. The fact that God has provided the way of salvation through Christ to us all is wonderful news indeed.

What Adam Jones experienced the other night is shameful. May we who have become heirs according to the promise be the ones who call all people to unity by proclaiming the truth that God has made us in his image and that he has offered salvation to us all without concern for race, color, or nationality.

[1] Des Bieler, “MLB’s first African-born player set to take the field as Pirates promote Gift Ngoepe,” The Washington Post, 26 April 2017.

[2] Bob Nightengale, “Orioles’ Adam Jones berated by racist taunts at Fenway Park,” USA Today, 1 May 2017.

[3]Orioles’ Adam Jones says he was target of racist abuse at Fenway,” ESPN, 2 May 2017.

[4] Timothy Rapp, “CC Sabathia Details Racist Experiences in Boston After Adam Jones Incident,” Bleacher Report, 2 May 2017.

[5] Bob Nightengale, “Orioles’ Adam Jones has already made a difference by speaking out,” USA Today, 2 May 2017.

[6] John Meoli, “Rob Manfred, Tony Clark, Red Sox, others react to racial slurs directed at Orioles’ Adam Jones,” The Baltimore Sun, 2 May 2017.

Image Credit: Arturo Pardavila III via Wikimedia Commons

Hall of Fame Hellion: Ty Cobb and the Value of a Reputation

313px-ty_cobbSome names are synonymous with baseball—Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Mickey Mantle. Other baseball figures have left their mark but make us cringe when we hear their names—Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, Gaylord Perry. Greatness and scandal are not necessarily mutually exclusive in the world of professional baseball. Babe Ruth may be the most famous slugger of all time, but his reputation off the field is less than pristine. Gaylord Perry has a place in the Hall of Fame, but he even filmed a commercial for ESPN’s SportsCenter making fun of his own use of the spitball.

Another all-time baseball still great struggles with a bad reputation more than 50 years after his death. Ty Cobb was one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He is in the inaugural class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving more votes than any other inaugural class member including Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. He played for the Detroit Tigers from 1905 to 1926 and finished his career with two more seasons playing for the Philadelphia Athletics. By the time he retired in 1928, Cobb held 43 major league regular season career records. His career batting average of .366 still stands today, and his 4,191 career hits in the “dead ball” era still rank second only to Pete Rose.

Unfortunately for Ty Cobb, his name is often associated with dirty play, fighting, and racism. Stories are told of him sharpening his spikes to cut players on the other team as he slid into the bases. Stories of racism have haunted Cobb’s legacy since his earliest days in baseball. And fighting seemed to be a somewhat regular occurrence off the field. These stories have tainted his reputation as one of the greatest players of all time.

Just last month an article was released about Ty Cobb’s tainted legacy. In this article, Charles Leerhsen, author of the recent Cobb biography Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, tried to set the record straight regarding Cobb’s life.

Leerhsen reports that much of the misinformation about Cobb’s reputation came from articles and books written by Al Stump. Apparently Stump had been hired by Doubleday & Co. to ghostwrite an autobiography of Cobb. Even though he wanted editorial control over the final product, the baseball legend died before it was ever published. Stump’s sensational stories survived as the official account of Cobb’s life. Even though several articles and books have been written to cast doubt upon Stump’s work, the reputation of Cobb as a racist, brawling cheater lingers.

The current stories regarding Cobb and racism are mixed. Gilbert King writes:

Stories of Cobb’s racial intolerance were well-documented. In 1907 during spring training in Augusta, Georgia, a black groundskeeper named Bungy, whom Cobb had known for years, attempted to shake Cobb’s hand or pat him on the shoulder.  The overly familiar greeting infuriated Cobb, who slapped him and chased him from the clubhouse. When Bungy’s wife tried to intervene, Cobb turned around and choked her until teammates pried his hands off her neck. In 1908 in Detroit, a black laborer castigated him after he accidentally stepped into some freshly poured asphalt. Cobb assaulted the laborer on the spot, knocking him to the ground. The ballplayer was found guilty of battery, but a friendly judge suspended his sentence. Cobb paid the laborer $75 to avoid a civil suit.

By contrast Leerhsen paints a different picture of Cobb as the descendant of abolitionists and an admirer of African-American baseball players. Leerhsen states:

But what about Cobb’s 19th-century Southern roots? How could someone born in Georgia in 1886 not be a racist? What I found—and again, not because I am the Babe Ruth of researchers, but because I actually did some research—is that Ty Cobb was descended from a long line of abolitionists. His great-grandfather was a minister who preached against slavery and was run out of town for it. His grandfather refused to fight in the Confederate army because of the slavery issue. And his father was an educator and state senator who spoke up for his black constituents and is known to have once broken up a lynch mob.

Cobb himself was never asked about segregation until 1952, when the Texas League was integrating, and Sporting News asked him what he thought. “The Negro should be accepted wholeheartedly, and not grudgingly,” he said. “The Negro has the right to play professional baseball and whose [sic] to say he has not?” By that time he had attended many Negro league games, sometimes throwing out the first ball and often sitting in the dugout with the players. He is quoted as saying that Willie Mays was the only modern-day player he’d pay to see and that Roy Campanella was the ballplayer that reminded him most of himself.

In theory, both reports could be accurate if his views on race evolved as he matured. But whatever the case, he is primarily remembered as a racist today. What seems to be certainly true is that Cobb had a temper that resulted in fights, including attacking fans in the stands. So even if his reputation has been marred by sensational but less-than-truthful stories, he still suffers from having not built a good reputation.

Cobb should have heeded the words of Proverbs 22:1, which read, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, favor is better than silver and gold.” During this lifetime, he could have handled himself with more grace and treated others with love and kindness. Not everyone will be famous like Ty Cobb and have a legacy that continues decades after death; however, in life and death we should long to maintain a good name. For Christians a good name gives us credibility before a watching world that we want to point to our Heavenly Father (Matthew 5:16)

Cobb no longer has the luxury to rebuild his reputation since he passed away in 1961. His name will likely be connected to scandal and racism as long as people continue writing about the greatest baseball players in history. However, Cobb missed a great opportunity during his lifetime to fix these problems. Leerhsen writes:

Cobb was, like the rest of us, a highly imperfect human being. He was too quick to take offense and too intolerant of those who didn’t strive for excellence with the over-the-top zeal that he did. He did not suffer fools gladly, and he thought too many others fools. He was the first baseball celebrity, and he did not always handle well the responsibilities that came with that. And yes, he once went into the stands and repeatedly punched a man who had been heckling him for more than a year, and who turned out to have less than the full complement of fingers—hence the story of him attacking a handicapped fan.

Baseball is a metaphor for life. In it we find truth that extends far beyond the diamond. In the case of Ty Cobb, we find a great player who was also a flawed human being. We are all flawed, but may we strive for our reputations to point others to Christ. Truly our reputations are worth far more than great riches.

_________________________

Charles Leerhsen, “Who Was Ty Cobb? The History We Know That’s Wrong,” Imprimis 45 (March 2016)

Charles Leerhsen, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Gilbert King, “The Knife in Ty Cobb’s Back,” Smithsonian, 30 August 2011.

Walking in Memphis: 45th Anniversary of King Assassination

Today is the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot to death on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in my hometown of Memphis, TN on April 4, 1968.

Growing up in Memphis, racial tension was (and in many respects, still is) very tangible. The church has come quite far on the issue of racism since the 1960’s, but there is still work to be done.