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Wiley's Sotto Voce, Super Genius...Not!
2003-07-17 16:30
by Mike Carminati

We're about to discuss "race", Ralph Wiley, and writing.

So bring a snack of some sort. And a beverage in case you get thirsty. Also, please remember to bus your table and to floss afterwards.

First, for such a well-known sports journalist, Wiley makes Peter Gammons seem concise and cogent. This article is so scattershot that it's difficult to determine who or what is at the root of the problem.

Is it Bill James for dissing the African-American stat, stolen bases? Is it Alvin Dark who evidently, like Nigel Tufnel, would have chosen haberdashery for an alternate career path? Is it the media for hounding Barry Bonds because of his race? Is it the All-Star voters for ignoring African-Americans? Is it Webster's for not defining "African-American" so as to exclude Latins of African decent from the rubric? Is it the Chicago sports writers for goading Dusty Baker into saying ill-informed racial statements? Is it the Little League coaches? Is it the unnamed writer from 25 years ago who hazarded to point out that African-Americans were a shrinking population in Major League Baseball, even though that is the thrust of Wiley's article? Is it his editor, who apparently does not even scan his laborious screed? Is it ESPN for paying him to document his mental felo-de-se? Or maybe as Wiley indicates, "this dogged resentment comes from blacks the notion that doing well in school is 'acting white.'"

The only problem is that Wiley seems to name most of the culprits in the list above and like Oliver Stone's JFK makes them all part of some sort of worldwide conspiracy.

One thing is for sure in Wiley's tendentious universe, though "he is no anthropologist" and he may need "to think a little more before he speaks", it's not Dusty Baker's fault:

[B]ecause Italians often comment and joke about Italian stereotypes or predilections or history -- likewise the Irish, or whomever [sic]-- but when you say blacks and minority people can take the heat better, because that's what black people were specifically brought over here for, it allows bigots room.

Ironic, because something else was going on there, I felt. I felt Dusty's comments were a reaction to a perceived threat... I do know Dusty knows baseball exceedingly well, and something of the historical role of black players in baseball; after all, he was on the Braves team when Hank Aaron...was chasing the Babe's home run record.

I also know going from managing in northern California to managing on the north side of Chicago is a quantum leap backward sociologically... [w]e didn't hear what all was said to Dusty, or about Dusty, leading up to his out-of-the-blue statement that sounded to me like a man trying to back people saying, "Back up off me, now."

That's just my gut feeling.

First, how racist is it to characterize Italians as people who "joke about Italian stereotypes"? Didn't Wiley hear how upset some Italian-Americans were with the stereotypes on The Sopranos?

There's a nice shot at Chicago and its writers for goading Baker into the ill-advised remarks. However, here is what Baker said from the ESPN article:

"It's easier for most Latin guys and it's easier for most minority people because most of us come from heat. You don't find too many brothers in New Hampshire and Maine and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Right?" he said with a chuckle.
"We were brought over here for the heat, right? Isn't that history? Weren't we brought over because we could take the heat?"
"Your skin color is more conducive to heat than it is to the lighter-skinned people. I don't see brothers running around burnt," Baker said before the Cubs beat St. Louis at Wrigley. "That's a fact. I'm not making this up. I'm not seeing some brothers walking around with some white stuff on their ears and noses."

Here is a man at home with the writers, joking and expounding. Where's the "Back up off me, now"-ness? Baker seems far from threatened. The only person who seems threatened is Wiley and he projects that onto Baker. That's just my gut feeling.

Lastly, how does playing with Hank Aaron make one an expert in African-American baseball history? There had been over a hundred years of such history that preceded Aaron's historic run at the HR record. Then again, Wiley seems a novice when it comes to African-American baseball history:

Rube Foster's Chicago American Giants of the original Negro National League [was] formed because blacks were said to be unfit for duty in the bigs. Couldn't handle pressure.

Foster happens to be a hero of mine and I have read most that has been written about or by-he had a semi-regular gig with the Chicago Defender-him. Not only was his league NOT "formed because blacks were said to be unfit for duty in the bigs", Foster wanted to develop a league that would excel on its own and potentially subsume the majors. His letterhead read, "We are the ship, all else the sea", and he meant it. I'm sure that he preferred his disciplined and well-coached brand of baseball to the majors at the time.

Besides, when African-Americans were originally barred from organized baseball it had nothing to do with their abilities or inability to "handle pressure". It was because some white players couldn't countenance playing alongside or against them. This evolved viewpoint predates professional baseball as the African-American Pythian club from Philadelphia was denied entrance into the amateur grandfather to the National League, the National Association of Base Ball Players, in 1867. Since some felt strongly on both sides of the issue, it was speciously resolved that barring the club was the only fair solution so that no one would be offended.

Nineteenth-century African-American stars George Stovey, Fleet Walker, Frank Grant, and Bud Fowler were not viewed as inferior ballplayers. Stovey still holds the International League record with 34 wins. And the antics of Cap Anson employed in removing African-American players from games with his Chicago club demonstrate that he didn't want a valuable weapon such as Stovey available on the opposing club. These men excelled in their various leagues as baseball worked to restrict African-Americans from the organized game. The fact that they excelled appears to have precipitated their exile.

Not only does Wiley lack a basic understanding of the issues of race in baseball from an historical viewpoint. He has difficulty grabbling with the current issues. He prattles on about All-Star rosters without realizing that they are such a small sample that it's difficult to say that their racial makeup has any meaning. He mentions that there are a number of international players in baseball, but still maintains that there is an underlying problem:

The beauty of the game of baseball is this egalitarian inevitability, with everything else being equal.

Which, of course, everything else never is.

Another beauty of baseball is that it is played out of time, which can be both a bad thing...or a good thing...

Baseball has a Problem, a deeply rooted Problem, but it is not the pace of the game, or the performance or interest level of any human sub-grouping; no, it is baseball's uneasy truce with the social construct called race.

Well, I agree with the last statement, but I don't agree with how he got there. Aside from the appallingly poor writing style ("Another beauty of baseball...", "Which, of course, everything else never is", etc.), Wiley takes the egalitarianism of baseball and somehow twists it into another form of established "ways and mores" which evince racism. Is the NBA racist for employing Dikembe Mutumbo and other international players? Why does he single out baseball for similarly going more international?

My main problem with race in baseball is with the lack of managerial and general manager positions filled by African-Americans and Latins, when clearly there are qualified candidates who go under-employed (Willie Randolph and Chris Chambliss come to mind). Also, the majors hiring strategy only serves to pay lip service to any notion of equal opportunity in these positions. Of course, Wiley sees this differently:

Unfortunately, the people who run baseball on all levels below the big-league level are not the most egalitarian sort (although it must be said that I think Bud Selig is) and big-league baseball has come a long way in terms of the field manager position, and a good way in the front-office positions of the structure of MLB itself, and some piece of a short way -- OK, right into a solid brick wall on all sides and a steel ceiling above -- in the front-office positions of the individual teams.

It seems that Wiley's main beef in this whole piece is that his son Cole, "an 'American-born black'" was dissuaded from playing high-school ball because "after playing for four years, and contributing in the state semifinal title game of his senior year, he got sat down for a junior whose dad had made more concrete fiscal contributions to the team than my lowly 250 bucks." Well, if that was the reason, how many games did he lose? Maybe one, the state final title game. And Wiley devotes about two printed pages to the injustice apparent in the high school ranks. Witness this passage as dense as a snippet from Finnegan's Wake:

[B]ut before it was over, I wanted him to have the experience of playing ball in Oakland, so that he could just play, and not worry about all these other ramifications of who wanted him to play well, who was threatened by him playing well, being the only black kid on the bus going to play, being judged by the standard of Willie Mays, etc.

Sheez, talk about an overbearing father, transplanting his kid from one coast to the other to fulfill his, the father's, dream to play ball in a more racially stimulating environment. That must have cost more than "250 bucks".

Before Wiley is through he trounces the self-purportedly egalitarian sabermetricians, whom he identifies as "sabermatricians, and their Grand Wizard, Bill James. Apparently, James and his coterie are using statistics in a biased and racist manner:

It is usually the American-born blacks' records and place that are resented instead of celebrated. For example, it's the stolen base that is denigrated as a weapon by baseball sabermaticians [sic] like Bill James, at precisely the time when a Rickey Henderson steals 130 bases in a season. There are sour grapes when a baseball man uses stats to tell you a stolen base isn't important. Any time a baseball manager will give up an out for a base, as with a sac bunt or groundball to the right side, any time a base is so precious, then it goes without saying that the stolen base must be important. Not the CS, the caught stealing, or stats of success rates, but the stolen base itself.

So Rickey Henderson becomes, in the media and our oral history of the day, a bad guy, "this guy," who did something meaningless, and refers to himself in the third person and, oh yeah (with a decidedly sour look), maybe the best leadoff hitter ever, whatever that means. Barry Bonds becomes somebody who is excoriated for the limitations of his personality, even though we do not know him as a late-night talk-show host, but as a big-league baseball player. That skill set is all that should matter. But anything to keep from judging him on those merits. Look at the personalities of most timeless baseball stars; Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio -- none of them was a day at the beach.

But not being a day at the beach becomes Bonds' full metal straitjacket.

So Bonds is "acting white" and that's why the media doesn't like him...huh?

My friend Murray started a little email trail on this confounding passage. Chris DeRosa had the article to which Wiley alluded, from his old magazine SI:

Yes, I have the Sept. 6, 1982 article from SI. It is entitled "So What's All the Fuss?"
It's typically enlightening. It starts with a history of the steal coming and going throughout baseball histroy, pointing out along the way that steals came back in the late 50s, not in '62 with Wills. He theorizes that in the 50s, teams cheated too far in loading up on catchers who could hit but not throw, and therefore, you had a tipping point where steals suddenly came cheap. He also writes about the steal as a stylistic import from the Negro leagues, noting that since 1953, every major league steals leader was black or Latino; and the impact of the pitcher's era and artificial turf. He credits Lou Brock with pioneering the rolling start (the modern technique), an improvement on Wills's emphasis on getting a big lead. In short, he displays a deeper grasp of the mechanics of a stolen base than Ralph Wiley does on Page 2.
To the Henderson comments: "... Henderson is an amazing ballplayer. As an offensive force, he's greater than either Wills or Brock--incomparably greater than any other leadoff man of this century." No sour faced admission, he goes on about this for a page, talking about how Rickey had a chance to break Earle Combs's AL record for runs scored by a leadoff man, despite playing for the 1982 A's rather than the 1927 Yankees; and the likelihood of his annexing a variety of stealing records.
Only then does he turn to the thesis: "Yet for all the fame they're bringing him, Henderson's stolen base exploits this year have done virtually nothing to help his team from a dismal fate." Then he gives what is now a standard sabermetric corrective to the exaggerated value of the stolen base then current.

Chris also points out that "James ranks Henderson the #4 left fielder of all time, and the #26 player of all time, right between Turkey Steanes and Pop Lloyd" (two old Negro Leaguers, by the way). So James is not being biased against African-Americans in general or Henderson specifically. He is simply biased against stolen bases from a pure perspective of economy of outs. Wiley's invocation of the sac bunt a manager-preferred style to rehabilitate and legitimize the stolen base statistic only evokes peals of laughter from the sabermetric crowd.

By the way, Peter Dizikes also alertly points out that Wiley "does not even reference the recent lengthy Sports Illustrated piece on the decline in the numbers of African-American players, which is the main reason he can say, "the question is now being asked anew: 'Why have American-born blacks disengaged from baseball?'" Ralph Wiley's typical day: read his old magazine, get idea for piece, fail to reference it in dot-com column."

So what are we left with? I can only advise Wiley that his problems-at least his perceived problems-are not in the stars but in his own self. Aside from denigrating those Chico Marx-inspired, jovially self-mocking Italians, he maligns the apparently white kid who spelled his son for the state title game: "we lost because the extra-base hit from what was his spot, to deliver the runner from first base with two ours in the last inning, did not come" (don't ask me to explain his grammar/sentence structure/full intended meaning though). He feels that the entire system is endemically racist:

[I]f you wait for the structure of the game itself below the big-league level to welcome you, good luck. It probably won't happen. This may be out of self-interest -- white guys who become coaches because they have sons who are playing also have benefactors contributing dollars to their leagues who have sons, and those sons have friends, mostly who are like them, so their spots in the game are respected and protected. Which may drive out the black kid who shows up solo with a glove and a paper bag lunch and gets sneered at.

Wow, he paints a sort of racist Rockwellian picture of America. I'm not saying that racism doesn't exist at this level but how does having a son in high school ball make him an expert on the entire system?

College ball is even more racist in Wiley's estimation:

[I]f you look at college baseball, you see few schools recruit blacks, and it may be just as well, since as Richard Lapchick's latest study shows, college baseball graduation rates are almost nonexistent, not only worse than football or basketball grad rates, but worse by far. College baseball is just another form of minor-league baseball, developing possible talent for the major leagues, and very few young black players are recruited into it.

So not only does he see college ball as racist, perhaps because it is predominately white (I do not have any data on this, one way or the other, just his evidence). He feels compelled to point out that those ballplayers have a lower graduation rate than football and basketball programs, which, as it so happens, are predominately peopled with African-American players. It attempts to chalk it up to college ball being a "form of minor-league baseball", but that is far truer in the other sports, which do not have a strong minor-league system. Isn't this a thinly veiled attack on the intellect of these allegedly predominately white baseball programs?

Look, there are real problems of race in baseball. Rube Foster's efforts helped to establish that a sport owned and managed predominately by African-Americans can be a successful undertaking. Major League baseball, though it extremely belatedly embraced African-American players, has yet to embrace the race completely in the managerial and ownership ranks. Also, to this day Foster is the only owner, executive, or manager of a Negro League team to have been elected to the Hall of Fame and his playing career more than warranted enshrinement. (I have a soft spot for his American Giant successor "Gentleman" Dave Malarcher for one.)

There are plenty of axes to grind in the sport as far as race is concerned. There's no reason to invent ones based on old journalistic grudges and personal slights (or personal slights to one's son). It's alarming that Wiley would rather grind his personal axes than to contribute to a worthwhile dialog on the issue when he so fervently cares about the issue.

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