The White Man has Jackie Robinson with him always. Wake any honky of a certain age in the wee hours and ask him about “Jackie.” Before that man opens his eyes, he will tell you about “hustle,” about “grit,” about “determination,” about having “the guts not to fight back.” There’s just something about Robinson’s lonely struggle Against All Odds that reminds aging white men of… themselves.
Robinson is also The White Man’s balm. Here is one of the worst white men of the American Century on No. 42:
Whenever some bigot would say something, you could always cite Jackie Robinson. You know, if you were arguing the integration side of the argument, you could always play the Jackie Robinson card and watch the big husky redneck shut up because there was nothing they could say.
Awfully kind of Robinson to endure death threats, on-field assaults and fastballs to the head so that America’s First Black President could “play the Jackie Robinson card.” (Before any of you Clintonoids start bleating your weak-ass apologetics, think about your man’s racial “legacy” for Ricky Ray Rector minutes.)
Medals of defeat
Today is the 74th anniversary of the day Robinson first put on the Dodger blue and took to Ebbets Field. Jackie Robinson Day is one of the few things the constipated plutocrats in Major League Baseball get mostly right. Every player who takes the field today will wear Robinson’s 42. There will be a few words from aging notables, and then they’ll play ball. Like the man himself, the tone of the day is stoic, workmanlike.
The tone of the rhetoric, on the other hand, could make a maggot gag. Those aging notables—maybe even that Big, Wet Guy mentioned above—will remind us how Far We’ve Come, and (pretty sure I’ve got this right) … how Far We Have to Go. The daring will mention the late unpleasantness down in Georgia. If we’re really lucky, some player will make a dumb-ass comment about Robinson. Then we’ll get to watch those sleepy white dudes wag their fingers and click their tongues in a free-floating circle jerk.
Major League Baseball wants us to see all those No. 42s as a badge of their honor. It’s fair to see them also as medals of our defeat.
The league celebrates Jackie Robinson Day mostly because of Jerry Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf has been chairman of the Chicago White Sox since 1981. He grew up in Brooklyn, a starry-eyed fanatic of his much-missed Bums. Jackie Robinson remains one of his heroes.
Like Jackie Robinson, Jerry Reinsdorf is a transitional, even transformational, figure in baseball history. Unlike Jackie Robinson, Jerry Reinsdorf is a transitional, even transformational, figure in ways few people will ever celebrate.
Start with his title: The Chairman. When Reinsdorf took over the Sox, he did so as leader of an ownership group. Baseball plutocrats had chipped in to buy teams before, of course, but Reinsdorf and his hoplites were the phalanx of a new, professional and professionalizing ownership class. If it seems now ordinary that baseball teams offer skyboxes so that the smegma class can be undisturbed by the unwashed, demand that those same unwashed pay for their stadia and hold the unwashed hostage in their disputes with cable “providers,” you’ve mostly got Reinsdorf to thank for that.
On its own terms, Reinsdorf’s revolution “worked.” He bought the White Sox for around $20 million in 1981. Adjust it for inflation, that’s nearly $64 million in today’s dollars. The team is now “valued” north of $1.3 billion. There’s not a team in the league that’s valued south of $1 billion.
Having taught the world to see baseball as a form of revenue, though, Reinsdorf opened the door for the vampires. Baseball owners have never been model citizens. Today’s collection of bloodless ghouls can’t even manage to be interesting. They know nothing—and care even less—about the game at which they suck joylessly.
Things will get worse. The New York Mets are now in the hands of Steve Cohen, a hedge fund vulture last seen by the big public when he wrote the largest check ever to the SEC for insider trading. Just wait. We will yet live to see oil sheikhs, Russian oligarchs and other such vermin befouling those skyboxes.
The class struggle
One consequence of Reinsdorf’s revolution-from-above is that it has helped make it impossible to play the kind of baseball at which Jackie Robinson excelled. In the early aughts, the parasite owners, looking for competitive advantage to maximize their revenues, took counsel from volunteer stat geeks. The Moneyball approach taught us all that stolen bases, bunted balls and sharply hit liners to opposite field were folly. Getting guys to work counts, draw walks and—best of all—hit the ball over the fence were the Thing. The stats revolution, in its turn, has led directly to modern baseball’s two crises.
The first crisis is a class one. Advanced analytics began as a way to gain advantage on the field. It has ended as a way to hold down players’ wages. Wins Above Replacement, OPS, and the like have enabled the owners to collude with each other out in the open. The league’s contract with the players’ union expires after this season. Most of the aging white men who still watch baseball agree that this thing will get ugly.
Thing is, Major League Baseball still hasn’t recovered from its last war over collusion. Part of the reason that baseball’s fandom is so old and so white is that the league basically told a rising generation of fans to fuck off in 1994. If Jackie Robinson Day doesn’t feel like that big of a deal anymore, it’s partially because baseball is no longer that big of a deal. One of the central villains in ’94, of course, was Jerry Reinsdorf.
The boring struggle
The second crisis of Major League Baseball is what the owner types call “pace of play.” Because advanced analytics dictate that hitters should hit home runs and pitchers should strike out batters, modern games are steaming piles of strike outs, with the occasional homer sprinkled in. It bores even middle-aged white men.
By the same analytical standards, a player like Robinson wouldn’t be allowed to take the field, let alone get into the Hall of Fame. Have a glance at Robinson’s 10 similarity scores. Exactly one of those comparable players is in the Hall. That man last saw a pitch before there was television. All that grit, all that hustle, all that determination (if not quite all that having of the guts): modern baseball has tossed it on the ash heap of history.
Because baseball is run by wanton meat sacks, owners are determined to make a mystery of all this. The simplest and therefore best solution to baseball’s “pace of play” problem—move the fences back in every direction (including in foul territory)—is axiomatically impossible. What, scale back the Summer’s Eve Premium Plus Choice Preferred Option Platinum Sky Seats in Section K-Y Promescent Delay Spray of Doc Johnson Field at Napalm Memorial Park? Revenues are at stake, man!
The racial struggle
This by no means exhausts the contradictions of Jackie Robinson Day. It is true that Robinson “broke the color barrier.” In breaking that barrier, Jackie Robinson showed Americans, demonstrably if not conclusively, how much is lost when they commit to their racism. Baseball got better because it integrated. (I mean, just imagine what Satchel Paige would have done to that league over a full career).
Baseball has gotten better because it has continued to integrate. If you thought the fans of 1947 were awful to Robinson, imagine what they would have made of someone like Shohei Ohtani, just two summers after Hiroshima.
Yet, in breaking the color barrier, Robinson also helped usher in the destruction of the Negro Leagues. That destroyed a lot of Black wealth. Today, there are 160 professional baseball teams in North America. Exactly one of them is owned by a Black man. He got in last year. (It’s an argument for another day about whether Black exploitation of workers can, does or even should mean progress.)
It is true that in breaking the color barrier, Robinson helped a great many Black players attain generational wealth. It took a while, but it happened. If we’re celebrating players’ wages, though, we ought also to tip our caps to Curt Flood. Hard to see old Reindorf getting moist about that promotion.
The pain-making mensch
By all accounts, Jerry Reinsdorf is a mensch. He’s fiercely loyal and painfully generous. In that regard, he really is the avatar of his dying class: The kindly, father-figure plutocrat, a Fezziwig who knows the Infield Fly Rule.
His heartfelt commitment to Robinson’s legacy is equally poignant. It recalls the heady days of Reinsdorf’s youth when Blacks and Jews made common cause in the struggle for human dignity. That, too, feels quaint, even ancient. (I can’t resist adding: Reinsdorf’s fellow feeling for his Black brothers and sisters didn’t stop him from hiring a racist, drunken old coot to run his team. Only Jerry Reinsdorf can make being a mensch painful.)
In closing, let me do what so few middle-aged white men do on this day: Let Jackie Robinson speak for himself. “As I write this 20 years later,” he recalled towards the end of his too-short life, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, in 1919 at my birth, I know that I never had it made.”
The caps that tip today are also standards that have fallen. Happy Jackie Robinson Day.