Hey, Sport …
By Bob Harris
MY OLD CLEVELAND buddy T. (you might know the name, and he prefers privacy) and I recently went to Anaheim to watch the Indians play the Angels. We sat up high and made our predictions. We agreed that (a) while Matt Williams is easier to like than Albert Belle, so are necrotic skin viruses, and (b) given the team’s recent roster of clanky, oft-injured has-beens like Robby Thompson, Pat Borders, and Kevin Seitzer, Jacobs Field now has more pure fracture potential than a matinee of [Crash].
We also made book on how long before “black” Jack McDowell–who hasn’t pitched decently since Gingrich was popular–is forced to get a real job. T., who is black, mused that if McDowell really was similarly shaded, he’d have been out of baseball long ago. We joked about it a bit and the conversation wandered elsewhere.
We had to talk loudly. In the highest row of the upper deck stood the Massillon High baseball team of Massillon, Ohio, screaming unison chants at full teenage volume. A dozen Ohioans actually out-lung-powered 24,000 Angelenos combined. This was cool.
Soon, beer did what beer does. The jocks got even louder, and the crowd got annoyed. Finally, as the game concluded, the Massillon guys offed their shirts and did that naked-white-guy-screaming-in-the-cold thing, all of them at once.
The effect was almost blinding. Their pasty Cleveland flesh damn near glowed. And so, at last, the California crowd mustered a hearty response–a laughing, vengeful chant of beachfront pride:
The whole upper deck joined in, laughing and clapping. The jocks took it well. And T., capping the joke, stood up to take [his] shirt off–so the Massillon guys would have a tan indeed. “After all,” T. shouted, “it [is] Jackie Robinson Week.” Cleveland’s victory was now complete. We laughed all the way home.
We’ve been friends since I was 10, so it feels bizarre to me to notice T. in terms of stuff like skin tone. But he really was the only black guy in the whole upper deck that night, as far as I could see. And, checking a few stats, it turns out he was right about McDowell, too. I thought about that while watching the Shea Stadium tribute on TV.
Y’know, there aren’t a lot of folks we can truly admire without hesitation. Jackie Robinson was damned close. He’s one of the few real heroes in American history.
But now that the celebration is over, let’s be honest: How much of it really honored Jackie, and how much was just feel-good window-dressing?
I mean, there’s Bill Clinton–Sister-Souljah-baiting, Lani-Guinier-abandoning, affirmative-action-backpedaling, racist-drug-policy-advocating Bill Clinton– denouncing racism. And there’s Jackie’s old team, the Dodgers, who’ve never had a black manager, general manager, PR director, trainer, or even equipment manager, for crying out loud.
Here are over 1,600 daily newspapers–only 10 of which employ a black sports columnist.
There’s Deion Sanders and the Reds, cutting their sleeves in cosmetic “homage” (never mind that Jackie never did any such thing) while getting rich by playing for racist Marge Schott. There are the Braves–whose fans sing war chants and do the “Tomahawk Chop” (popularized by, yep, Mr. Sensitivity, Deion Sanders); here are the Indians, whose Chief Wahoo logo “honors” Native Americans the way Angels fans might “honor” Catholicism by wearing foam mitres on their heads, crossing themselves during rallies, and singing “Hail Marys” during the seventh-inning stretch; and here are fans of both teams, regarding outraged Native Americans pleading for respect a mere nuisance. And they are all denouncing racism.
Folks, we’re celebrating social changes that haven’t yet occurred. Have we not eyes? What if all those Third World kids working 60-hour weeks making sports shoes looked like murdered Jon-Benet Ramsey? We’d stop this child labor nonsense in a week, tops. Yet everyone’s applauding Tiger Woods as the emblem of our new racial enlightenment, even though he literally sells his own head as ad space, wearing the Nike “swoosh” cap to endorse Asian-children-dying-in-sweatshops footwear.
If we can’t separate image from reality in sports, what chance do we have overcoming racism in the real world? You line up all the black owners, CFOs, and general managers in baseball combined, and you still need two more guys just to sing backup to Gladys Knight. Bad enough? The real world is worse: Carol Moseley Braun is just the second black senator of this entire century.
Jackie’s fight isn’t over. It has barely begun.
From the April 24-30, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent
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