Behind in the Count: Playing Baseball While Black

The other day a close friend of mine, who has been an Orioles fan since babyhood, asked me what I thought about Adam Jones. The “best MLBer and an Oriole” had just experienced racially motivated abuse at Fenway Park and was calling for harsher penalties for such racist fans. According to ESPN, “this wasn’t the first time he has been subjected to such treatment at Fenway. This time, however, Jones said he felt compelled to speak out.”

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Adam Jones, unofficially known as “Captain America,” at the 2017 World Baseball Classic

 

The reason my friend reached out to me is because of my scholarly interest in the history of black baseball. My article on two recent children’s books that narrate the integration of Major League Baseball appeared last year in a special issue of Children’s Literature Association Quarterly on genre and black literature, edited by Sara Austin and Karen Chandler. Writing that article meant that I learned a lot about the hardships that faced the Negro Leagues and the first black players to cross the color line. However, while researching the relationship of young African Americans to America’s national pastime, I discovered this history of exclusion was ongoing. A quick Google search for “black children baseball” showed that baseball no longer attracted, if it ever had, African American children in the twenty-first century. I only had to turn to the second page of search results to find an incident of violence against black children: several news sources reported that a Florida woman had chased black children with a baseball bat, threatening to lynch their families. The baseball bat seems more likely to be used as a tool of violence against black children than to be held in their hands as a piece of sporting equipment.

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Several questions motivated my research into baseball and black children’s culture: how are African American children invited to perceive their bodies as sources of physical prowess that might become capital? What is the place of play, joy, and even anger in African American baseball? Does baseball successfully include African American children in the nation? Does it invite them to become conscious of historical black success? What forms of value does playing baseball offer for an African American child?

While my article eventually offered an analysis of more contemporary children’s literature, along the way I explored the educational magazine, Ebony Jr! which ran from 1973 to 1985. I discovered the popularity of Hank Aaron among black child readers who wrote in to the magazine: twelve year old Rudolph Knott wanted to speak to his hero, imagining what his emotional life might be, while Corey Harper hoped that Hank would teach him how to play. It seems that “Hammerin Hank” was not too unique to be worthy of emulation: as one advice article concluded, “Maybe there will never be another Hank Aaron. But if you follow these tips, you’ll at least be off to a good swinging start!”

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Jackie Robinson was another hero in the pages of Ebony Jr! The April 1976 issue included a play about his life, titled “Jackie Robinson – Something Else!” The script includes interviews with Robinson’s mother and siblings before his rise to fame and with his wife once he had become successful. The person who describes Jackie Robinson as “Something else!” is a racist fan who is converted over the course of the play by Jackie’s achievements. I wonder whether any black children acted out this play and who they choose to take the role of the fan shouting racial slurs. Those children have grown up to attend baseball games alongside fans who still behave as though black lives do not matter on or off the field.

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The story of black baseball, like other narratives of black participation in American society, is not a story of even progress. It is a story of strides forward accompanied by continued frustration at sometimes even greater strides backward. Heartbreakingly, an all-black Little League team, Jackie Robinson West from Chicago, won the US Championship in 2014 but were stripped of their title after player eligibility fraud was discovered. The team’s attorney, Victor Henderson, went on the record: “Do I think race is at play? Yes, I do think it’s at play at some level.”

JRWest

The reason that my friend believes Adam Jones is the greatest current Major League Baseball player is because of Jones’ willingness to speak out against racial injustice in baseball and in American society. There is a limit to what Jones can do, however, as a black man in a predominantly white sport. When asked whether or not he would join in protests against the National Anthem that were sweeping football and basketball teams last fall, Adam Jones told reporters that he didn’t feel safe doing so: “We already have two strikes against us.”

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