A conversation about MLB, on the field, off the field.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

FORTY MILLION DOLLAR SLAVES

Went to Mexico last week and read the book FORTY MILLION DOLLAR SLAVES by NY Times sports reporter William Rhoden, published last year.

Mr. Rhoden argues convincingly that North American professional and college sports is a plantation with African Americans in the role of slaves and wealthy non African American individuals, corporations and universities as the plantation owners.

The title is a reference to a comment made by a heckler towards African American NBA player Larry Johnson, " Johnson, you're nothing but a $40 million slave", during a timeout in a 2001 game in Los Angeles. Johnson had famously referred to himself and some of his NY Knicks teammates as "rebel slaves" during the previous season's playoffs.

The book chronicles the African American role in sports from antebellum contests involving slaves from different plantations to the present.

Since this is a blog devoted to baseball I will limit my comments about FORTY MILLION DOLLAR SLAVES to some of the portions pertaining to this sport.

The evolution and demise of The Negro Leagues.

I was already aware of the opinion articulated by Mr. Rhoden that the demise of The Negro Leagues, brought about by the racial integration of MLB, was a defeat for African Americans. I had not seen the argument detailed so extensively.

Mr. Rhoden tells the story of African American Arthur "Rube" Foster, who he describes as a "pioneer". Mr. Foster was a baseball player but is most important for founding the Negro National League in 1920. Mr. Foster is described as a "man of of clear, resolute, and uncompromising vision: He wanted a professional league of black baseball that was owned, organized, managed and played by African Americans." "Foster's Negro National League created a universe in which the black presence was accepted, nurtured, and celebrated. The league became a base of power for African Americans in the rapidly growing industry of baseball."

According to Mr. Rhoden, Mr. Foster realized that the integration of baseball was inevitable, however Mr. Foster's vision for integrating the game was a positive one for African Americans. "When integration came, Foster wanted the Negro League he envisioned to have a monopoly on the commodity that Major League Baseball would desperately need: black ballplayers." "He wanted......that when the national pastime was integrated, the NNL would be in a position to dictate rather than be dictated to. His theory was that the league's strongest teams would be absorbed intact, not picked apart like a carcass by so many buzzards." In 1926 Mr. Foster met with AL president Ban Johnson and Yankees manager John McGraw to discuss the possibility of his Chicago based American Giants playing "big-league teams that visited Chicago on their off days. Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis apparently killed the idea...." Mr. Foster died in 1930 and his worst fears for the integration of baseball, that "white ball would take what it needed, then crush black ball to pieces and watch it die." were realized decades later.

Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League Baseball in 1947, a mythologized event not only in Amercian sports but in American popular culture. It was the beginning of the end of black baseball in America. "Black baseball owners could not agree on a strategy. The owners were torn between wanting integration and wanting to remain a viable business. These latter-day owners of Negro League baseball mistakenly felt that they would be involved - in a profitable way - with the "integration" process. Some felt that their teams might be purchased and incorporated into the Major League Baseball minor-league system. This was not part of the plan, however. The treatment of the Negro Leagues was brutal and disrespectful." "Baseball was unofficially integrated in 1945 when Robinson signed a contract with Montreal." "In 1947, Robinson's contract was purchased by the Dodgers. Just one year later, in 1948, the black leagues were in shambles." "The final blow for the Negro Leagues came in 1951 when the Southern-based network of minor-league baseball teams was desegregated. Now the major leagues had no use for the Negro Leagues, and they slowly died." "By the 1960's, black baseball was effectively dead: Major League Baseball had prevailed." "A black institution was dead, while a white institution grew richer and stronger. This was the end result of integration."

"..Rube Foster has become a mere footnote in the epic story of sports integration in which Jackie Robinson is a central character. In some ways, however, Foster is an even more significant figure than Robinson. Foster used black resources to build a baseball league that nurtured talents like Robinson while establishing an economically viable alternative to Major League Baseball. Robinson became a symbol of the process of integration, a process that ultimately enriched white institutions while weakening and in many cases destroying black institutions. White America determined the pattern of integration; the white power structure chose blacks who made whites feel comfortable, who more or less accepted the vagaries of racism. This was the Jackie Robinson model of how an integration-worthy African-American behaved: taking abuse, turning the other cheek, tying oneself in knots, holding one's tongue, never showing anger, waiting for racist sensibilities to smolder and die out - if your spirit didn't die first. This model was hardly progress for black athletes. It was, in fact, a reversal of the paradigm for black involvement in sports that Foster and others had created out of a hard necessity."

I doubt that Mr. Rhoden's viewpoints will be articulated at MLB's official celebration of the 60th anniversary of Mr. Robinson's breaking the color barrier on April 15 at Dodger Stadium. Bud Selig has called Robinson's historic achievement: "Baseball's proudest and most powerful moment."

Willie Mays

Willie Mays is one of Mr. Rhoden's heroes. Rhoden supposes that Mays is one of the most important of a generation of African American athletes that brought a decidedly "black" style to American professional sports. The "basket catch", his cap often flying off while running the bases, the daring baserunning ( common in the Negro Leagues ) stealing third, going first to third on infield groundouts, were a stark contrast to the conservative style of play in MLB that preceded it. This distinct African American "style" on the field of play remains prominent in all major American sports, popular with fans and is continually copied and emulated. "Willie Mays introduced a flair and cool style in sports. He introduced the Black Thing to a mainstream public that devoured it - and has been devouring it ever since. The popularity of sports that blacks dominate today coincided with the beginning of this stylistic transformation of the game, the opening up of the game to this new way of playing. Willie Mays presaged this stylistic contour in sports." "In virtually every decade since the 1950's, black athletes have been at the core of some stylistic or structural innovation in sports. From the alley-oop pass and the spin move in basketball to the spike and the ritual of the end-zone shimmy in football. From slapping palms to donning baggy pants and executing wildly creative dunks and elaborate end-zone celebrations, the African American presence in sports has redefined and reordered the traditional way of doing things."

"Willie Mays was the first young African American sports superstar. Jackie Robinson was twenty-eight when he reached the majors, while Mays joined the Giants at age twenty. He was the symbol of a young, black vitality that mainstream America had never seen because African Americans had thus far been excluded from mainstream sport. Mays became as significant to the late 1950's as Jackie Robinson had been in the late 1940's. Robinson integrated sports racially, but Mays completed the job, integrating sports sytlistically. Where Robinson's great significance had been in being "the first," Mays's significance was his great talent and distinctive style. Where Robinson's presence in major-league sports announced that black players were good enough to compete, Mays's generation announced that black athletes could do more than compete: They could redefine the very game."

Mr. Rhoden recalls that not everyone was as enthralled with Mays as he was. "..in his era, white fans never fully identified with him. Mays arrived at the Polo Grounds for the 1951 season four years after Jackie Robinson had integrated baseball, and the people who ran sport and business were not certain that the middle-class Americans who were their customers were ready for African Americans to be promoted as stars, like Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams."

Mr. Rhoden goes on to argue that while Mays was as great a player as Mantle, he never ascended to the same exalted heights as Mantle in American folklore due to race.

Curt Flood

We all know that Curt Flood, an African American, was the first baseball player to challenge the industry's Reserve Clause in 1970. Mr. Rhoden argues that race played a crucial role in forming Mr. Flood's opinions about labor relations in his industry and his resolve to change the rules governing those relationships.

"Curt Flood was the first person I ever heard use a plantation metaphor in connection with professional athletes." "In the winter of 1969, he was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals, where he had played since 1958, to Philadelphia." "In one of the most significant communications in sports labor history, Flood wrote to then baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn that "after twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel that I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes." "This mode of treatment was legitimized by the Reserve Clause in Major League Baseball." "The reserve system was the same system used in the South where the plantation owner owned all the houses that you live in," Flood said." "In Flood's mind a divide between players and the owners was ingrained in their roles: "They're the ranchers, and we're the cattle." "The owners were given license to do this by the federal government. The Reserve Clause prevented players from moving to another team unless they were traded or sold. Flood challenged the fairness of a system that kept players in perpetual servitude to their teams at the owners' pleasure." "Flood said that he believed he had suffered harder times than white players; the change in black consciousness in recent years had made him "more sensitive to injustice in every area of my life." "Many white players never thought of themselves as being on a plantation or as being only so much chattel. But the legacy of black people in sports had sensitized Flood; that history had tuned him in to a different frequency than white players had access to."

The Supreme Court ruled against Flood in 1972. Three years later two white players, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, won free agency for players. Mr. Flood believes race was a factor in the outcome of both decisions. "Flood said that he was happy for the victory, but that he felt the decisions had a tinge of racism. "It disappointed me that I didn't win," Flood said, "but I had to feel that somewhere in the equation, America was showing its racism again. They were merely waiting for someone else to win that case."

As Marvin Miller, then an attorney for the players' union, had warned Flood about the consequences of challenging the owners, Flood remained outside the game for the most part until his death in 1997.

This wouldn't be my blog if I didn't mention Barry Bonds. I have written here in the past that I believe much of American sports fans enmity towards Bonds stems from the type of African American athlete that he is, namely arrogant and ungrateful. Mr. Rhoden makes reference many times to the notion that fans prefer African American athletes to adopt a public persona of "just happy to be here." Mr. Rhoden believes that this remains the case today as it has been throughout the history of the African American athlete.

Mr. Rhoden laments often in the book that contemporary African American athletes have no understanding of the sacrifices and gains made by those that came before them and that this lends itself to complacent, compliant behavior, "just happy to be here" attitudes. Barry Bonds is intimately familiar with the history of the African American ballplayer post integration. Willie Mays is Barry Bonds' godfather. Don't think that Bonds is unaware that Mays ate in segregated restaurants and stayed in segregated hotels while he was filling stands and lining the pockets of the owners. Don't think that Bonds is unaware that his godfather is not revered to the same degree as Mantle because of his race. Don't think that Bonds is unaware of the hostility that some of the sports media displayed towards Mays as a result of his race. Barry's father Bobby, a star in MLB in the 70's, was active in the PA and had often adversarial relationships with management & media. Barry Bonds has never been, and never will be, the "just happy to be here" African American that America accepts.

I have commented here before about the steep decline in the number of African American players in MLB. Mr. Rhoden quotes a figure of 9% at the beginning of the 06 season. With MLB making official forays into Asia, Africa and increasing numbers of players coming from Latin America, perhaps we should reflect on these words from Mr. Rhoden. "History suggests that African American athletes should be ever on the lookout. Their predecessors were excluded, blocked, persecuted, and eased out when white owners and management decided they weren't needed or wanted."

Remember, April 15 is Jackie Robinson day. Mark your calendar.


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