On April 15, Major League Baseball will celebrate Jackie Robinson Day. Every player will wear number 42 and Commissioner Rob Manfred will extoll the legacy of Robinson breaking the MLB’s Jim Crow color line in 1947, while also patting his league on the back for being, as his predecessor Bud Selig put it, “a leader in the civil rights movement.”
This ceremony is always awkward, given the paucity of Black American managers and execs. It’s also awkward because the reality of integration on the field but erasure in the front office drew the explicit ire of Robinson himself, who spoke out about this gap just before his death almost 50 years ago.
But this year stands to take the cognitive dissonance cake. Major League Baseball is set to hold its All-Star Game in Georgia, the state that has now given safe harbor to the most restrictive, racist voting laws in the United States. Pressure is already mounting on the MLB to follow in the steps of the NBA, who moved its All-Star Game in 2017 out of North Carolina after the state issued ugly anti-trans legislation known as “the bathroom bill” and then overrode the city of Charlotte’s efforts to keep that pernicious law out of their city. The NFL also famously moved the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona when the state chose to not recognize Martin Luther King’s birthday.
Now Major League Baseball is going to be in the awkward position of saying “Hooray for Jackie Robinson” in the state of Robinson’s birth after that state’s lawmakers gutted voting rights for Black people. For Major League Baseball to hold its All-Star Game in Georgia would be a boon to the state not only financially but also ideologically. After all, if the national pastime is holding its premier event in Georgia, it gives a patina of Americana to a state that is codifying one of the more obscene parts of this country’s history. If Robinson was truly, in the words of Dr. King, “a sit inner before sit ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides,” and his entry into the majors was the harbinger of the Black freedom struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, then holding the game in Georgia is a mighty gob of spit in the face of everything he represented.
It’s not just random sportswriters making this point. The National League’s All-Star manager, LA Dodgers skipper Dave Roberts, has said that he would not manage the team if the game is held in Georgia. Tony Clark, the head of the MLB Players Association said in an interview with The Boston Globe, “Players are very much aware” of the bill. He also said, “As it relates to the All-Star Game, we have not had a conversation with the league on that issue. If there is an opportunity to, we would look forward to having that conversation.” In addition, the ACLU announced on Tuesday that it would be challenging the law in court. It’s now a question of which side Major League Baseball is on: suffrage or repression.
There are progressive individuals in Georgia who have rejected calls to boycott. State Senator Jen Jordan, in a message to the left, said, “Stop with this boycott Georgia nonsense.” But Stacey Abrams, whose own gubernatorial campaign was swiped by Governor Brian Kemp (think Lester Maddox without the handsome charm), has been pointedly silent in rejecting calls to boycott. Hillary Holley, a senior staffer at Abrams’ organization Fair Fight, tweeted,“GA is only the beginning, and business leaders need to make a decision NOW: stand with Jim Crow 2.0 and the US Capitol insurrectionists or stand with democracy,”
There is increasing awareness that Georgia has become ground zero in the voter suppression fight. Major League Baseball has an opportunity right now to live up to Jackie Robinson’s credo, when he said, “All these guys who were saying that we’ve got it made through athletics, it’s just not so. You as an individual can make it, but I think we’ve got to concern ourselves with the masses of the people—not by what happens to the individual.”
If Major League Baseball is going to celebrate Robinson, then fans, players, and the union have every right to hold a mirror up to their actions. As ESPN commentator Jay Bilas often says about the NCAA, “Don’t look at what they are saying. Look at what they are doing.” That absolutely applies here. They will say a lot on Jackie Robinson Day. What matters is what they are doing, and if what they are doing is supplying material and ideological support to a racist Governor, then they are doing the Devil’s work.