Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Just how far has Major League Baseball come (in dealing with racial equality?)

Branch Ricky believed in a greater purpose for professional sports and Major League Baseball when he integrated MLB. Ricky, then the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to a contract in 1946. Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers Triple-A affiliate that year, before beginning a Hall of Fame career with the Dodgers the following year. Arguably the most influential athlete of the 20th century was Robinson. There may have been athletes who may have excelled on their respective playing fields more then Robinson, but without Jackie Robinson there may have never been a Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, or a Jim Brown.

It makes it that much more disconcerting to read reports emerging from Chicago concerning Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker and the hate-filled, racially laced letters the longtime Cubs manager has received.

USA Today’s Bob Nightengale spoke with Baker last week while in Chicago preparing a feature on Baker and the Cubs. Baker read Nightengale a letter he had recently received, a letter filled with racial epithets.

"It's not easy, I ain't lying," says Baker, in the final season of a four-year contract, "but come on, dude, I'm not going to let them beat me up.

"I was already strong and tough when I got here. Now, I'm stronger and tougher. They aren't going to run me out of town."

Baker’s problems have come since the Cubs came ever so close to winning the National League pennant in 2003. The Cubs where within five outs of winning the National League pennant before Steve Bartman made the biggest catch in Florida Marlins history, and challenging for their first World Series since 1908. Cubs’ fans who have affectionately called their team “lovable losers” have been unhappy since.

"The bar got raised, but that's not a bad thing," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry says. "If we had won (the World Series) in 2003, it probably would have changed our lives forever. These last two seasons would have been easier to endure."

There is no excuse for anyone having to endure the pain of having to deal with hate mail (that’s what racially insensitive mail is). As Nightengale made clear in his USA Today report, Baker may have read him one letter, but Baker and other minority MLB players and managers have experienced similar treatment.

Former Cubs center fielder Corey Patterson and former reliever LaTroy Hawkins told Nightengale last year they received similar abuse to what Baker is getting. Cubs’ right fielder Jacque Jones, who had a baseball thrown at him during a game, recently got a threatening early-morning phone call.

"I thought that stuff was over 30 years ago," says Hawkins, who grew up in nearby Gary, Ind. "I had never been exposed to it. ... I couldn't believe people were dropping the 'n-word' on me. People calling your mother a raccoon or you a porch monkey. You can only take so much abuse until you fight back.

"The same thing happening to me is happening to Jacque. To have people threatening to harm us over baseball games just doesn't make sense."

Rondell White who played for the Cubs during parts of the 2000 and 2001 seasons, told The St. Paul Pioneer Press’ Gordon Wittenmyer, he choose not to read any of his fan mail while playing for the Cubs. White punctuated his remarks by referring to Cubs fans (or at least the ones who have taunted and singled out African-American players) as “Some idiot fans”.

It might be easy to suggest the problem is limited to Cubs fans. That is not the case. Twins center fielder Torii Hunter, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press he has experienced racial taunts from fans in Kansas City, Boston and Oakland.

"Boston is worse than most places," said Hunter, whose list of teams in the no-trade clause of his contract includes the Red Sox and the Cubs. Boston was the last Major League Baseball franchise to integrate. The Red Sox signed their first Black baseball player in 1958; 11 years after Robinson played his first MLB game.

"In Minnesota, it's totally different," he said. "I've been there 10 years or so, and I haven't had one problem there."

"I think people have to start growing up about that stuff," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen told Wittenmyer, who said he has received hateful e-mails with ethnic slurs. "It's a shame we're in 2006, and people still talk about that.

"When I get e-mails like that, I just laugh because it doesn't get in my heart. But it's hard to believe in 2006 people still are writing about that."

Guillen, one of two Hispanic managers in MLB (the other is San Francisco Giants manager Felipe Alou) was ordered to attend sensitivity sessions earlier this season after hurling abuse at Chicago Sun Times Jay Mariotti.

As difficult as it may be to rationalize why anyone would still feel the need to attack the dignity of others based on their race, Dr. Harry Edwards an associate professor of sociology at the University of California who also serves as a consultant to the National Football League's San Francisco 49ers, the National Basketball Association's Golden State Warriors and to major league baseball, enlightened The Chicago Tribune’s David Haugh on the treatment leading African American Athletes occasionally have to deal with.

"Whether you were in Philadelphia and got 10 letters or Chicago and got five letters and 12 e-mails, who cares?" he said. "The reality is you have to deal with that, and the organization needs to know. Whoever the manager is, there's always going to be an element that goes beyond the boundaries of race, religion or ethnicity regardless of their coaching style. When things go badly, many people in that element will go to that feature and really rub it in."

He is the author of such books as The Revolt of the Black Athlete; Black Students; The Sociology of Sports; The Struggle That Must Be; and Playing to Win: A Short Guide to Sensible Sports Participation.

"You don't get used to it just because you've been around awhile, and you never get used to someone, anyone, saying, `N__, why don't you get another job?''' said Edwards, an African-American and a longtime consultant with the San Francisco 49ers.”I'm not for absorbing anything quietly."

Edwards, never afraid to tell anyone what he thinks, was critical of Baker three years ago when the Cubs' manager commented about the weather's effect on blacks and Latinos, understands all managers and players receive harsh mail but stressed, "There's a distinction made when there is a racial dimension to it."

There have been those who wish Baker would have never raised the issue of racism still rearing its ugly head in Major League Baseball, be very sure Edwards shouldn’t be included in that group.

"I think (Baker) has not just a right but a responsibility to talk about the letters and say it's not all peaches and cream, and it's something another manager would not have to deal with," Edwards said. "No one is served by acting like this never happened."

The Chicago Tribune’s Haugh spoke with two of the greatest Cubs ever, Mr. Cub Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. Both Banks and Williams are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Both men who played for the Cubs in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s learned all too well how some Cubs fans felt about two African American men being key members of the North Side gang.

"Everyone was looking at how we'd respond," Banks said. "People were very nice (but) kind of standoffish at first. That's why I started talking to people at the ballpark. I was new, and a lot of the fans were skeptical. They'd look and look and look. You felt you were always being watched. It was different."

Banks along with Gene Baker in 1953 became the Cubs' first black players, six years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

"Any letters I got like that, I tore them up once I started to read them and put them in the trash can," Williams said. "It did happen, sure. We're talking about the 1960s. But then and now, I wouldn't characterize it as a problem for all Cubs fans. It's a few people ruining (the perception) for everybody."

Are those who use a man’s race as the focus of how they choose to ridicule that person sports fans – of course not. Edwards had a few parting words well worth sharing in the conversation he had with the Chicago Tribune.

"I'd suggest something in writing saying that when things go bad, you can expect a certain element of the team's audience - I won't dignify them by calling them fans - will turn on you and you will have to manage that," Edwards said. "It's simply part of the business, and it's naive to believe that factor has been eliminated because of the `progress' in civil rights. We are in such a period of incivility right now."

The educational system has adopted a zero tolerance policy when it comes to racially insensitive remarks being used in the school system. Needless to say if the cowards who send hate mail to professional athletes had any courage and signed their names to the letters they send, sports franchises would ban those people for life, as would any sports team. Ignorance never will be an excuse for anyone to behave terribly.

As it’s been well documented European Football (soccer) has had to deal with athletes and fans making very pubic displays of racism. There had been some concerns before the recently completed World Cup racism. For what it’s worth, the World Cup was a magnificent event free of racism.

There is no place anywhere in a society where people have any sense of decency for racism to exist. At the same time it remains vital that the issues Dusty Baker brought up are reported. In discussing the issue of racism and realizing it has no place in sports – the industry is one step closer to ending those dark days.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The Chicago Tribune, USA Today and The St. Paul Pioneer Press