About a decade ago, I had the great honor of interviewing the late South African poet, freedom fighter, and sports activist Dennis Brutus. He told me the story of coming to the United States in the later 1960s and attempting to enlist Major League Baseball players in the fight against apartheid. Though he reached out through every conceivable contact, the only person who would meet with him was iconoclastic pitcher Jim Bouton. Brutus was stunned. Forty years later, he looked at me and asked, “What is the deal with baseball?”
Fast forward to today: As NFL and NBA as players are embroiled in a political fight with Trump over his racism and their rights to free speech, all had been quiet on the baseball front. Until now.
After Trump’s profane, racist speech in Alabama last Friday, Oakland A’s rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell had enough and he took the knee. Afterwards, Maxwell said,
…I love this country. I’ve had plenty of family members, including my father, that have bled for this country…. My hand over my heart symbolized the fact that I am and forever will be an American citizen and I’m more than grateful for being here. But my kneeling is what’s getting the attention, because I’m kneeling for the people who don’t have a voice. This goes beyond the black community. This goes beyond the Hispanic community. Because right now we’re having an indifference and a racial divide in all types of people. It’s being practiced from the highest power we have in this country, and it’s basically saying that it’s OK to treat people differently.
It was a brave move, and it’s been supported by the fans in Oakland. (As with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco last season, I find myself grateful for Bay Area sports fans.)
It’s worth asking why baseball has been behind other sports. Some of the surprise over MLB players’ reticence to protest is rooted in a misreading of baseball history. Because of icons like Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente (and, less so, another social-justice icon, Curt Flood), the sport has always had a superficial patina of progressiveness. But baseball has always been a conservative sport.
Jackie Robinson was a giant, and his tenacity in breaking another of baseball’s “color line” is the stuff of cinematic legend. But he was hardly swimming in solidarity. New York Post writer Jimmy Cannon observed Robinson in the dugout and called him “the loneliest man I’ve ever seen in sports.” Roberto Clemente and Curt Flood, in much more politically charged times, also stood apart. When Carlos Delgado engaged in his own anthem protests during the Iraq War, the Mets would sign him only if he promised to stop. And he did.
As Rays pitcher Chris Archer explained, “ I think mainly because the other sports that do that are predominantly black. Our sport isn’t, so I think the criticism might be a little more harsh. It took somebody really special [Maxwell] that had a unique background to take that leap.”