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Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Civil Rights Game

I learned a lot as I watched Major League Baseball's inaugural Civil Rights Game. Of course, as a rabid baseball fan bordering on the psychotic, I knew about how Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby broke the color barrier in their respective leagues. I also know all the sad history of my own beloved Red Sox on this sensitive issue (for a good chronicle of the subject, I recommend Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston by Howard Bryant). I listened to the legendary Frank Robinson talk about being the first African-American manager hired by MLB, then the first fired. I heard C.C. Sabathia, a pitcher with Cleveland, talk thoughtfully about the larger role that African-American players should play in resparking the interest in the game amongst African-American youth. I even enjoyed listening to Joe Morgan, the ESPN commentator, for a change. I've been watching baseball for 30 years, and I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't really pay much attention to the cultural shift in the game, so I was shocked to learn that less than 10% of current major leaguers are African-American, down from over 25% in 1975, and 20% just a decade ago. I certainly noticed the rise in Asian and Hispanic players over the past 10-15 years, but didn't realize that was being accomplished at the expense of African-Americans. Good for MLB for trying to address the issue in a public way, sponsoring a weekend-long event including a panel discussion and awarding the first "Beacon Awards," to honor "contributions to civil rights and historical ties to baseball."
The weekend seemed a success. However, even in this festive atmosphere, racism in the old school mode was still on display. I think it's fair to ask why the major league representatives of the city of Cleveland, participating in this game because of their instrumental role in breaking the American League color barrier, continue to insist on displaying an unattractive caricature of a Native American on their caps. IMO it's long past time for this franchise-and others, including the Washington Redskins, which ironically is the team Howard Bryant left the Herald to cover-to address this issue. Yes, there are those who continue to insist it doesn't offend, but instead glorifies Native Americans, but frankly those arguments sound suspiciously like those who shrilly defend their display of the Confederate flag as a tribute to their "heritage" (yeah, their heritage of slaveholding and attempt to secede from the Union to continue the practice. What's not to be proud of in that?) The image is simply an offensive stereotype, and far beneath the proud city of Cleveland, it's citizens and ballplayers.

It's past time for the franchise and MLB to realize they're talking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue, and when better to do that than during a weekend dedicated to baseball and civil rights? I challenge them to do what my old alma mater and many others have done over the past 10-15 years-review the history and eliminate their role in perpetuating a stereotype.

Heck, maybe the league could even start an outreach program for talented Native American athletes.

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