In the waning days of baseball’s regular season, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell made a decision that would set him apart from his sport. It was a choice that so many in the NFL have made, following the lead of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year and in reaction to the remarks of our 45th president about protests during the national anthem. Maxwell, and Maxwell alone among major leaguers, took a knee during the anthem.
No one else in baseball joined him. When Tampa Bay Rays’ pitcher Chris Archer — the only other ballplayer to suggest doing so — contemplated a protest of his own, teammates successfully dissuaded him. He stayed standing. With that, baseball’s participation in public protest stopped, while in the NFL and NBA, the issues of patriotism and racial injustice have been debated, becoming story lines that will remain as their seasons progress.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred might feel lucky: So far, his postseason has strong ratings boosted by the presence of teams in the American and National League Championship Series from four of the country’s largest television markets. There will be a World Series devoid of drama beyond the field itself. But it will come with a cost.
We are in a moment when people are hailing the return of the politically aware athlete. But Maxwell was the only baseball player on Sports Illustrated’s cover featuring a collage of Roger Goodell, Stephen Curry and others, declaring: “A Nation Divided: Sports United.” And having been spared President Trump’s tweetstorms, baseball found itself once again offstage, happily content to stay away from bigger conversations about race and social justice, about the real meaning of American sports in America.
This wasn’t always the case. Though pro football was the first sport in the modern era to integrate in 1946, it was the emergence of Jackie Robinson at Ebbets Field during the 1947 season that heralded a new era for sporting life in America. It also gave Robinson a pulpit he would use later in life as he fought for the principles of racial justice and integration until his very last days.
But this would prove to be a fleeting moment for a game that has forever been resistant to social change. In 1968, our greatest time of social unrest, baseball did its best to set itself apart. That year, Olympic athletes discussed whether to boycott the games in Mexico City. When sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the medal podium, they were forced to return home. While Muhammad Ali forfeited his heavyweight crown for his refusal to fight in an unjust war, basketball’s Bill Russell and football’s Willie Davis had emerged as defiant voices who demanded to be heard on the issues of the day. Yet baseball players, outside of campaigning for presidential candidates in that year’s election, remained eerily silent.
Baseball’s tight tug to tradition was supremely evident before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series, when the blind Puerto Rican-born singer José Feliciano sat in a chair — in what was not an act of political protest — with his guitar to sing the national anthem with his accompanists standing behind him. His version was a personal one — a sweet, melodious translation of the song performed by a man to whom America had given so much and who was trying to give something back. He had arrived. But now Feliciano would feel the wrath of the very nation he loved for daring to perform the song with an alternate arrangement. The vitriol came almost immediately. There were the boos from fans in the stands. There were those who angrily flooded NBC switchboards in anger. The angry letters from Vietnam veterans who had returned home. For so many, his heartfelt interpretation was viewed as an unpatriotic act of dissent.
Feliciano shouldn’t have been surprised. The game has always done its best to suppress acts of individual expression. As Dave Zirin has pointed out in the Nation, the Mets only signed first baseman Carlos Delgado after he relented in his protest of the Iraq War. And long before Blue Jays outfielder Jose Batista’s controversial bat flip following his home runs (or the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig doing so after anything), baseball has done its best to maintain its unwritten rules on the field and frowned upon those who chose to speak out on anything off it.
The game has remained mum on the actions of those who have. Maxwell’s former Athletics’ teammate, the relief pitcher Sean Doolittle, traded to the Washington Nationals in July, tweeted his disgust over both the actions of white neo-nationalists and the ideas put out by President Trump of “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” But he, too, found himself a lonely voice of outrage within his sport.
There is little doubt how much race plays a part in baseball’s reticence to engage the social issues of the day. A mere 7.7 percent of Major League ballplayers are African American — compared to the NFL’s nearly 70 percent and the NBA’s roughly 75 percent. The issues raised about police brutality and inequality in America have put NFL and NBA athletes in a difficult spot, dismissed by a president who seems to have little regard for the meaning behind their decisions to speak out, to stand or not stand. Meanwhile, as the comedian Chris Rock has aptly noted, baseball at times is forever looking backward to a supposedly simpler past. And that past feels, well, very white.
Meanwhile, today, 31.9 percent of major leaguers are Latino. And while non-Latino fans do celebrate them on the field, in many ways, they remain strangers to us. Language is a factor, of course. With the exception of a few bilingual players like the Los Angeles Angels’ Albert Pujols and the now-retired David Ortiz, we’ve never heard a great number of baseball’s finest talents speak without an interpreter, much less seen them emerge into commercial pitchmen like Peyton Manning. While many Venezuelan players were outspoken in their concern over the great unrest in their home country this year, none have yet risen to be that voice we listen to on issues outside their sport, to hold the sway of LeBron James.
But if baseball has shied away from protest in this country, it’s not only because of the demographics of its players. In the 1960s, Jackie Robinson, forever the crusader, complained that he could only count on a very select few to help further the causes of equality and civil rights. He called out Willie Mays as a “do-nothing Negro.” As the decade came to a close, Robinson, estranged from the game that he had once changed, felt deserted by those who were his heirs. It is too easy, on any level, to see past moments of sports protests as unanimous. Ralph Boston and Jesse Owens refused to support the 1968 boycott movement. Even Robinson, outspoken as he was, would find himself ridiculed by a younger, more militant generation.
We are 49 years removed from Feliciano’s rendition of the anthem. But the game finds itself in very much the same place. Soon there will be a World Series trophy lifted, followed by a parade. And there are those who hope that will be it. But the dialogue about politics and sports will continue to move forward. And one must wonder whether baseball will stay true to its traditions and risk being left behind.