Is Baseball What’s Wrong with America?

September 28, 2018 | 3 books mentioned 4 6 min read

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I managed to vanish unnoticed from my day job in an office in midtown Manhattan and materialize in the lovely little ballpark on Staten Island, where a minor-league affiliate of the New York Yankees was taking on the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team. Beyond the outfield wall, the Statue of Liberty rose green and glorious out of the harbor and, in the distance, the glass forest of downtown Manhattan shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. The outfield grass sparkled, the foul lines glowed. This was heaven—or at least a major upgrade from my 9-to-5.

The crowd that afternoon was thin. It was, after all, a workday. The box score would claim the attendance was 1,664, which struck me as optimistic, and as I scanned my fellow diehards, I noticed something peculiar: Nearly every fan, myself included, was white. Among the wannabe Yankees and Red Sox down on the field, about half were white and half were Latino. There was only one black player on the field that day.

Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this imbalance if I hadn’t recently read a column in the New York Times under the headline “With a Loud Ovation, Baseball Shows Its Whiteness.” The column told an unsettling story. During this summer’s All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., it had come to light that one of the participants, a 24-year-old white pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers named Josh Hader, has a Twitter account laced with ugly statements written when he was 17 and 18, including “White Power, lol” with a clenched-fist emoji, “KKK,” “I hate gay people,” and repeated use of the N-word. Confronted with the tweets immediately after the game, Hader sort of apologized: “I was 17 years old, and as a child I was immature, and obviously I said some things that were inexcusable.”

The Times columnist, Michael Powell, rightly pointed out that no 17-year-old qualifies as a child. Then Powell delivered his kicker: When Hader strode to the pitcher’s mound in Milwaukee in his first appearance after the All-Star Game, thousands of white fans rose to give him a standing ovation. Powell went on to point out some facts that seemed to jibe with what I was seeing in the Staten Island ballpark. Baseball has fewer and fewer black players, few people of color in its executive offices, and it has the oldest and whitest fan base of America’s three major sports. Black and Latino players are routinely excoriated for wearing a cap backward during practice or flipping a bat in celebration after hitting a home run, while a white player receives a standing ovation after making racist and homophobic remarks. “For far too long,” Powell concluded, “too many baseball controversies have centered around older, white baseball men complaining about so-called insults to the game.” And, by extension, too few baseball controversies have centered around insults like Josh Hader’s—and fans’ reaction to them.

The problem, of course, is that so many of those fans are white and, more to the point, so willing to excuse an offense like Hader’s. Powell quotes Curtis Granderson, a gifted black outfielder now with the Toronto Blue Jays, who sees on a daily basis what I saw that Wednesday afternoon in the Staten Island ballpark: “We play this game, me and other black players, counting the black people in the stands who weren’t working at the game. ‘I see one! No, he’s Latino.’ You’re panning, panning, and sometimes it would take us seven innings to count ten.” With the jury stacked like that, what kind of verdict do you expect for infractions, large or small?

covercovercoverAt the time I was learning about Josh Hader, I came upon a book called Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, which provided unexpected context for my uneasy thoughts about baseball’s whiteness. One of the book’s contributors is Ayana Mathis, author of the acclaimed novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. In an essay called “Against Unreality,” Mathis revisits her first encounter with the writing of James Baldwin—the long essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” from Baldwin’s incendiary 1963 masterpiece, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin asserts that the only fact humans have is the fact of death, and that humans should rejoice in the fact of death, should earn their death “by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” Then, stunningly, he adds: “One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return… But white Americans do not believe in death.”

Mathis points out that Baldwin is using white America’s denial of death as a metaphor for a larger and more complex denial: “the denial of reality, racial and otherwise.” And this denial leads to deaths of an even worse sort than physical death because these deaths continue to afflict the living: “political death, spiritual death, psychic death.” This larger denial, Mathis posits, leaves white America prone to nostalgia, which I define as the misguided yearning for a time that never existed. We’ve come, unexpectedly, back to baseball. “The country is prey to nostalgia,” Mathis writes, “which is the ultimate, backward-looking unreality. And also prey to a kind of preservation of a status quo that is also based on a fantasy of the past: a moment in time in which you could keep your factory job forever, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks. Well, that was never the reality of America, certainly never for all Americans. But we move forward, politically and psychically, as though that nostalgic reality was in fact real.”

Yes, that’s precisely how we move forward. This was brought home to me during the seventh-inning stretch at the ballgame on Staten Island. After the fans stood and belted out that harmless bit of doggerel, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the announcer asked everyone to remain standing and remove their hats. Everyone, players included, turned toward center field, where an image of Old Glory started fluttering on the Jumbotron above the outfield wall. Suddenly we were being bombarded by that blast of jingoism, Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” This sent me over the edge. I left my hat on and bolted for the nearest beer stand and stayed gone until the game had resumed. I couldn’t stop the nonsense, but at least I could refuse to participate in it.

As I rode the ferry back across the harbor after the game, I performed an autopsy on my day, which had begun in high spirits and ended in something close to despair. It occurred to me that it was inevitable—and almost too easy—to see the day in the context of our national moment. The standing ovation for Josh Hader comes at a time when the president of the United States refuses to condemn murderous white nationalists—and urges the owners of NFL football teams to fire any player who kneels during the playing of the national anthem to protest police killings of unarmed black people. That president has declared that poverty no longer exists in America. The millions who lap up his exhortation to Make America Great Again are the people who yearn to preserve a status quo that is based on a fantasy that never existed, a time when “life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks.” I have loved the game of baseball all my life, and still do. I object to the uses the game is now being put to—as booster of patriotism, as a smokescreen for “traditionalists” to treat people unequally, as a safe haven for abhorrent behavior. Meanwhile, beyond the outfield wall, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the nation is mired in the two longest wars in its history.

So this is what we as a nation have come to, I told myself as the boat slid past the Statue of Liberty: a nation lost in dreamtime. James Baldwin and Ayana Mathis nailed it. Nostalgia is the ultimate unreality, and yes: The nostalgia-drenched game of baseball is definitely a symptom of what’s wrong with America. But it’s just the beginning of a much larger story.

Image: Flickr/Andrew Malone

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

4 comments:

  1. Bill, while I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here about Americans and nostalgia, I think the whiteness of the crowd at the ballgame you attended says more about Staten Island, whose residents are over 75% white, than it does about baseball. Attend a game at Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards or Dodger Stadium and I believe you’ll see crowds that reflect the demographic makeup of their communities about as well as the little park on Staten Island reflects the people who know it exists. I think you’re painted baseball with too white a brush. Now hockey….

  2. Oh, come on. Anything and everything from the past is bad and evil and patriarchy and toxic masculinity and white supremacy and blah blah blah — that’s the angle here? Trump in the White House has made formerly sane people frothing-at-the-mouth conspiracy nuts. Baseball brings people together. Go to a ballgame and yeah, there’s the National Anthem and God Bless America (feel free not to stand, I absolutely agree, it’s unnecessary nationalism and deism, I don’t stand either), but it’s a truly international game. The Asian and Latino influences are the antithesis of hegemony. Look at the Yankees and the sheer diversity of their roster. That’s the old, pinstriped, literal “YANKEES” and they’re a bastion of progressivism and positivity. Yes, positivity. Yes, I’m being sincere.

    “No 17-year-old qualifies as a child”? Would you say the same if a 17-year-old straight female claimed to have a consensual sexual relationship with a 40-year-old straight male, or would you call him a “sexual predator” and her a clueless “victim”? Hader was immature, that’s all. His words were spoken out of immaturity. If you really think the solution is to punish, punish, punish, you are absolutely supporting the same prison industrial complex, the same imprisonment matrix, the same panopticon that imprisons dozens of young males (many of them people of color) every day for non-violent crimes as meager as marijuana possession in some states.

    Hader’s standing ovation is about forgiveness, about giving people a second chance instead of saying they should never work again or they should go to jail for crimes that were adjudicated on Twitter and in the court of public opinion instead of a court of law. It’s about baseball cherishing families. Families, sir. That’s not nostalgic. Hader was a silly, insecure kid, not someone engaging in “abhorrent behavior.” If you’ve had teenage children of either gender, you would know that. They do stupid stuff because puberty and adolescence are terrifying! They’re NOT adults yet, they’re a hormonal hive of unpredictability. Wanting to actually preserve family values and the value of rooting for a team is not conspiracy republican code for oppression, it’s fans saying “This kid did something immature,” “This kid said stupid and ignorant things.” “He’s acknowledged that, let’s move on now and play some hardball.” That’s what an education is for. We need to allow people to learn from their mistakes instead of construct conspiracy theories about how baseball is a “symptom” of America’s ahistorical evils.

    “This is what we as a nation have come to”??? The average sporting event in America is now a utopian image of the progressive, of equality and meritocracy. Twenty or thirty years ago, the lower deck at any arena or stadium was old, white, WASP monied individuals and that’s it. Look around the arenas and ballparks in the US now and what you see is a celebration of black, white, Latinx, Asian-American, Indian-American, male/female. ballparks having LGBT nights, female announcers in the booths, fans dressing up in costumes for Star Wars nights, multiracial children running around watching multiracial players like themselves. Baseball is not stodgy. It is not a divider, it is a uniter (the baseball fans — and I’ve seen games in 2/3 of the parks in this country — I’ve talked to are often of extremely difficult political POVs and party affiliations and yet civility reigns, dems and conservatives, greens and socialists and libertarians all coexist just fine with the very, very occasional drunken fight quickly resulting in ejections for the louts in question). Baseball is pro-immigration, pro-inclusivity, a truly “large tent party.” Morris here, who is not a bad writer or a stupid man, has lashed out emotionally in his distress by demonizing an institution that represents the best of this country, not the worst.

    I enjoy Mr. Morris’s writing (really, Bill, good on you, you’re a talented writer) and have read many of his pieces here on The Millions, but when he talks about sports (as in his March Madness piece from 2016) it is laced with an undeniable and virulent cynicism that does not appear in his literary criticism and often wonderful book reviews.

  3. Bill,

    It’s a bad reach here.

    You can take any part of society and show it through the lens of a broken system and find examples to support a cynical POV but when you try and do it with baseball you just sound old and out of touch.

    Baseball isn’t about nostalgia or denial of death. There’s no clock ticking off seconds, racing to the inevitable end whether you’ve got the lead or you’re behind. Ask any ball player or fan of the game, baseball is about going about your business, doing your job when the ball comes your way. People relate to it intellectually and spiritually because, as the stakes are raised, it becomes a meditation on patience, failure and striving for success within your means. These are virtues, humble and necessary, for our times.

    Feel free to tackle other sports but your argument here just doesn’t hold water.

    Better yet, watch a game with a real fan who doesn’t leave games early who can show you these virtues in person and how lucky we are to have them every day for half a year.

    Henry

  4. Come see the White Sox. We are pretty diverse. Long Island is majority white, that would explain it.

    Clickbait anyone?

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