Following the Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, Washington Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle both spoke and tweeted about the atrocities, calling it “white fear. It’s the worst kind of hatred. It’s disgusting” and stating “there is only one side,” in reference to the Trump administration’s reference to violence “on many sides” of the demonstration. Of those members of major league baseball asked about the events, Doolittle gave by far the most unequivocal denunciation. His teammate and fellow UVA grad Ryan Zimmerman gave a more tepid, “neutral” response, stating the rally did not speak for the UVA community while asserting that he didn’t “really want to get into all that kind of stuff.” Although the display of white supremacy at Charlottesville sparked the Rays to partially fund the removal of a Confederate statue outside Tampa’s courthouse and led Red Sox principal owner John Henry to push for the re-naming of Yawkey Way, very few other members of the MLB community offered comment. Brandon McCarthy somewhat vaguely tweeted about the incident, again pointing out the problem with the “both sides” rhetoric. Otherwise, players followed a long trend of staying silent on political issues.
The cornerstone of a democratic republic is civic engagement in service of civic virtue, to be aware of fellow citizens’ struggles and to doggedly fight injustice and oppression. In today’s America, much of this engagement is missing, and it is viewed less as a responsibility held by every citizen than the task of few professional groups. But when it comes to Nazism, it should be the duty of every person, doubly so for white people, to vociferously denounce the individuals and the ideals themselves, to stamp them down in every area of society. The silence of white MLB players is thus telling of the way baseball players in the past have interacted with politics and its relationship to the larger degradation of American democracy.
Of those players who have taken political stances in the past, the majority have been Black and Latino, and more often than not, have taken those stances out of necessity. Their lives are directly and frequently negatively impacted by politics; they do not get to use baseball as an escape, as a means of shutting out the political realm. For them, baseball is just as political as every other aspect of society, and there is a long history of POC players speaking about racial and social injustices as a result. But these statements are frequently met with derision from fans and media alike.
In May of this year, Adam Jones spoke about the racist taunts hurled at him by fans at Fenway. He was immediately met by people dismissing these claims and asking for actual tangible proof; the words of Black athletes in the past talking about racism they’ve encountered in Boston did not meet these white people’s burden of proof. Pedro Martinez took on this implicit racism in the media in 2003, accusing them of using racism to fuel their attacks on Sammy Sosa, pointing out particularly that they intentionally highlighted his lack of command of English to portray him as essentially illiterate. The media frequently associates Latinos and Black players with being less intelligent than their white counterparts, and so players like Pedro have been forced to move into the “political” sphere to defend themselves from these racist stereotypes.
During the 2012 World Series parade, Giants closer Sergio Romo wore a t-shirt that read “I just look illegal.” While some supported his efforts to draw attention to racial profiling and illegal immigration, others accused him of political grandstanding, asserting that a baseball parade was not the place to make political statements. Likewise, after Dexter Fowler commented in an Instagram post about the Muslim ban, he received thousands of responses calling for him to stay out of politics, telling him that he was property of the Cardinals and should stick to baseball.
Other POC players have to couch their political language in niceties and vague statements that remove much of their strength. When asked whether he would visit the White House, Cubs’ pitcher Carl Edwards Jr. did not criticize Trump; rather, he simply said he would be visiting the city’s “dinosaur museums” instead. None of the players who chose not to attend spoke of their absences in political terms or came close to decrying the Trump administration’s policies.
Numerous other examples exist of POC players receiving flack for their political stances, as white players and fans often see political engagement as somewhat unsettling and inappropriate coming from athletes. In many cases, these players and fans do not understand that maintaining the status quo is, itself, political. When asked about NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest during this prior season of kneeling for the national anthem, several players quickly denounced the action, stating it was un-American and asserting Kaepernick had to learn about the history of freedom in America. As Adam Jones succinctly put it, “baseball is a white man’s sport,” where political engagement is at best a hobby rather than a necessity and at worst career suicide.
But when it comes to political engagement, POC players are met with more scrutiny from all angles. Either they’re told they should stay out of politics, or they’re told their engagement was of the wrong sort. In 2010, Albert Pujols received an award from racist radio host Glenn Beck. While Tony La Russa also went to the rally, the majority of the criticism rested on Pujols’ shoulders, because as a Latino, he should have known better. Essentially, his attendance and implicit support of Beck betrayed the Latinx community. This is not a new phenomenon. In the 1970s, Ernie Banks was frequently criticized by the Civil Rights Movement for not using his platform to vocally support Black rights.
White players who engage in political activities receive far less criticism as well as far less media attention. Over the past several years, Curt Schilling, now a Breitbart radio host, has become the player most synonymous with politics. Although his comments have ranged from controversial to despicable, he has been given a long leash, with teams only now beginning to pull away from him. In 2006, Jeff Suppan appeared in an anti-stem cell research ad that aired prior to game 4 of the World Series. Articles discussing the matter were far more civil than those concerning POC players and politics, and Tony La Russa said the Cardinals’ organization encourages their players to be engaged with things outside of baseball. Additionally, George Brett endorsing Trump during a broadcast in 2016 also received far less coverage, as did Jeff Kent donating money to support California’s anti-gay marriage Proposition 8.
Throughout the past 8 years, many players openly criticized the Obama administration, from Jonathan Papelbon stating Obama was trying to take away guns to Trevor Bauer questioning whether the former president was born in the United States. While each of these statements was met with criticism, the players did not have to fear job security and received far less criticism than their Black and Latino counterparts. The baseball community as a whole skews conservative, and so espousing conservative views is not thought of as controversial and therefore receives less attention. That’s doubly true when the views come from a white player.
The erosion of political engagement and civic virtue specifically in baseball is tied to the normalization of the sport’s nationalism. Players who support the military or participate in it receive far less flack than those calling for social justice or criticizing the military. Every game, players stand for the anthem, applaud members of the military, and on select days, watch military flyovers and stand for God Bless America. For many players, all of this is normal, par for the course, and in no way political. For them, this equates to supporting America, which is a no-brainer move void of real political engagement. Only those who critique the country enter into the political realm, and this is largely by design.
For much of its history, baseball has been tied to America’s military, beginning sometime during WWI, when teams began having fundraisers, playing the anthem, and honoring members of the military prior to games. These trends have continued since then, and many players have served in the military, particularly in WWII, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. With these wars came the idea of America as this great liberator, the only thing standing between freedom and cruel despotism. Thus, militarism became synonymous with patriotism, and players who participated in the military were made heroes, while those few daring to criticize it were silenced or sternly rebuked.
Many big-name players joined the military in the forties and fifties, such as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Bob Feller, Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, and Willie Mays. The vast majority of these players returned from service to adoring crowds who eagerly pushed the title “hero” onto them. Although the response to America’s involvement in the Korean and Vietnam War was far more tepid and divisive than it was to WWII, those players who fought in the wars were still treated as heroes upon their return to America and baseball, and are still thought of as heroes today. At a memorial for these soldiers in 2000, then-Commissioner Bud Selig declared, “If we are looking for role models for today's youth, we need look no further than Jerry Coleman and Ted Williams. Heroes of the baseball diamond and of the battlefields of the sky, they are real-life heroes.”
Major League Baseball became particularly involved in the Vietnam War, the country’s most controversial war at that time. The league sponsored off-season tours, and though owners did not endorse their players fighting in the war, it was done so out of greed—to protect their assets. As the war became increasingly controversial at home and abroad, Commissioners William Eckert and then Bowie Kuhn received high praise from the Pentagon for using baseball to boost national morale. Kuhn furthered the bond between baseball and military by using baseball references in military talk to “connect with the silent majority,” that being those who supported the war. Baseball officially became connected to militaristic patriotism, and the ties at all levels made it difficult for players to protest American military action. If they protested, they feared being blackballed.
Very few players have protested American military endeavors, and those who have met similar reactions as Carlos Delgado. In 2004, the Blue Jays first baseman used his platform to protest the Iraq War, refusing to stand for the singing of God Bless America. After over a year of protesting, during his first several weeks with the Mets in 2006, the team took exception, forcing him to stand for the anthem and keep his personal views to himself. The Wilpons were not the only members of the baseball community to disapprove of Delgado’s activism. As explained by Dave Zirin at the time, many sports media outlets silently supported the radio and fan condemnation of Delgado’s actions, contributing to the ending of his active protest. Indeed, the fan disapproval was swift and vociferous, with loud chants of “U-S-A!” directed at the Puerto Rican first baseman beginning July 22nd, the first game of his protest, and carrying on throughout the season.
In baseball, as with many places in America, being anti-military is synonymous with being anti-American. War is held up as heroic, as something inherently good and something to which you should lend your blind support. Black and Latino players know of the other side, of the cruelty of American militarism, but they are unable to speak of this side, to point out the hypocrisy of calling Islam a violent religion when American militarism is tied to sport and emulated as the country’s strongest value. Players are constantly put in positions where they must support the troops, as if opposition to all this did not exist, as if Delgado was the only player to ever disapprove of this country’s militarism. The strategic integration of military and baseball has effectively silenced opposition, removed the voices of people with platforms. Foreign players are free to speak of the atrocities in their own countries, but cannot do so in this one.
The Erosion of American Democracy
Major League Baseball players learn very quickly in their careers that speaking out about politics is risky and they should largely shy away from doing so. This spring, multiple clubs discussed politics with their players, delivering the message that if players turned political, “50 percent of the people who used to cheer them would not just stop cheering. Those cheers would turn to hate.” That baseball players are not and should not be political actors has been carefully hammered into the heads of these athletes, prompting even the most outspoken white players, like Sean Doolittle, to think they should not be engaging in politics.
This idea that athletes are nonpolitical actors goes hand-in-hand with a shifting idea of politics in America. There exists now in society the belief that politics occurs in Washington and in the voting booths, that only those who operate within politics as a career are suited for political discourse. Along with these notions comes political apathy and the twisted idea that true freedom separates the individual from politics. The result of this is believing the status quo is apolitical and those who oppose it are overtly political, which manifests itself in the notion that criticism of America is anti-America. Time and again, immigrants are met with the argument that if they want to criticize the country, they’re free to go elsewhere. Criticism is largely unwelcome in the eyes of many, which restricts political discourse to the few privileged who benefit from the status quo.
Arguing that criticism is un-American directly contradicts the central tenets of the country’s founding, wherein an educated population must constantly correct itself and educated politicians must enlighten and distill public discourse to save it from mob rule. Presidents and congressmen were not to be heralded for holding these offices, they were to be constantly checked by one another and the citizens; the aim of political life should not be reverence, but accountability. The Constitution was a beginning, not an end point. Although it is fair to point out that the founding was done in service of a political elite and discourse on both sides was limited to white men, these tenets remain central to democratic governance and must stretch to fit the diversity within American society rather than being abandoned in an effort to maintain the idea of “citizen” present during the founding.
The supposed depoliticization of baseball most negatively impacts POC players, who, unlike in other areas of society, actually have a platform to address life-and-death concerns but are unable to use it. These players fear being divisive figures in the clubhouse, losing their platforms altogether, and the personal and professional backlash political statements engender. Their presence in baseball is touted by the league for contributing to its diversity, but while they exist as diverse groups of people, they are not allowed to spread diversity of thought. They are forced to become figureheads of an empty movement.
The league, backed by the understanding of baseball’s position in America, has either made POC players believe they do not want to be political or tried to silence those who are. Of course, players like David Ortiz slip to the cracks, by by and large, teams are allowed to be political, and white, Conservative players are allowed to be political, but those most likely to oppose the status quo are not.
This silencing of political opposition feeds into larger trends in the country that label opposition “opposition to America” rather than “opposition to the degradation of American society.” Opposition in baseball is legitimate, but the sport has made it such that opposition in the political realm is not; the team in the opposite dugout is worthy of the same number of outs as you are, but the player on the opposite side of the political spectrum is not worthy of the same voice.
Robert F. Lewis, “Smart Ball: Marketing the Myth and Managing the Reality of Major League Baseball,” pg. 25-32.
Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.