The announcement by Major league Baseball of the addition, and overdue recognition of the Negro Leagues to their record books, shocked me. Throughout my entire life - a devoted fan and lover of the game of baseball - I've always had to learn about the Negro Leagues under my own accord. A deep dive that often requires research that involves reading old newspaper headlines, listening to podcasts of Negro League ballplayers, and lining up the true history of the game with that of what is readily available and pushed through the MLB lens.
The fact of the matter is, much of the experience mirrors heavily what black history is in this very country. Separated, and needed to be sought. Often, never talked about to hide or prevent the complete truth in fear of facing the biggest reckoning yet to be dealt with within our nation - racism.
Yes, that is heavy. But again, there is no way around talking about this latest development without laying down some thick and hard-to-hear rhetoric.
It rides on the same track lines of describing Jackie Robinson as "breaking the colored barrier", a much easier, hallow way of describing what Jackie's accomplishment really was, being the first black player that the all-white-MLB allowed to play within their league. So yeah, it's not as triumphant and rosy as the "breaking the color barrier" narrative seems or attempts to carry.
Then again, breaking "the color barrier" is such a stupid description.
The latest merging carries a whole helluva lot of baggage far exceeding the acknowledgment of many great black baseball players beyond Jackie and Hank Aaron. Both of whom are on record as stating there were better ballplayers than them in the Negro Leagues.
Jackie and the Hammer were great - actually, amazing. There is no disputing that. But enduring and progressing was their best attribute and greatest offering to the game. And there were so many others who never were granted that stage - because again, MLB wouldn't let them. Let's repeat that - MLB would not let black players play on their fields. That's the truth, here.
Again, that's what this is about. And that is the ugly truth at the core of this matter. Tabbing "injustices" with no ownership and using phrases such as "elevated" are just more recent "broke the color barrier" phrases.
The Negro Leagues that have been elevated to Major League status. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/iZVhK2bBjg— MLB (@MLB) December 16, 2020
However, it's a start. Though, I'm not sure I completely agree with merging the record books.
The Negro Leagues is an example of black excellence in America that embodies independent innovation and entrepreneurship. The kind of "separate but equal" that - let's call it what it is - drives bigoted white powerful people crazy.
In all forms of life, within black culture, the Negro Leagues is used as the example of what can be accomplished when doors are closed and yes, you are not allowed to participate...or the color barrier wasn't broken as of yet. See it doesn't make sense, does it?
Nonetheless, Black individuals created their own. Established their own. Developed their own. And quite frankly, it is the rarest case within spectrums of our society where that black entity far exceeded the product with the resources within that separate but equal culture/oppressive system.
We gon' start a society within a society,
That's Major, just like the Negro Leagues.
So much of what we see as normal within modern-day baseball and it's operations, were created and founded within the Negro Leagues (i.e. the establishment of night games, in-game entertainment, free agency, and more...).
It also helps the legend grow for some of our already-known MLB legends. As you seek out Negro League history, you learn of Babe Ruth's constant barnstorming with them, to get better, and that he even advocated for integration.
So yeah, wayyyyy more props to the Babe.
There is also a particular reverence that surrounds the Negro Leagues because it thrived on its own. And historians will tell you - even the first-hand witnesses such as Jackie and Hank - that the Negro Leagues rivaled MLB in regards to talent and competitive ability. There is no need to "elevate" anyone in this merger.
So while yes, I am very happy for hundreds of black baseball players who will be discovered by historians and fans for their greatness, as well as the many families who will reap the joy of generational excellence gone far too long unrecognized. I'm looking forward to that. But I'll miss that special pride that Negro Leaguers had in knowing they didn't need MLB.
Of course, there will be the loud uncomfortableness of many who will hold on to what they already know and stubbornly refuse this "change" in their constant "leave the game alone" stance. Their sudden uneasiness expressed via unwritten rule no. 8321 that the purity of the game is being ripped apart at its seams because I won't understand it, will be another round of baseball's much-needed evolution. That should be
fun messy annoying interesting.
With all of that said, I sense merging the books will tarnish that shiny footnote of excellence in our history books - American history. The one that has always been used as an example for oppressed people to go ahead and make one bigger, better, so much so, that they'll need you.
But also, my biggest fear is that many years from now, new historians and fans will look in the books, and that presence of pain and triumph that the Negro Leagues represented will not be there, covered by a false sense of the journey of the past.
Yet, even with a merged history book, it still doesn't exercise the guilt baseball has long carried. or the way it has treated black stakeholders of the game for the duration of its existence.
Because, quite frankly - this right here - is the baseball version of reparations. All of it. The entire thing. Baseball is looking to make this right. I can't knock that at all. Much like the existence of the Negro Leagues served as a microcosm of society, baseball once again is holding a mirror on the mess and the uncomfortableness needed to make things right in our country regarding race and inequality.
For a sport so diverse, MLB and its culture have long carried the flag for appeasing white audiences with emphasized white mythical heroes; an emphasis on maintaining the status quo for "purity of the game"; a deeply rooted inability to mass-market star athletes; an unconditional attachment to it's "unwritten rules" (Did you know: established to make the Negro Leagues seem "uncivilized and unorganized"), and failing attempts to correct declining black participation in the sport.
Even after Jackie, you know, got by that color barrier hurdle in 1947, there were still teams that were not integrated until 1959. Further proof of how slow baseball's acceptance of the color barrier-breaking really was, and just another example of baseball's inability to evolve past its own demons.
But again, I give MLB tons of credit here. It is trying to make things right, following a year where so many were forced to reflect on historical decisions and implications. And for a sport that is historically entrenched and leans itself to a crowd not interested in some of the "messaging" that happened on fields this summer, I respect the stance. Because this is not easy. And it won't be. And, it shouldn't be.
But, I am excited about it.
Welcoming the Negro Leagues is a great first thought. But, just like society, the best way to start this process is by acknowledging the truth. The real truth. Nothing changes until you wrestle with that.
Color barriers weren't "broken". Black players weren't allowed until you deemed they could hang. They weren't seen as equals - not just on the field, but as men. You are now getting around to acknowledging that.
So MLB, Commissioner Manfred, avid fans of Ty Cobb, and those who post your annual #jackierobinsonday photos on social media, I've taken the time to re-do this new campaign. Here is your initial letter to your fan base:
Dear Negro League Ball Players,
Our bad, we didn't let you play. We were wrong. We lead, we were participatory, and we were silent in that injustice against you for so long. You were more than worthy. And we see that now. We see you. Our records going forward will reflect that.
Major League Baseball