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George Will sucks and I’m too busy to come up with a better post title than that

October 2, 2012

Conservative columnist George Will used to earn a pinch of grudging respect from me, chiefly due to his long-standing and well documented love of baseball—a connection that reminded me that this pinko liberal artist and that grandstanding patrician journo were still part of the same crazy race we call humanity, and one I carefully avoided undermining by never, ever reading any of his baseball books.

As it turns out, and as any decent journalistic sabermetrician could probably have predicted, Will’s understanding of baseball history is just as…well, let’s not say wrongheaded; let’s just say catastrophically skewed by a lethal brew of naivete and unacknowledged privilege as his understanding of history-history.

Take this excerpt from his most recent column, in which he compares Mitt Romney’s festering campaign to a football game with a running clock, and Barack Obama to….Frank Robinson?

A significant date in the nation’s civil rights progress involved an African American baseball player named Robinson, but not Jackie. The date was Oct. 3, 1974, when Frank Robinson, one the greatest players in history, was hired by the Cleveland Indians as the major leagues’ first black manager. But an even more important milestone of progress occurred June 19, 1977, when the Indians fired him. That was colorblind equality.

Managers get fired all the time. The fact that the Indians felt free to fire Robinson — who went on to have a distinguished career managing four other teams — showed that another racial barrier had fallen: Henceforth, African Americans, too, could enjoy the God-given right to be scapegoats for impatient team owners or incompetent team executives.

Oh, George, no. That makes about as much sense as having Yadier Molina bunting  in the ninth inning of a one-run game that one of the most loyal Cardinal fans on the West Coast spent four hours in the car to get to.* The multi-faceted folly of the argument is easy to spot, unless your sheltered existence has led you to assume that identical outcomes always have identical motivations for people of different races and demographics. Will is so eager to make the argument that civil rights took a step forward because a white man felt free to fire a black man! that he fails to consider whether Robinson’s firing might have had anything, anything whatsoever, to do with his race.

To be sure, that’s a tricky thing to assess. Contrary to the belief of most racists, racism doesn’t always declare itself with pointy hoods and grand gestures; it’s subtler and more insidious than that, which helps to explain its persistence, its virulence, and, often, its invisibility to those who have never been on the receiving end of its insults and injuries. George Will wasn’t in the Orioles’ organization in 1977, and he can’t be expected to know what it was like for Frank Robinson to be the first and only African-American manager in a sport that had been integrated only 35 years earlier.

Gosh. It’s too bad Frank Robinson never gave an easily Google-able interview discussing this exact subject:

Baseball has been hiding this ugly prejudice for years—that blacks aren’t smart enough to be managers or third-base coaches or part of the front office….

As a black, you find you have to be two or three times better than a white even to play. And when it comes to front-office jobs, management believes you’ll never be as good….

….there’s an old boy network, and it’s lily white. The people upstairs also say white players won’t play for a black manager and fans won’t come to the ballpark….

White management doesn’t like black people to speak their minds. They like you to be seen but not heard.

Those are a few of the money quotes, but read the whole thing, which is titled “In America’s National Pastime, Says Frank Robinson, White Is the Color of the Game Off the Field,” and which ran in People magazine just after Al Campanis tanked his own career and shined a light—shocking to some, utterly unsurprising to Robinson and a lot of others, I imagine—on the sport’s ugly racist undercurrent.

Plenty of others have capably set about skewering Will’s facile extended analogy, and his deeply offensive implication that a second term for Barack Obama might simply be the result of a surfeit of white guilt—and I need to go root for my team to lower its magic number from 1 to 0—so for now I’ll content myself with slamming his willful (see what I did there?) ignorance of the sport he claims as his passion. We all love the poetry and the life-lessons and the dewy nostalgia of baseball, but to turn a blind eye to its crueler, nastier realities is to insult the people who fought, and continue to fight, against them.

* Just hypothetically.

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