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The Giants gained a competitive advantage when they integrated, but what did we gain?

The complicated history of Baseball and race has somehow been a boon for Baseball, but how has that helped us understand each other?

Willie Mays Statue

Jay Jaffe, one of the best baseball writers out there who genuinely seems like a cool dude, posted an article on FanGraphs this morning talking about the competitive advantage the Giants (as well as, and especially, the Dodgers) gained by integrating their organizations. It was written in part to honor Jackie Robinson (after this weekend’s celebration of him around the league), but also to demonstrate, statistically, how human beings’ general awfulness to each other stood in the way of some good baseball.

I may be reversing the point he was trying to make — the influx of not just Black talent, but Dominican and Puerto Rican players, too, revolutionized the game and gave it a quantum leap in terms of competitiveness — but for good reason. Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, and Willie McCovey aren’t a part of our collective memory if people’s hate stays in the way of making a buck. I’m definitely reducing Branch Rickey down to the most cynical idea I can muster because others followed suit really only when they saw that having Jackie Robinson on the team was profitable.

Jaffe’s article is a wonderful examination and breakdown of the beautiful numbers and performance impact these extremely talented human beings had on the game of baseball. The only way the country at the time could value these people was through these numbers, and that’s the sad part. Human beings really have to be tricked into treating other human beings with any sort of dignity and even a minimum of respect.

Look at Willie Mays here.

I will gawk at every picture of him in action and appreciate everything he ever did on a baseball field, but my love of his legend will never fully understand or appreciate the hell he went through as a human being. Is it a bright idea to fire off a post like this on a Tuesday morning as just some dude who writes about the 2018 San Francisco Giants for a living? Probably not! But I do know that what these integration era players gave us will never, ever be equaled by what we and the culture give back to them or their families. Because hatred runs deep.

Oh yeah, I’m talking about racism, in case that wasn’t clear. I’m talking about how we treat each other. I’m talking about Baseball resting on the lone accomplishment of integrating and how that “changed America”, but doing nothing but chasing “the heart of America” to maintain an audience. I’m talking about crap like this:

... and the hatred it provokes (either read the mentions to this tweet or believe me when I say they’re terrible). People want to hate. And they want to use “Baseball integrated” as a shield to keep hating in their own way. “I’m not a monster, I respect what Jackie Robinson did”. My general belief is that people are at their worst when they think in abstractions, and when confronted with reality will have a different reaction. In other words — it’s easier to hate groups because the groups are an abstraction, but face to face with individuals, people won’t hate nearly as much or simply have a different opinion.


And then my general belief is completely disproved by a single image.

Jay Jaffe is not the issue here. I love to marvel at the amazing accomplishments of history’s greatest athletes and he’s one of the foremost writers when it comes to spotlighting those accomplishments and contextualizing eras. The issue is that we value the accomplishments of people who were “given” an opportunity to succeed by an avaricious culture who feel entitled to hold onto their hateful beliefs and spew their angry rhetoric exactly because players are “being given an opportunity”. The culture simply found a way to redirect its hatred of non-white people through more polite channels.

Baseball doesn’t respect different cultures if it punishes cultural flare from its players or drags its feet removing racist imagery from the league. The idea that baseball respects anything is in direct conflict with its sole purpose to make money. So everything else falls on us. We shouldn’t rely on Baseball to know who to honor. We shouldn’t need to be prompted to treat people with dignity. But when you survey the landscape and see what some of the loudest have to say about “the world” or their feelings about “how players should play”, it’s easy to see we still have a long, long way to go.