Lessons from a ‘white man’s’ game

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Stephen J.K. Wal­ters Stephen J.K. Wal­ters teaches sports economics at Loy­ola Univer­sity Mary­land and is the author of Boom Towns: Restor­ing the Ur­ban Amer­i­can Dream. His e-mail is swal­ters@loy­ola.edu.

When Bal­ti­more Ori­oles out­fielder Adam Jones opined re­cently that base­ball is a “white man’s sport,” and thus its play­ers were not join­ing in protests about racial in­jus­tice, both praise and scorn were heaped upon him.

On the left, he was por­trayed as an­other brave voice speak­ing truth to power: Blacks are 13 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion but only 8 per­cent of ballplay­ers and 7 per­cent of man­agers — surely an­other sign of struc­tural racism. On the right, Mr. Jones and the man he de­fended for kneel­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them, 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick, were slammed as un­pa­tri­otic and un­grate­ful for the riches and celebrity they en­joy.

With racial ten­sions run­ning high, this is a teach­able mo­ment. We can learn a lot about Amer­ica’s racial past and present from sports, es­pe­cially base­ball. Un­for­tu­nately, the rhetoric on all sides is so over­heated that it is ob­scur­ing rather than il­lu­mi­nat­ing some im­por­tant lessons.

Base­ball, like Amer­ica, was in­deed once seg­re­gated. How that came about — and how things might have turned out dif­fer­ently — is an in­ter­est­ing story in it­self.

In the years af­ter the Civil War, there was am­ple racial bias even in the North, but also pock­ets where pro­gres­sive views pre­vailed. A key but short-lived vic­tory for in­te­gra­tion oc­curred on a base­ball di­a­mond in Toledo in 1883.

The Toledo club, which in­cluded a black catcher named Moses Fleet­wood Walker, was due to play the Chicago White Stock­ings, led by the most fa­mous player in the game, Cap An­son. When the racist An­son saw Walker, he threat­ened not to play. The Toledo man­ager counter-threat­ened to can­cel the game, which would cost An­son and his team­mates their gate re­ceipts. Both Walker and An­son played.

Soon, pro base­ball had enough black play­ers that the pe­ri­od­i­cal Sport­ing Life opined that “at the present rate of progress the In­ter­na­tional League may ere many moons change its name to ‘Col­ored League.’ ” In 1887, John Mont­gomery Ward, the New York Giants’ star short­stop, lob­bied team man­age­ment to trade Walker for a splen­did black pitcher named Ge­orge Stovey, the bet­ter to take down An­son’s White Stock­ings, who had won the last two Na­tional League pen­nants.

But it was not to be, for An­son had by then per­suaded many of his fel­low white play­ers that blacks posed a threat to their jobs. They promised boy­cotts if own­ers in­te­grated their work­place, so the own­ers soon im­ple­mented a “gen­tle­man’s agree­ment” not to do so.

Given base­ball’s sta­tus as the na­tional pas­time, it is both tempt­ing and frus­trat­ing to con­tem­plate how much more rapidly Amer­ica would have made racial progress if An­son and his ilk had not “tri­umphed” in this way. In­te­gra­tion was de­layed by over a half-cen­tury — and it came not by force of law or reg­u­la­tion, but thanks to old­fash­ioned, cap­i­tal­ist com­pe­ti­tion.

It’s com­mon to hear these days that we live in a racist so­ci­ety. More ac­cu­rately, peo­ple have vary­ing sen­ti­ments about race — we are on a spec­trum, so to speak, from “bigot” to “ally.” The late No­bel Prizewin­ning econ­o­mist Gary Becker taught us that, given such “het­ero­ge­neous tastes for dis­crim­i­na­tion,” com­pet­i­tive mar­kets could pun­ish prej­u­diced em­ploy­ers and di­min­ish the ef­fects of their bi­ases. Base­ball proved his the­sis.

In 1946, Brook­lyn Dodgers ex­ec­u­tive Branch Rickey, like Monte Ward be­fore him, was a man of good will look­ing for a way to win ball­games and make money. Given the in­aptly-named “gen­tle­man’s agree­ment,” there was a large pool of supremely tal­ented play­ers that his moreprej­u­diced ri­vals over­looked.

Rickey took ad­van­tage: He hired Jackie Robin­son, who would lead the Dodgers to six pen­nants over a 10-year ca­reer while bravely en­dur­ing racial in­vec­tive from some fans and other play­ers. This not only pun­ished those ri­vals on the field but taught them the er­ror of their ways: In­dulging in racial bias put one at a huge com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage.

So equal-op­por­tu­nity hir­ing spread. Not as quickly or uni­formly as it should have, surely, but by the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 out­lawed dis­crim­i­na­tion in the work­place, al­most 12 per­cent of big-league play­ers were black, and 9 per­cent were other racial mi­nori­ties. To­day, mi­nori­ties hold 36 per­cent of ma­jor-league jobs. The les­son is clear: While cap­i­tal­ism and racism are of­ten held up as equally con­temptible, base­ball’s his­tory — though as trou­bling on race as is the rest of Amer­ica’s — puts the lie to that; mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion made dis­crim­i­na­tion un­wise and un­prof­itable long be­fore it was il­le­gal.

Cap­i­tal­ism is there­fore not the en­emy of racial progress, but one of its most im­por­tant al­lies.

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