Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 27, 2020

The Great Game Bends Toward Justice

It’s been a long
A long time coming,
But I know a change gonna come,
Oh yes it will.

“A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke’s song of protest and hope with its famous refrain, was released in March 1964, just before that year’s baseball season began. That autumn, the St. Louis Cardinals beat the New York Yankees in seven games to win the World Series. The Cards, without the newly retired Stan Musial for the first time in more than two decades, were sparked by a midseason trade with the Cubs that brought a young outfielder named Lou Brock to Busch Stadium. Brock proceeded to hit .348 in his first half-season wearing a Cardinals uniform and would go on to record more than 3,000 hits and more than 900 stolen bases in his Hall of Fame career. The Yankees’ batting leader was catcher Elston Howard, who posted a .313 average, and New York’s starting rotation included left-hander Al Downing, who led the American League with 217 strikeouts.

More than half a century after the debut of Cooke’s anthem and the exploits of those three black ballplayers, change came to the Great Game earlier this month when Major League Baseball announced that seven Negro Leagues which operated between 1920 and 1948 would be officially recognized as major leagues, meaning that the records of those organization will become part of the official history of baseball at its highest level.

As is always the case with change of any kind in this old sport – there are still fans who insist the designated hitter rule ruined baseball – the addition of the Negro Leagues to the roster of the majors generated some protests. In this season of goodwill, one would like to think the complaints, which centered on the occasionally uncertain record-keeping of the seven organizations, were truly just concerns about statistics of a sport in which so much history is defined by numbers. But while the incorporation of these leagues will add some 3,400 players to the long list of major leaguers, virtually all the Great Game’s most cherished records will remain unchanged. The sole exception is likely to be the mark for single season batting average, long awarded to Hugh Duffy, who hit .440 in 1894 for the Boston Beaneaters, predecessors to the National League franchise now in Atlanta. In 1943, the great Josh Gibson batted .441 while playing for several different Negro League teams.

Aside from possible changes at the top of baseball’s statistical lists, any broader concerns about the accuracy of old records can’t be limited to the Negro Leagues. Duffy’s outstanding year in the final decade of the 19th century included numbers for home runs and RBIs that give him a spot among the ranks of Triple Crown winners. That is, if one accepts that his total of 145 runs batted in was in fact the highest in the majors that year, an assertion that is disputed by some baseball historians. And those fans who contend that the American and National Leagues as we now know them are somehow sacrosanct have apparently forgotten that in 1969, the same belated recognition just accorded to the Negro Leagues was granted to four long-defunct leagues, three from the 19th century plus the short-lived Federal League of 1914-15.

Notwithstanding the holiday spirit, it is also likely that some of the resistance to MLB’s decision is based on deep-seated prejudice, a reality that while lamentable is hardly surprising. The very existence of the Negro Leagues, which were a direct result of baseball’s long commitment to racial exclusion, makes that self-evident. While decades have passed since Jackie Robinson broke what for so long seemed like an impenetrable barrier, and in doing rang the death knell of the organizations that are finally being given their due, we see regular evidence that our society still has far to go to atone for the nation’s original sin. For better and worse, the Great Game has always reflected the larger culture in which it is played.

So it was that in 1971, seven years after Cooke’s song and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and decades after Robinson first took the field in Brooklyn, when Satchel Paige was elected to the Hall of Fame his plaque was originally to be placed in a separate wing of baseball’s historical temple. One year after that tone deaf incident and just weeks before his death, Robinson used the occasion of an appearance at the 1972 World Series to lament the lack of racial diversity in the game’s managerial ranks and front offices. Nearly half a century later, Jackie’s final indictment of the game he loved is only slightly less valid than it was when he issued it.

That there is more to be done doesn’t diminish the magnitude of this month’s announcement. A final criticism has been that it is just symbolism, but the adverb is misplaced. Symbolism isn’t “just” or “mere,” because symbols are inherently important. Whether designating the name of a team or the status of a league, symbols convey clear and immediate meaning. Every baseball fan knows that, for numbers – statistics – are themselves symbols. The symbolism of recognizing as major leaguers the ballplayers who wore the uniforms of the Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays and New York Black Yankees and all the other teams of the Negro Leagues is profound. While it has been a long time coming, change has come to the Great Game. But in celebrating that change we dare not forget that the work is not over. The struggle to form a more perfect union, in sports and in life, goes on.

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