Racism In Baseball

Moshe Mandel over at TheYankeeU has a very good take on what is a difficult subject to address: racism in baseball by people who aren’t what we would generally refer to as racists.  You should check out the article for a better definition, but the basic idea is that many still believe in and refer to visual stereotypes that are based on race, even if those people aren’t necessarily overtly racist.

Again, this is a touchy subject, and one I have considered addressing many times.  Just a few weeks back when I discussed Bernie Williams and his chances of making the Hall of Fame, commenters critiqued his baserunning skills.  Bernie never stole many bases and, I will admit, didn’t always make the best baserunning decisions.  The most common complaint is that he “never made the most of speed.”  There is probably some truth to that, but how much of it is that Williams, quite simply, looks like a guy who should steal bases?  If you really think about Bernie’s athletic skills, his long strides certainly helped him track down fly balls, but should they have made him a good baserunner?  While both acts require speed in the general sense, I think most will agree they are two very different skills.

Over at my old blog, I wrote up a post making fun of some media types for fawning over Mike Lowell because he “plays the game the right way” and “isn’t afraid to get his uniform dirty” and all the other synonymous phrases for being gritty and gutty.  At the time, people were arguing for the Yankees to sign Lowell rather than re-signing Alex Rodriguez.  An enraged Red Sox fan left me a message saying I had not done my research because Lowell was born in Puerto Rico (and also blamed my lack of research for the Yankees’ recent World Series drought – go figure).  That really didn’t have anything to do with my point though; yes, Lowell was born in Puerto Rico and his father came there from Cuba.  But if you want to get technical, his parents’ ancestry is actually German and Irish.  And most importantly: who cares where he’s from?  No one is saying that people are actively researching the backgrounds of players so they can be a hatemonger and rile up racist sentiments.  The point is, we stereotype based on what we see.  And guess what?  Lowell looks like a white guy.

I think this anecdote is relevant because it shows that not only do we make these judgments, but we also don’t always know what it means to judge based on visual stereotypes.

In some ways, I think statistics help us overcome some of our stereotypes by giving us another way to evaluate and experience the game.  There is certainly a long way to go though, particularly in the mainstream media, and kudos to Moshe for tackling the subject.

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8 Responses to Racism In Baseball

  1. Not to fuel the fire, or to take away from Moshe's point, but regarding Bernie – people say that because he was extremely fast.

    In some sense, he did make the most of his speed, as in the field it allowed him to overcome his tendency to get poor jumps or reads and still track down fly balls.

    On the offensive side it was a different story, as there were expectations for him to steal bases. That's not because of the way he looked or any stereotypes, but because his minor league stolen base totals by season were 33, 18, 29, 37, and 39. He stole an additional 29 in AAA over two partial seasons split between Columbus and the Bronx. Bernie was also coming up at the tail end of the stolen base happy eighties and the Yankees were only two years removed from Rickey Henderson when Bernie made his debut.

    Expecting Bernie to steal bases at the Major League level was a reasonable expectation given prevailing strategy at the time, his minor league performance, and that he had yet to display any real power. In his case at least, I don't think it was the result of any sort of stereotype.

    At the risk of falling back on those stereotypes, Bernie didn't possess great instincts. In the field his tremendous speed helped make up for those instincts; on the bases those instincts muted his speed. What he could get away with on the base paths in the minors wasn't going to cut it in the Majors.

    • Brian Burkhart says:

      Fair points. I think I'm mostly interested in how this issue seems to still color the way we remember Bernie – even after he became their best offensive player during the late 90's dynasty (and did not need to be a good baserunner to do so). Perhaps the tie-in to stereotyping is a reach, though I still find it odd people think he, for whatever reason, needed to steal bases to be a HOF caliber player.

      So I guess, to put it more simply, it's not the expectations placed on him when he came up that I'm referring to, but rather the expectations we have looking back and evaluating him, if that makes any sense. When we look back at Jim Edmonds' career, will we hold it against him that he was never a good baserunner/base stealer?

      • For me, his baserunning doesn't matter. He was a top notch offensive player who, in his prime at least, played passable defense and a premium defensive position. Being a better baserunner would have been nice, but it doesn't detract from everything else he did.

        I think Bernie's a borderline HoF case at best. Part of that may be due to the fact voters have really yet to draw a distinction between center fielders and corner outfielders, and still just lump all OFers into one big pile. With that in mind, maybe having been a better baserunner would help his HoF cause. Perhaps that's what others took issue with. Personally, I just don't see it as a big deal when evaluating his overall contributions.

        • Brian Burkhart says:

          I agree across the board, in particular with evaluating CFs and corner outfielders. I wrote a post discussing his candidacy before and I think he's probably a no, but I do think he's as good, if not better, than Rice and Dawson, which makes things tricky.

          Speaking of his defense though – I grew up thinking Bernie was a "gold glove" outfielder. Wonder what UZR and the like would have said about him.

  2. stevebfromct says:

    Stereotypes and generalizations can sometimes get people to say things which can be construed to be racist….

  3. I guess replies won't nest any further. There's some UZR data on Bernie at fangraphs. It's from when he was past his prime and is predictably ugly.

    B-ref has his fielding runs above average getting pretty bad after '95, which interesting enough is before he won his four GGs

  4. Mark says:

    Excellent article, especially the cano/pedroia comparison! Hopefully more ppl will feel able to talk about racism be it conscious or not. Kudos to Moshe for having the courage to write it!

    • Yeah I though Moshe wrote a great article and this has been an issue that has been simmering for quite some time. I really liked what Will Leitch from Deadspin had to say about it in his book God Save the Fan. I think his comparison was between Ron Belliard and David Eckstein. He pointed out that typically people favor Eckstein because he is "gritty" and Belliard is lazy.