By David M. Whettstone
As the summer closes, a number of significant mileposts have occurred regarding America's favorite pastime, baseball.
Jackie Robinson was again commemorated. To honor him this year, Major League Baseball (MLB) players donned Number 42 (the number now retired is no longer worn) for Jackie Robinson Day. The season has complemented this event with repeated recognition of Mr. Robinson's life and the 60th anniversary of his entry into the National Leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers, April 15, 1947.
Some fans suggest MLB retirement of Larry Doby's No. 14 be as he endured hardships similar to Robinson's when he was the second African American to enter the Major Leagues and the first for the American League, 11 weeks later playing for the Cleveland Indians. The team has retired his number. It took 33 years for Mr. Doby to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998.
This year (2007) marks the start of the MLB's annual Civil Rights Game which will always be played in Memphis, Tennessee. The city was chosen to honor Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. However, the inaugural match up between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians was not without controversy. The identity and participation of the latter team poses an affront to First Nations people. Cherokee people populate the Memphis vicinity and were part of the Native American tribes (i.e., bands/nations) forced to sojourn The Trail of Tears which passed through the area.
August has brought two other notable baseball occasions:
San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds surpassed Hank Aaron's leading record of 755 home runs. In the midst of controversy and mixed feelings, Mr. Aaron graciously recorded a video message to congratulate Barry Bonds. Readers may want to check out Terence Moore's Atlanta Journal-Constitution column, Aaron Happy to Be Finished with It All, and an Associated Press feature at SI.com regarding this hallmark.
Henry Louis Aaron will always outstandingly represent endurance, courage, wisdom, poise, and dignity to say the least.
Facing overt and subtle racism, one wonders how he and other veterans of color of the game thrived. This may still be an issue for present times. There's a new twist to the matter of subtlety, recent news indicates:
One pitch can make a difference.
A study concludes that major league home plate umpires are more likely to call strikes for pitchers of the same race or ethnicity. The research team was led by Daniel Hamermesh, an economics professor at the University of Texas at Austin. They analyzed every pitch from the 2004 through 2006 major league seasons, about 2.1 million, to see if discrimination occurred with calls for either balls or strikes.
Disparities were found to involve one percent of pitches. This would at least average to one pitch per game. It does not take long (even for the non-fanatical baseball observer) to realize that one pitch does count, possibly affecting the outcome of a game. By some estimates, a typical game may involve about 75 - 135 calls on pitches for each team.
Allegedly, potential disparities are mitigated when the umpire's calls are more closely scrutinized. Such factors would include ballpark electronic monitoring systems, watchfulness of full count situations (a pending pitch on the count of 3 balls and 2 strikes), or play under the auspices of well-attended games.
Is this another case for civil rights monitoring ... analogous to efforts preventing racial profiling? One is also reminded of heated debates, earlier this year, as to whether National Basketball Association referees exercised racial bias with their calls. Questions give new meaning to the phrase, "Let's go to the video tape."
There may be other implications as well. The power to evaluate and judge a player's performance remains overwhelmingly White, 87 percent of umpires and 71 percent of major league pitchers are White. Blacks make up three percent of pitching staffs. This study did not find disparities associated with racial differences between batters and umpire.
A pitcher's record, his value individually and that associated with a team's record of wins and losses, speaks volumes for further employment and lucrative compensation. The whole nature of baseball's labor market/force can be impacted. According to The 2006 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball from the DeVos Sport Business Management Program of the University of Central Florida, there were 707 White, 100 African American, 350 Latino, 29 Asian, and 3 other players.
Black players made up about a peak 27 percent of players in the mid-1970s; last season they were slightly over eight percent share. Dare to think about and compare this sport to other sport industries. The MLB is now at work to attract more players of color ("minorities").
With baseball's mileposts and a cavalcade of heroes and legends there is an acknowledgment of individual achievement. Yet an engagement with the systemic is also needful. In the larger frame of things -- our institutions, organizations, history, and activities of life -- systems affect the advancement and thriving of all people. Recognition is useful regarding the past and present, but action is needed for securing the best future. Let's (everybody) play ball.
David M. Whettstone is a Washington, DC-based public policy advocate and writer, who works on national and local issues (including civil rights and criminal justice) and with religious and community-based organizations. By now you probably know he likes baseball.