The Hall of Fame is making something forever wrong at least a little bit right by inducting 16 deserving men and one deserving woman this summer. Their election was announced today after the Hall was good enough and smart enough to convene an expert committee to figure out which players, executives and owners (like Mrs. Effa Manley, co-proprietor of the Newark Eagles and now the first lady in the Hall) had been overlooked for too long. Murray Chass explained the process in detail in Sunday's Times.
So congratulations to the Hall and congratulations to all those whose memories (each induction will be posthumous) are at last being honored properly. Congratulations as well, even if he didn't gain election, to Buck O'Neil — as good a man in person now, according to Dave Murray, as he appeared to be on camera with Ken Burns a dozen years ago. Nobody alive has done more to keep the flame glowing on behalf of the Negro League legacy, namely that great baseball was being played in shadows of the institutionally racist Major Leagues.
This is a proper tribute to a corps of baseball people whose contributions can never be properly measured, can never be adequately appreciated, can never possibly be put in a context that reasonable people of the 21st century could ever, ever rationally understand.
Induction into the Hall of Fame for those who built and maintained the Negro Leagues when the Negro Leagues were the only option for a significant portion of the baseball-playing population of this country is clearly merited, and it doesn't make a single one of us who reaches that conclusion heroic or enlightened for endorsing the obvious.
The Hall of Fame is a fitting tribute for greats of the game. What I saw on ESPN Classic on Sunday afternoon, on the other hand, was merely creepy. Well-intentioned, to be sure, but creepy.
Didja see it? Somebody had the idea that it would be a lovely homage to Negro League history to re-create a Negro League game, circa 1948…sort of. There was a team calling itself the Birmingham Black Barons (from whence our own Willie Mays, who threw out the first ball, sprung) and a team called the Bristol Barnstormers (Bristol…ESPN…will they ever get over themselves?) and they played in vintage duds in historic Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Ala.
Harmless enough, I guessed, and did I mention well-intentioned? The announcers (including celebrity Mets fan Chuck D and the always excellent Billy Sample) used the occasion as a history lesson. The managers were two likable old-timers, George “Boomer” Scott and Jim “Bulldog” Bouton. And it was baseball in late February.
A faux-Negro League team taking on a faux-barnstorming team that appeared to be pretty darn white? It was creepy. Presumably patrons could sit wherever they wanted and use whichever drinking fountains they wished (probably bought bottled water) and ride in any seat in any transportation conveyance, public or private, that they chose. So it was a re-creation of a 1948 game involving black players on one team and white players on another team in Alabama in a way that never could have taken place in 1948 Alabama and in a way I don't think any of us would prefer it take place anywhere anytime. (Oh, unless it's the World Baseball Classic and we need to prove my country or heritage is better than yours.)
I watched for an inning and gave up. It just bothered me. I revere history, but I don't go in for re-enacting the Battle of Antietam. Gimme a book, gimme a documentary, gimme flash cards. What purpose does putting on a black vs. white baseball game serve exactly? Raise awareness of a mostly lost slice of baseball's past? Well, OK, but do you really want to go about it by segregating the teams? I read in a Daily News preview that the Barnstormers would be “mixed-race,” but I didn't observe that to be the case (to be fair, I could've missed it), but who wants to use phrases like that in this day and age? Who wants to think like that? If we're trying to make younger generations aware of the evils of what kept blacks and whites from fully competing together at the highest echelons of organized baseball until 55, 60 years ago, how does, shall we say, whitewashing the reality of it into a Sunday picnic long after the fact do that?
There seemed to be excitement about it, a couple of surviving Negro Leaguers enjoyed the attention that accompanied it and if everybody who was there and everybody who watched on TV got a kick out of it, then I'm just a wet blanket on a cold day. Yet I'm reminded of one of my favorite books ever, Douglas Bukowski's appropriately cynical Baseball Palace of the World: The Last Year of Comiskey Park. His entry from July 12, 1990:
Wednesday afternoon was “Turn Back the Clock Day” for the White Sox and Brewers. The Sox wore “Shoeless” Joe Jackson uniforms and the score was kept manually, all in an effort to recreate a game from 1917, but I don't know. The ushers wore “straw” hats made of Styrofoam, and both teams used their black ballplayers. So much for authenticity.
I'm all for throwback unis and wearing baseball romance on one's sleeve, so I suppose there's a connection to be made between the heritage represented by the Negro Leagues and the ongoing efforts to address the relative paucity of African-American baseball players in 2006. Indeed, one of the Black Barons from Sunday, Jimmy Williams, told the News' Christian Red that he hoped an event like the Birmingham game would lead to firing up more African-American kids to play ball.
This issue gets a touch more notice every year, but I've been hearing, I'm sure, for closing in on two decades that…
• the sport that served as meta-metaphor for the American experience…
• the game that Jackie Robinson rectified and delivered from richly deserved damnation by his mere participation…
• and the national pastime that wasn't truly national until he and Mays and Henry Aaron and Larry Doby and Monte Irvin and Minnie Minoso and too many others were no longer denied access by “gentleman's agreement” to it…
isn't attracting many black kids to its ranks. Certainly not like it used to.
I don't know what to do with that information.
The traditionalist (post-1947 traditionalist, that is) instinct is to call it sad and bemoan it. It is sad and I do bemoan it. I'm a post-1947 traditionalist in that sense. The next tack to take is to endorse the encouragement of athletically talented African-American youth to take up baseball. The Majors have been doing this in an institutional fashion since 1989. I remember writing a brief story in '92 about how Fred Wilpon, Nelson Doubleday and George Steinbrenner were joining forces with the company that was then Major League Baseball's soft drink sponsor to jumpstart the New York leg of a program called RBI, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. The Mets and Yankees contributed resources to rebuild a ballfield in Harlem (albeit not the Polo Grounds). It certainly wasn't either team's last charitable and, it could be argued, self-sustaining gesture in this direction. You want to run a baseball team in New York, you best maintain the interest of New York kids.
(And let's not pretend that baseball needs revival only in the inner cities or that those are the only locales where you'll find nonwhite children in the United States. For that matter, African-American children aren't the only children not playing baseball like we did when we were awkward but determined youths doing our best John Stearns impressions.)
There seems to be a steady flow of what could be very loosely termed affirmative action at baseball's grassroots level, and I'm all for any action that is affirmative where baseball is concerned. The go-to line about why baseball needs to do this is it hasn't kept up with professional football and basketball as the aspirational sport among African-American youth. Anything that can be done to close the gap…huzzah! In my judgment, every potential athlete should choose baseball. Every potential sports fan should choose baseball. Every media outlet should cover baseball first, last and just about always.
It can be argued if MLB has done enough or has done what it has done successfully. The fact is the percentage of ballplayers who are African-American continues to shrink. The 2005 National League champions had hitters, pitchers, fielders and runners, but not a single American-born black player on their roster. And I just read, courtesy of John Harper in the News, that Cliff Floyd is the “Mets' only established African-American player” and that Lastings Milledge is a rarity in terms of race among blue-chip baseball prospects.
And I still don't know what to do with that information.
There is no evidence to suggest that the '05 Astros were composed in any manner other than to win as many contests as they could. Until they got to the World Series, the plan worked. The 2006 Mets? I'm assuming the idea is to get as far as Houston did and then win four more games. We've been through the nonsense about Los Mets already and I'm not going through it again. The only kinds of guys I want to see on my team are the best players who are decent people and who are the best players. Their DNA or their grandparents' mailing address or what music they listen to on their Willie Randolph-mandated headphones is of no concern to this fan.
I'd been rooting for the Mets a couple of years, I think, when I read somewhere that the Mets had a quiet quota system for black players. Up until then, I hadn't noticed. So, curious kid with math skills that I was, I counted. There's Cleon. There's Agee. There's Clendenon. There's…uh…I got the idea. I didn't think much about it, though, because Cleon and Agee and Clendenon were no different to me from Seaver and Koosman and Buddy and Tug and Teddy Martinez. They were Mets.
That's been pretty much my rule ever since. You're a Met and you play well and you're not an embarrassment, I think of you as one of me and me, by Walter Mittylike delusion, as one of you. I think most of us look at our team that way.
Are restrictions, formal or casual, being placed on any young athlete who desires to enter baseball? If so, remove them at once.
Are opportunities being provided for the talent pool at large to excel at baseball? If not, create them and present them.
Is everybody from everywhere of every background being given an equal shot at playing baseball? Produce those shots by any means necessary.
That's information I can deal with.
If, as a prevailing trend, Latinos and Asians (and, for lack of a better construction, Euro-Americans) are more likely to go out for baseball than African-Americans after everybody throws their best pitch at the shrinking percentage, well, it doesn't feel right, but I don't know what to do about it. Are we supposed to be upset that members of one group have stepped in to fill a vacuum created by the absence of the members of another group? If African-Americans or any young men from anywhere are given every legitimate opportunity and reasonable enticement to play baseball and choose not to, what then?
All I ask of my team is to get me 25 players of skill and character and determination and all that good stuff that builds champions. Build a champion and let it perform like a champion. That, too, is information I can deal with. I don't really know what do with the rest.
Perhaps you've heard of a book and a club called the 12 Black Aces. It's a project started by Jim “Mudcat” Grant to honor the accomplishments of a dozen — now 13, thanks to Dontrelle Willis — pitchers who have won 20 games at least once in a season. That's one of the qualifications. The other one is that you be black. Well, African-American. The group includes Grant, Doc Gooden, Don Newcombe, Bob Gibson, Vida Blue and Ferguson Jenkins. It doesn't include Cuban-born but dark-skinned (and, thus, discriminated-against when he was coming along) Luis Tiant, who told Street & Smith's Baseball, “I don't even want to see that book. They can go and throw that book in the toilet.”
Well, if the criteria is American, then maybe Tiant should be more understanding. Except, as Street & Smith's Mike Beradino points out, Fergie Jenkins isn't a U.S. citizen. He was born in Canada. That doesn't make him American, unless you want to include North American…which is what a Cuban would be if I've read my maps correctly.
Identity politics can be split so many good-hearted ways that the resulting shavings can get downright ugly. Telling one guy he's a member of an unofficial club because he looks like this even if he isn't from here but the guy who also looks like this and isn't from here surely isn't what Grant was thinking when he came up with what sure must have looked like a nice way to romanticize a little history.
Say, when Doc Gooden was winning 20 in 1985, did you think, “there goes our black ace”? Me neither. If you had to place him right now in a special group besides the 1985 Mets, would you choose Mets' 20-game winners and place him amid Seaver, Koosman, Cone and Viola? Me too.
The ethnic gymnasts of the WBC who twisted Mike Piazza of suburban Philadelphia into Italy's catcher practice the same pointless categorizing. When Mike was a Met, he was a Met. Now he's a beloved ex-Met until he takes a current Met deep as a fleetingly disliked Padre. Whether he's Italian or Italian-American or reconstituted-Southern Californian falls outside my own sphere of relevance.
Cliff Floyd, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado, Carlos Beltran, Tom Glavine…who ya wit'?
When it comes to baseball, I prefer to stick with my own kind.
At 9 o'clock tonight, give yourself a treat and visit the Crane Pool Forum for a live chat with Adam Rubin, Mets beat writer for the News and author of the immediately forthcoming Pedro, Carlos & Omar. He's already answered a few advance questions which make for fascinating Met reading.
And if you think no Mets fan should have to set himself on fire on the front lawn of his or her local cable company, consider signing this petition to get SNY onto Charter Digital Cable. None of us is free to watch every Mets game until all of us are free to watch every Mets game. (Free is just an expression in this case. Cable costs.)