MLB: the South, the North, and the World

On Monday, Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who is African American, took to the field at Fenway Park in Boston and fans in the crowd hurled racist slurs at him and one fan even threw a bag of peanuts at him as he stood in the outfield.  The incident sparked outrage throughout the sports community, as it should. I have written about African American players in MLB before, and since that time (2015), the number of African American players on major league rosters has decreased from 67 players in 2014 to 63 this season.  There are a couple of things that arose from events at Fenway Monday night that I want to touch on here briefly.

One of the things that came to mind when I heard about the incident is something I talk with students about every semester and explore with them. Being from the South, and teaching in the South, I am used to other regions of the country pushing the nation’s entire refuse of racial discrimination and segregation upon us. I am also accustomed to having people think I have alligators in my back yard since I’m from Louisiana or that I am not necessarily as intelligent as people from other areas of the country. (We did have alligators in a swamp on the campus of UL Lafayette.)

The actions of the fans at Fenway only serve to reinforce what I tell students, the majority of whom are from the South, that the region where they were born, no matter their gender or ethnicity, will determine how some people view them initially. These stereotypes get exacerbated, of course, when gender and ethnicity come into play. Along with this, I try to let students know that the South did not necessarily have a monopoly on racial discrimination. The Klan had a huge impact in Indiana, housing discrimination existed in urban centers in the North, and authors such as James Baldwin and John Edgar Wideman discuss de facto segregation and “Jim Crow” strictures in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania respectively. I always show students Stanley Forman’s The Soiling of Old Glory, a picture taken during bus desegregation in Boston in 1976, as a reminder that these issues exist across the country.

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The sin of racism isn’t a Southern entity; it’s a national sore that occasionally shows signs of healing when it clots and scabs over. However, we pick at that scab and rip it open, letting its vileness ooze to the surface and spill out onto the ground upon which we all collectively live. I want my Southern students, African American, Native American, white, to realize that the rest of the nation, for the most part, looks upon the region where they reside, as a bastion of backwardness that continually reminisces about the “grand” past that it lost.

While this was one, another one raced right alongside it to the forefront of my mind. This thought made me think back to Jackie Robinson. Robinson endured racism on the field and off from opposing players and managers and even from his own team. People have documented these incidents extensively, and we bring them up a couple of times a year, specifically on April 15. Yet, we never really talk about the players that followed Robinson. We give cursory mention to Larry Doby who was the first African American player to play in the American League in 1947. Apart from that, I do not recall much discussion that involves others players on other teams.

This made me start to think, especially when I found out that the Boston Red Sox were, in fact, the last MLB team to integrate in 1959 when they signed Elijah “Pumpsie” Green. Along with this, I also discovered that Robinson, along with Sam Jethroe and Marvin Williams (two other Negro League players), worked out for the Red Sox on April 16, 1945 before Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and integrated MLB in the modern era in 1947. Robinson even said of Jethroe: “He looked like a gazelle in the outfield.”

Many thought that Robinson was not the best player in the Negro Leagues. Larry Doby said that Josh Gibson was better. Branch Rickey picked Robinson to integrate MLB because of his demeanor, calling upon him to not fight back no matter what he endured for the first three of his contract (1946-1948). This is when players, managers, and fans gave him literal hell on and off the field, and Robinson never retaliated.

chapman-and-jackie-robinsonInfamously, Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman continually hurled racist insults at Robinson during a game. After the incident, there was a sort of “make up” moment where Robinson and Chapman took a photo together to symbolically show they buried the hatchet. The photo, which shows Robinson and Chapman holding a bat, highlights some of the adversity Robinson faced. The men hold a bat because Chapman, from Hoover, Alabama, refused to touch Robinson’s hand because of the color of his skin. On Monday, Jones could speak out, and he did. Robinson did pave the way for players such as Jones to speak out against the vile comments that he, and even some African American Red Sox players endure at Fenway.

For me, I want to fill in these gaps that we have between Robinson and the complete integration of MLB. I want to learn more about the players that integrated the various teams across the league and hear about their stories and experiences. We also need to remember players from the Caribbean as well such as the Puerto Rican Roberto Clemente. He endured the same racist strictures that players like Robinson faced due to the color of his skin.

During the deadball era (1900-1919), some African American players attempted to play on MLB teams by claiming they were either from the Caribbean or Native American. While not a story about MLB, Gerald Duff’s Dirty Rice highlights this history in the Evangeline League.  Along with these stories, we also need to consider Moses Fleetwood Walker who broke the color barrier in baseball in 1884. These are stories that don’t get as much attention or play, yet they are just as important as Robinson’s.

What are your thoughts? What are sources to look up the stories I reference above? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.

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