Racism in Baseball isn't Going Anywhere
Ex-pitcher Dirk Hayhurst explains how pro baseball, from the minor leagues on up, tries to make Latino players conform to white American values.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
"We're opening this game to everyone that can play. However, if you're going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years..."
This may sound like the kind of thing you'd hear during one of Donald Trump's campaign speeches, but it was actually said by current major leaguer Bud Norris. Alas, many white American players share Norris' beliefs, which may explain why 82 percent of brawls in the last five seasons have pitted different ethnic groups against each other, primarily white and Latino players, according to a story this week in USA Today. It begs the question: Is there racism in baseball?
Absolutely, and worst of all, it's disguised as crucial to the success of the operation. Major League Baseball can expand into more countries and open the league up to more foreign born players than ever before, and yet still give off the persistent drone of racism because its dominant representation on the field are still white, American-born players. In 2014, 26.3 percent of players on opening day rosters were born outside the U.S. Only 8.3 percent of the American-born players that season were black.
Essentially, you have a predominantly white player base. And these players will tell you that the forced conformity to white American baseball values isn't racist, it's simply protecting the sanctity of something bigger than all of us: The Game.
Hence Norris's next point: "I understand you want to say it's a cultural thing or an upbringing thing. But by the time you get to the big leagues, you better have a pretty good understanding of what this league is and how long it's been around.'' Translation: We're glad you're here, foreigner, but you'd better check your culture at the door or get really good at ducking.
But don't worry that a young Latino player might make it to the big leagues too quickly before learning about Norris' "league." The teaching process starts early, and extends well beyond the playing field.
In minor league spring training locker rooms, bodies are everywhere; white, black, Latino, Asian—lots of culture for the melting pot. Unfortunately there is only one clubhouse radio, and when that radio is playing Reggaeton, the white players say, "it's been taken over by the Latinos."
There is only one volume in a locker room: loud as fuck. And when that distinctive Latin rhythm pulses through the room with a layer of Spanish rap, the Latino players move to it like they all share the same heartbeat, while the white players grumble at their changing stools.
Then it happens: Lesson number 1. A white upperclassmen with too many years at the same low level stands up and kills the beat. The Latino players turn in outraged unison. The white player stares them down, and with that fearless sensibility born from entitlement, declares, "Hey, Reggaeton, es no bueno. America! English music!"
And that, dear Latino player, is a lesson you can apply to every single aspect of your life in American baseball: your music, your dress, your emotions, your playing style. If any of it ever offends one of the locals, the rationale is always, "Hey! America! Our country, our music, our money, our way!"
Let freedom ring.
Make no mistake, baseball is a cultural thing. All sports are cultural things. They are extensions of culture, not benchmarks of gentrification. In blurring this distinction, baseball has created a system where the most commonly exercised right by big leaguers is the right to seek frontier justice after they've been offended, whether it be across cultural lines or among teammates, as it was with Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon.
It's only in tangling a concept like "playing the game the right way" into race that a guy like Bud Norris can drape himself in the American flag and say he's doing all his countrymen a solid. Worse, it's how he and others like him can insinuate that unpunished flashy or emotional play will lead to the destruction of what we hold dear: By god, just think about how horrible our sport would be if players showed emotion!
Actually, more emotion might lead to more kids playing baseball. You think this bullshit doesn't trickle down through the sport, from professional, to amateur, to youth? You think kids don't notice 65 brawls in five years?
It's not the sluggish pace of game that keeps kids away. It's the homogenization. The league has representation across the racial spectrum because, as Norris says, the doors are open to other countries. But players from those countries are discouraged from expressing their individuality. The game stays white, no matter who plays it.
It will get worse before it gets better. Baseball is becoming, at least on the surface, more diverse, and it will keep doing so into the foreseeable future. As baseball expands abroad, so too will it expand its cultural pallet. The way the game is played will change, and there is absolutely nothing anyone will be able to do about it besides bean-ball and bitch.
Actually, there is one other solution. In 1869, more than one 100 years before Bud Norris' comments, for which he apologized yesterday, baseball saw the arrival of its first Latino player: Estevan Enrique "Steve" Bellán. His nickname was "The Cuban Sylph," derived from his "elegant and stylistic play as a third baseman."
Why didn't they bean-ball Bellán's playing into submission? Because in 1869, pitchers threw underhand. Take that, you flashy, foreign bastard!