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Conversations: Essayist Gerald Early talks baseball, race, class

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2011 - The fact that noted St. Louis author and essayist Gerald Early is a baseball fan comes as no surprise to the millions of Americans who have viewed filmmaker Ken Burns' popular PBS documentaries on baseball and jazz. Early, who served as a consultant and commentator on the Burns documentaries, has written extensively on both subjects.

With the start of a new season and Major League Baseball's annual celebration of Jackie Robinson Day, we were intrigued by Early's perspectives on the declining numbers of African Americans in the sport, a much-talked-about subject in recent years.

"The real reason black Americans don't play baseball is that they don't want to," Early wrote in an article titled "Where Have We Gone, Mr. Robinson," published in Time magazine in April 2007, the 60th anniversary of Robinson's breaking of the color line. Robinson became the first black player in the major leagues when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947; the milestone is now celebrated in America's baseball stadiums every April 15.

Early was responding to various socio-economic explanations for the game's slippage in the black community: from a lack of green space and the expense of equipment to concerns that team scouts don't go into black neighborhoods or that Major League Baseball has a racist structure working against black athletes.

"Let me put it like this," he said during a recent interview with the Beacon. "There may be some structures there, but by and large, I think black people are opting out and choosing not to play. They're making a choice."

I think there are only three things that America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music and baseball. They're the three most beautifully designed things this culture has ever produced. -- Gerald Early

Early points to the rise of the Negro Leagues in the 1920s and 1930s, when black athletes did choose to play baseball — under extremely difficult conditions.

"Society was more racist, more segregated," Early said. "It was difficult to organize leagues and find venues to play, but they were determined to do this. It was a choice that people made then: They wanted to organize leagues and play a version of professional baseball because they wanted to eventually integrate baseball. That was one of the driving forces."

Early, a professor of African-American and American culture studies at Washington University, also serves on the national advisory board of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.

He emphasizes that playing -- or watching -- baseball is a matter of choice.

"A lot of times when people talk about racism, they tend to look at black people as if they have no agency or they don't make choices," Early said. "Every economist will tell you that everyone makes choices. Now, some people have a better range of choices than other people do, but everyone makes choices. Black people are making a choice."

Growing Up on the Diamond

Times have changed, Early said, and young African Americans have a number of reasons they aren't as attracted to baseball.

"A lot of young people think the game is slow and boring," he said. "And if you don't have older people in your family or around you who are steering you toward being a fan of the game, then you won't be a fan of the game. Since you don't see a lot of black people at games, you can assume that there are not a lot of older black people who are steering young people to it. It's not that they hate the game, they aren't as enthusiastic about it as other sports."

Early, 58, said he grew up playing baseball as a child in Philadelphia, his appreciation of the game handed down by his uncles and grandfather.

"As a kid it was really appealing to me. I thought it was wonderful to be taken to a game. To see that field and how big and green it was. I thought the uniforms of the players were really colorful," he said. "Those guys on the field were larger than life to me, and I thought it was an incredible game. It never struck me as being slow. What to other people were boring aspects of the game, I felt were really interesting and strategic. Each pitch was really important. But not everybody feels that way."

Early said he played baseball during his elementary and high school years, switching from the outfield to catcher -- a position no one wanted to play -- because he wasn't a very good hitter.

"I knew I could play all the time, and I wanted to play, so I became a catcher," he said, smiling.

Early said he followed the Dodgers, who had moved to Los Angeles, as well as the Phillies. His baseball heroes included black stars, such as Willie Mays of the Giants and Hank Aaron of the Braves, but he also admired Roberto Clemente of the Pirates, who was born in Puerto Rico, and white players like pitcher Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers.

"Most of the black people I grew up around were very strong fans of the Dodgers. This was because of Jackie Robinson, of course," he said. "The Dodgers were kind of like the black people's national team, even though by the time I was a kid, Jackie Robinson had long retired."

Early, whose father died when he was an infant, said that he liked baseball, partly because the older men in his family were fans of the sport.

"This is how I learned the game: from older black men around me who taught me -- my uncles and grandfather. I cannot remember very well if there were a lot of black people who attended games, but there were a lot of older black men around me when I was growing up who were diehard baseball fans," he said.

A Missing Connection?

African-American players now account for fewer than one-tenth of major leaguers, after peaking at 27 percent in the mid-1970s, says author Rob Ruck in his new book "Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game."

In a recent article for Salon, Ruck offers another striking statistic: More African-American Republicans were elected to Congress last November (two) than appeared in last fall's World Series (one). (That was reliever Darren Oliver of the Texas Rangers.)

Early points out that while the number of black ballplayers has declined, it is still fairly representative of the percentage of African Americans in the U.S. population, as a whole. He adds that in the mid-1970s, some argued that African Americans were overrepresented in the sport and voiced worries that too many young black males were being steered into sports, distorting their sense of ambition.

That said, Early does believe that baseball has lost its resonance in the black community, partly because fewer African Americans attend or watch games now -- and that, in turn, impacts the desire to play the sport.

"Younger black people don't connect to the game as much. I go to Busch Stadium a lot to see games because I have season tickets. On any given day, if I see 100 black people in that ballpark that's a pretty sizable number and we're talking about an average of 35,000 people there," Early said. "The Cardinals have been trying to get black people to attend games, and I don't know if it's true with every city, but it's probably true with many cities. It's difficult to get black people to be fans of the game; they certainly are not fans of the game in the same intensity or same numbers as they are fans of professional or college football or basketball."

The numbers of African-American baseball players dropped off as athletic black kids decided they'd rather play basketball and football, he said.

"As those numbers dropped off, it may well be -- and this is a theory of mine -- that black fan interest may have dropped off, too, as there were fewer black players in the game," Early said. "I'm not trying to say that black people are only interested in black players, but I think people get points of identification, especially if you are a minority person."

Integregation and the Negro Leagues

Early also suggests that black Americans may not share the warm and fuzzy sense of nostalgia that tends to drive baseball's loyal legions because they have a different history with baseball than with other professional sports.

While the integration of the major leagues in the late 1940s and 1950s is heralded, it also led to the eventual demise of the Negro Leagues, a source of pride in African-American communities, he explained. The players were, in effect, siphoned off from successful black businesses, leaving behind the owners, managers and coaches.

"When baseball integrated, the only thing they took were the players, they didn't take any management. So there was this institution that existed in the black community that didn't get integrated. This institutional presence disappeared from black people's communal lives, and I think that has had an effect," Early said.

Just as the Negro Leagues once served as a new source of labor -- and new fans -- for the big leagues, Ruck and other critics argue that the business of baseball has now turned its attention to the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations as a source of cheap labor.

"The theory is that ownership doesn't mind that African Americans have been leaving the game because they have this cheap source of players from the Dominican Republic -- players they can sign more cheaply than if they were going to sign comparable African-American players in the United States," Early said. "In other words, to some degree, players in Latin America are being used in the same way that Negro League players were used in the 1940s and 1950s as a kind of cheap labor pool to integrate the game."

Early said the argument is similar to the one being made about soccer in Europe: that European teams in soccer use Africa as a source of inexpensive talent.

Call it what you will -- Marxism or leftist theorizing -- but this argument holds that big sports structures like baseball or soccer are replicating capitalist ownership structures as they search to cut labor costs. Ruck views it as a form of colonization: using Latin America as a source of raw material.

Early said that whether people are willing to accept those arguments or not, it is important that they understand that sports is a business. And just as with any other business, there are socioeconomic implications of race and class.

"It's an industry, but people have this sentimental feeling that it's not that," he said. "There's always going to be labor strife in these sports. George Will had the perfect title for his baseball book: 'Men at Work.' We look at it as a game, and I think people do that because it's something they may have played when they were kids. Once these men made a choice that they were going to become professional players, this is their work. This is what they do to make a living."

When Cardinals star Albert Pujols negotiates a new contract, for example, he is no different than any other worker in any other industry who wants to maximize his bargaining position, Early said.

"An athlete doesn't have a very long time. It's not a game he can retire from when he's 65 years old, so he wants to try and make as much money as he can. It's not for me to say -- or anybody else to say -- what's enough money for someone. It's not my judgment to say, 'Oh, you have enough, you shouldn't get anymore.' "

Early says National Football League's current labor struggles illustrate common issues between team owners and athletes in sports.

"You have a basic problem: Management wants to control labor costs, and they want to put some kind of ceiling or cap on what players can make. Naturally, workers don't want that. What worker wants to have some cap on what you make?" Early said.

Because the "shelf life" of football players is shorter than baseball players and the risk of severe injury, much greater, Early expects that the arm wrestling over money is going to be really intense.

"If the labor strife that's currently happening in football does not convince people that this is a business, I don't know what will," he said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.