Late Wednesday morning I opened up my phone and started scrolling through Twitter. Much of my morning had been spent dealing with personal issues, then I wrote an article.
The news of the day hadn’t become known to me yet. There was no MLB At Bat app notification on my phone to let me know that Major League Baseball had just made a major announcement. About ten or so seconds into scrolling I noticed a trend of people talking about the Negro Leagues a lot. Naturally, this caught my attention as I have spent the better part of my writing career championing the Negro Leagues. A few seconds after that I finally scrolled to someone retweeting MLB’s announcement that they were recognizing the Negro Leagues as major leagues.
My initial reaction to MLB’s announcement was one of surprise. This was quickly followed by celebration. Yes, this is what I, and so many others had been fighting for all these years. I even wrote an article right then and there about how we should all be happy about Rob Manfred doing something right for once. Unfortunately, that article got the wheels spinning in my head and my celebratory mood quickly wore off.
What exactly was I celebrating? How had MLB changed the baseball landscape in any meaningful way? Why did it seem like MLB was handling everything about this situation the absolutely wrong way?
The MLB press releases started rolling out. The more they posted on Twitter the more uneasy I became about the whole thing.
A key tenet for those of us who had fought for the Negro Leagues to be recognized as major leagues was the idea that they were always major leagues. There didn’t need to be any announcement changing their status because to any sane baseball fan they were already major leagues. Then MLB tweeted this,
The Negro Leagues that have been elevated to Major League status. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/iZVhK2bBjg— MLB (@MLB) December 16, 2020
It seems like an innocuous tweet, a summary of what was in the middle of transpiring. It even shed some light on exactly which Negro Leagues would be recognized as major leagues by MLB. Only, the language was very coded.
MLB talked about elevating the Negro Leagues to major league status. This implies that prior to MLB deciding to virtuously raise them in stature the Negro Leagues were beneath the other six recognized major leagues. Elevation by MLB implies that the all-white major leagues were better than the Negro Leagues until MLB decided it wasn’t so anymore. All it took for that to happen was an important date in the celebration of Negro League history and a Commissioner of Baseball looking for any possible win he could muster against a raging tide of problems with his tenure.
No, there was no elevation taking place. The Negro Leagues were always major leagues.
From the very first pitch in 1920 until the day they were finally erased from existence thanks to MLB imperialism they were just as major as any other major league that had ever existed. Legitimate historians had made this argument for years. Communities of color had long spent their time pushing back against the idea that their heroes were in any way lesser than their white counterparts. Black ballplayers, including many Negro Leaguers themselves, used their voices to tell one clear and unified story: the Negro Leagues stood toe to toe with the white major leagues and were just as worthy of accolades in every possible way.
There’s a sense of deeply sad irony in MLB deciding that they will elevate the Negro Leagues to major league status. This is the same league that instituted the very rules that barred Black ballplayers from signing up with MLB teams. It was MLB, its white owners, and its white Commissioners who refused to even recognize the legitimacy of the Negro Leagues. The only reason they ever changed their mind on allowing Black ballplayers into the MLB ranks was when they realized that they could control how they entered the organization.
Organization is an important word in what MLB is trying to do. MLB is exactly that, an organization made up of many moving parts. It is many things, but one thing that MLB is not is the arbiter of baseball history. This is especially true when it comes to Black baseball history. MLB doesn’t get to spend its entire existence, including the present day, seeking to colonize and control every single Black ballplayer and baseball community of color then swoop in and rewrite history so they are portrayed as the good guys. They don’t get to say they have elevated the Negro Leagues as if it was ever their decision to make in the first place.
Of course, this is what happens when the greater baseball community kneels at the MLB altar. The large stat-based websites, the Society for American Baseball Research, Bill James, John Thorn, and other MLB historians could have stopped this from ever happening. They could have spoken up and told MLB that it didn’t matter what they said. These giants of the baseball world could have joined forces with the non-MLB historians who did recognize the Negro Leagues as major leagues and said; you are right. If they had started recognizing the Negro Leagues as major leagues maybe they could have forced MLB’s hand on the matter. Perhaps if they had been willing to stand for what was right and factually true instead of choosing to be silently complicit with MLB then that colonizing organization wouldn’t have been able to make their announcement on Wednesday?
Alas, MLB did make their announcement. They are doing what MLB does and taking all the credit in an instance where they did absolutely nothing. Bullet Rogan isn’t a major leaguer because MLB says he’s a major leaguer. He’s a major leaguer because he played in the Negro major leagues, MLB’s recognition was never needed for that to be true. Instead, the organization that segregated the game and pillaged communities of color is taking credit for elevating the leagues that defined the opposition to their racist ways.
For MLB this is an “elevation” that doesn’t change anything. Almost every Negro Leaguer is dead and every team and league is but a distant memory. They can grant them this recognition now, rewrite their own history in the years to come, and continue their time-honored tradition of running from any accountability for the crimes they have committed, and continue to commit, against communities of color. It’s business as usual for an organization that sees nothing more than another opportunity to exploit a people they never get tired of exploiting.