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“People are listening”: A conversation with Shakeia Taylor, baseball writer extraordinaire

Taylor, nominated for a SABR Analytics Conference Research Award, would be the first Black woman to win the prestigious honor.

Shakeia Taylor is one of today’s best baseball writers. Her prose can alternately move you to tears or laughter, depending on the subject and turn of phrase. Last year, she wrote this about Pumpsie Green, the first Black player on the Red Sox, the last team in the big leagues to integrate.

Green has lived his life reluctantly accepting his place in history. He was 13 years old when Jackie broke the color barrier, and he never expected, nor wanted, to be on the path started by him. During his time with the Red Sox, Pumpsie was isolated and alone. None of his teammates had a relationship with him outside of practice and games. In March of 1959 Boston Globe writer Milton Gross described the isolation: “From night to morning, the first Negro player to be brought to spring training by the Boston Red Sox ceases to be a member of the team he hopes to make as a shortstop. Segregation comes in a man’s heart, residing there like a burrowing worm. It comes when a man wakes alone, eats alone, goes to the movies every night alone because there’s nothing more for him to do and then, in Pumpsie Green’s own words, ‘I get a sandwich and a glass of milk and a book and I read myself to sleep.’”

Her retrospective about what C.C. Sabathia meant to the black community was stirring; her piece about trailblazing college baseball player Ashton Lansdell inspriring. From tying baseball to civil rights, to this moving tribute to the forgotten players of the Negro Leagues entitled simply “Speak their names,” Taylor has for years been doing work unparalleled in the industry.

Finally, Taylor is getting her due. This year, she was nominated for a SABR Analytics Conference Award for contemporary baseball commentary for a remarkable piece called “Loss, for Words,” in which she notes the inherent hypocrisy in MLB suspending White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson for an angry reaction to being on the receiving end of a beanball - without punishing the beanballer. The piece is notable both for its beautiful prose, typical of Taylor’s work, but also for its subject matter; Taylor takes on MLB’s misguided foray into attempting to govern when black players can use the n-word.

If Taylor wins, she will be the first black woman to win ANY SABR Analytics Conference Award, the highest honor bestowed upon baseball writers. I spoke with Taylor, a trailblazer in her own right, about her historic nomination, the brilliant piece which led to it, and her own baseball writing.

“Growing up, I was a pretty decent writer. My dad always told me I should be a writer,” Taylor said. Still, it wasn’t until relatively recently that her baseball writing career started -with, of all things, losing her job the day after Mother’s Day in 2016. She was in attendance for the Cubs’ 13-inning Mother’s Day walk-off win over the Nationals that year, courtesy of a Javier Baez home run, where she told a coworker, “I think they’re gonna let me go tomorrow.”

It was just a “gut feeling,” Taylor said, but she turned out to be right. What she did next was truly incredible. “ I spent that entire summer going to baseball games,” she said. “It’s maybe a bad idea for someone without a job, but I had the time. That’s seriously how it started. I tweeted and blogged my experiences. I had never had that much tie to just commit to watching the sport.” One thing led to another, and Paul Swydan, then editor of the Hardball Times, reached out to Taylor to see if she was interested in writing professionally.

Interestingly, Taylor talks about how much she’s learned from baseball writing. “I wasn’t initially too into analytics,” she said. “It was more of a learning opportunity. It’s fun. I get to learn, I get to share information. I’m a giant nerd. I meet a lot of new people.”

Despite her undeniable talent and success, Taylor still faces obstacles, including both racism and sexism. “Being a black woman writing about baseball, people treat me like a novelty,” she told me. “But there are plenty of black women who love baseball. We just get ignored. People aren’t paying attention.”

That mirrors what Howard Bryant told me a few weeks back about the dearth of black players and managers in the game. Apathy towards the African-American community seems all too prevalent in twenty-first century baseball. But Taylor faces sexism and racism beyond mere apathy, sometimes so significant it’s led her to ponder walking away. “I don’t need that [racism and misogyny],” she told me, in what may have been the understatement of the year. “This [baseball writing] doesn’t benefit me.” Still, to all of our benefit, she stays. “I have days where I’m like, I could just stop doing this right now, but I’d regret it,” she said. “I don’t have any room for error. People will point out everything. I once wrote a piece where there was a typo, and someone in the comments railed on it. There’s so much criticism on every little thing.” Still, Taylor holds herself to incredibly high standards. “I’ve spent so much time – it takes me so much time to write one piece, and I’m so meticulous about the research,” she went on. “Am I trying to do something great? Yes. I feel like I’m making an impression on culture.”

That impression was perhaps most notable in her piece about Anderson, a black player suspended by MLB for responding with the N-word to being hit by fastball on purpose. The beanball was ostensibly retribution for Anderson flipping his bat after an earlier round-tripper. As Taylor wrote,

Hitting a home run off of a professional pitcher is no small feat. It’s not easy. If it were, there would be a helluva lot more homers (even in the context of the current ball) and the 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa wouldn’t have entertained millions and “saved the game of baseball.” Hitting a baseball is famously difficult; if you fail 70 percent of the time, you’re an All-Star. So when you do the best thing possible at the plate — hit a home run — it is a cause for celebration and joy, with bat flips, fist pumps, and passionate screams. But that joy is met with ire and, in many cases violence. Anderson was expected to readily accept the punishment for “embarrassing a pitcher.” He was expected to be silent. He wasn’t. Tim Anderson’s words weren’t of racial aggression, they were an angry retort to someone who had acted cowardly, weak.

I asked Taylor about this passage, notably about her characterization of beanball as “cowardly, weak.” She was forthright in her response. “I view beanball as violence. I’ve written about it before – it’s violence,” she said, accurately. “Getting upset because someone outplayed you and attempting to injure you? It is weak, it is cowardly. You’re getting upset? You’re getting paid millions of dollars.” Taylor dismissed the idea that beanball was a tradition, and therefore part of the game. “Traditions are meant to die,” she said. “They’re meant to go away. You don’t resort to violence. Try another way. Try winning the game! It’s stupid. It’s barbaric. Instead of asking, ‘How can I injure them?’ Throw a better pitch!”

Taylor’s piece is a searing and necessary critique of MLB’s fraught relationship with the Black community, one focused more on exploitation and appropriation of Black people than of community outreach and participation.

If the league is going to police player conduct all the way down to the use of foul language on the field, then why is there no pushback on players condoning violence as a part of the game? A Black player is suspended for using a word historically used to incite and enact violence against Black communities, but advocating for beanball gets no response.

Instead of taking a stand against the “play the game the right way” sentiment many baseball fans and players uphold, the league made Anderson the villain. Baseball’s unwritten rules are filled with coded language that are rooted in racism, classism, and harmful views on masculinity. There’s a reason why so much of the conversation has been centered around the n-word and not the violent act of throwing a 92 mph fastball at a batter.

During our conversation, Taylor expanded on these points further. “I think that everyone’s focus is on the slurs and not the violence, because the violence is the norm,” she said. “The violence is the standard. The n-word slur, white people don’t really know how to feel about the n-word. . . . [Anderson] got mad because someone acted childish and he called him a name. As a black person, I get it. Take away that word and replace it with anything else. Everyone else should get it too.”

In her piece, Taylor noted that “[t]here’s a reason why so much of the conversation has been centered around the n-word and not the violent act of throwing a 92 mph fastball at a batter.” I asked her what that reason was, and Taylor explained that MLB inserting itself into the issue smacked of a broader issue in society - of white people, despite centuries of using the n-word to harm Black people, now trying to control the use of the word by black people. “[White people ask] why can you say it and I can’t?: Taylor said. “Everyone thinks they get to legislate it. But there are tons of communities that get to say whatever they want and I don’t join in. It’s called respect. Sports are a reflection of society right? What MLB did is exactly what the rest of the world is trying to do. They’re trying to tell black people how to say it. And until you’ve been called the hard-r version of that word, you’ll never understand.” Taylor is talking about what she called the Black community’s “ancestral memory” of the slur, a memory that white people and white institutions simply don’t have and have no business regulating.

Perhaps it’s because Taylor’s piece is so powerful that it led to her nomination, but she admits to being surprised when the nomination came. “I had no idea that I would even be considered for something like that,” she said. “I always do my writing pretty niche – people reading it are the real nerds.” In fact, Taylor told me that she had, in my opinion rather courageously, written the piece assuming it would receive a negative reaction. “I’ve had some experiences with baseball fans that weren’t so good, and I assumed it wouldn’t be as accepted in writing that way because it’s such a controversial topic,” she said. “It shouldn’t be [controversial], but it is. And seeing it nominated, it did make me feel like okay, the right people are starting to listen. Kind of like with the [foul ball] nets, right? Plenty of people had gotten hurt. But what it took was people shaming them over and over and over again. The fact that I made the top five in this category for this piece means that people are listening.” That it took so long for people to listen to Taylor’s powerful voice is to all of our detriment.

I asked Taylor what it would mean for her to win - to become the first black woman to win a SABR conference award. “I don’t think anyone ever wants to be the first anything,” she said. “In 2020, we shouldn’t be having the first anything anymore. But if this opens the door for someone else to have an achievable thing, then I’ve done my job.”

Taylor also has advice for those black women who come after her. “Do it anyway. Even if everything seems to be against you, do it anyway,” she said. “Find your community. Write what you know to be the truth. But do it anyway.”

You can read Shakeia Taylor’s nominated piece, the work of all of the other nominees, and cast your vote here. You can find Taylor’s work at the Hardball Times and Baseball Prospectus, and follow her on Twitter @curlyfro.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and Legal Director at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author’s. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.