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A History Of Activism In Baseball


Let's check in on the politics of a sport that has steered clear of politics. We've heard a lot about football players protesting racial discrimination. Major League Baseball players have mostly stayed off to the side. Rhiannon Walker is following baseball's quieter course. She is associate editor for ESPN's The Undefeated, which examines sports, race and culture, and she's a good person to ask, how has baseball veered away from the debate?

RHIANNON WALKER: I would say it's more conservative, the fan base is. I would say that people tend to have a lot more military pride in the sport as well, too. If you ever followed, like, how the national anthem got injected into sports, you can go back to the 1918 World Series with the Cubs and the Boston Red Sox. You can look at Fred Thomas, the third baseman. It's World War I. People are at the game. They're miserable. They're sad. They start playing the national anthem. He stands at attention. By the end of the song, everyone's singing.

INSKEEP: We're talking about a sport that is central to the story of desegregation in America. You think about the Jackie Robinson story in 1947. And you have a diverse player base. So give me an idea. What are the circumstances in which a baseball player can speak out and a circumstance in which a player can't speak out or probably wouldn't speak out?

WALKER: OK. So for instance, do you remember after 9/11 players spoke about what they needed to do in their community to go out and heal what had happened after that? That's one example. So we've seen what happened with Mike Brown, with Tamir Rice, with Trayvon Martin, with any number of different African-American people that have been shot unarmed by police officers. That's an issue that is completely off limits, the idea being is that baseball is a white man's sport.

INSKEEP: Is it thought of as a white man's sport even though you do have African-American players, Latino or Hispanic players, many kinds of players?

WALKER: Well, certainly for Latino players, with them coming in at about 30 or so percent of the population in Major League Baseball. But then African-American players only accounted for 62 to 64 players total. It's not as diverse as it may look.

INSKEEP: Are pro baseball players allowed, so to speak, to discuss discrimination that they see within the sport itself?

WALKER: I think it depends on the team. So I think that, like, for instance, the Boston Red Sox are a good example.

INSKEEP: Because there were allegations of racist incidents around Fenway Park and the Red Sox said, we want to talk about this.

WALKER: Oh, man. Yes, there were. In May, it just came to a complete head with Adam Jones. He was called the N-word. He was called other racial epithets, and he had a bag of peanuts thrown at him. So the Red Sox have taken steps at this point to say, look, we know there's a problem here at our baseball facility. We don't want to have this problem continue to happen.

INSKEEP: I - I want people to know that you recently wrote about one of the most famous Boston Red Sox players of all time, Ted Williams.

WALKER: I did.

INSKEEP: What drew you to Ted Williams' story as someone who works for a page that examines sports, race and culture?

WALKER: He was constantly worried about the fact that people would find out that he was Mexican-American, but when he had his Hall of Fame speech in 1966, he called out Major League Baseball for the fact that these black players, none of them had been inducted into the Hall of Fame at that point in time.


TED WILLIAMS: And I hope that someday the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way can be added as a symbol of the great negro players that are not here only because they were not given a chance.

WALKER: Satchel Paige was the first African-American player inducted in the Hall of Fame. So Ted Williams, he had a power. Like, when you speak on these things, players, especially white players, they have a power that if they talk about these things in a major platform, people start to pay attention.

INSKEEP: Rhiannon Walker of ESPN, thanks very much.

WALKER: Thank you so much, Steve. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.