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MLB elevating the status of Negro Leagues is the problem, not the solution

Black baseball is not less than. And never will be.

There’s a phrase coined, likely by some old white guy, that goes “winners write the history books.” In the case of Major League Baseball, not only do they write the history books, but apparently they decide when everyone else’s histories are legitimate, too.

On Wednesday, MLB announced that the records and statistics from the seven operations that we now classify as the Negro Leagues will be recognized as part of Major League Baseball’s history, presumably paving the way for the posthumous enshrinement of various players into Cooperstown, New York.

“The perceived deficiencies of the Negro Leagues’ structure and scheduling were born of MLB’s exclusionary practices,” John Thorn, the Official Historian for Major League Baseball said in a press release. “And denying them Major League status has been a double penalty, much like that exacted of Hall of Fame candidates prior to Satchel Paige’s induction in 1971. Granting MLB status to the Negro Leagues a century after their founding is profoundly gratifying.”

Of all the nonsense that the most duplicitously conservative sports league in the history of the United States of America has ever pulled, this might be the most ridiculous piece of soft supremacy we’ve ever seen. This announcement says: Be grateful, we now view you as whole. News flash: That’s the problem. Not the solution.

The first time I met Bob Kendrick, it was a hot summer day in my mother’s hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, where she grew up watching the Monarchs play. Like many before and after me, I was lucky enough to catch the president of the Negro Leagues Museum on a day when he could give me a personal tour. It was easily the most emotional baseball experience of my life that didn’t involve being on the field. Not once did I think about some random town in upstate New York while I was there.

Of all the nonsense that the most duplicitously conservative sports league in the history of the United States of America has ever pulled, this might be the most ridiculous piece of soft supremacy we’ve ever seen.

The work that Kendrick has done over the years to champion, document, highlight and grow the history of the Negro Leagues is unparalleled in sports. It’s impossible to overstate how important he is to the sport, never mind Black baseball, and for him, today, I’m happy. But overall, there is a fundamental misunderstanding of a basic fact that needs to be recalled while everyone in midtown New York City is patting themselves on the back.

Negro does not mean less than. And never will.

So while the names of generations of players will finally be recognized by people who seem to think that statistics are what make baseball, the entire notion of “recognition” being solely acknowledged through the lens of a league that suspended a Black person for saying “n—a” on a ballfield is absurd. The goal here is not to be more like MLB. The goal is for MLB to get on board with the rest of the world in 2020.

“The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is thrilled to see this well-deserved recognition of the Negro Leagues,” Kendrick said in a statement. “In the minds of baseball fans worldwide, this serves as historical validation for those who had been shunned from the Major Leagues and had the foresight and courage to create their own league that helped change the game and our country too. This acknowledgment is a meritorious nod to the courageous owners and players who helped build this exceptional enterprise and shines a welcomed spotlight on the immense talent that called the Negro Leagues home.”

I’ll say what Bob is too classy to say or perhaps feel: It’s about time y’all white folks acknowledged us, so thanks. But again, if you are the kind of person who genuinely ever viewed Major League Baseball as the summit of what the sport could and should be, then you were never paying attention to begin with. It’s the top flight of the most economically abusive sport in this country. Baseball is the sharecropping of American sports.

Branch Rickey, the guy who is famously credited with integrating the game by signing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, is also the same guy who effectively created the system we used to know as Minor League Baseball, until the bigs basically crushed the soul out of that, too. Reminder: Minor leaguers have never made a living wage.

For many years, MLB has celebrated itself as inclusive, riding the coattails of Robinson’s strength for generations. Meanwhile, Kendrick is trying to figure out how to keep the lights on in Kansas City, because it’s not like MLB is paying the museum’s bills. And there are people roaming the earth who think the Negro Leagues were just one autonomous thing that we just sorta decided to do because that was the way of the world.

Black folks taught Japanese people how to like baseball. Black folks started playing night games because it was the only time white folks would let us use their stadiums. Black folks let women actually play on the field, not just stuck them in skirts and made a movie years later about it to much fanfare. Those contributions to baseball have nothing to do with numbers in a book and never will. But they won’t be understood or recognized as vital because so-called seamheads are too busy worrying about how Black ballplayers match up against their childhood heroes.

It’s well known that the reason the Negro Leagues failed is because of MLB’s meddlesome approach. Once they started stealing the talent, the draw lessened. If you want to get hardcore, you could argue that Robinson going to Major League Baseball was a death knell for Black baseball, not the other way around. Why? Because all the systems of development and expertise that came along with us being us were tossed aside to appeal to the concept of being the apple of the white league’s eye. If Major League Baseball had simply allowed a handful of teams to operate their businesses within their framework, aka joining the league, we wouldn’t be where we are today with less than 10% of players in the bigs being Black.

Today, sure, it’s great that MLB has decided that Black folks are worthy of their gaze. But don’t forget about all the guys who are still fighting for what they consider to be fair pensions because the bigs enjoy paying lip service more than they do actual dollars.

I’m happy for Bob. He’s the most brilliant and charismatic person in baseball. He deserves everything he wants, and if this action today puts him closer to his goals, I’m all for it. (He also happens to be the best-dressed man in the game, by a gazillion miles.)

But miss me with this “made whole” nonsense. Major League Baseball is one league in one country. In 2020, joining the globe in recognizing that Black folks are real people without whom you could never survive is not a reason to say, “you’re welcome.” It’s a reason to say sorry.

Liner Notes

If you liked this essay, you can take home a lot more great writing from Andscape by getting our new book, BlackTold, on sale now, wherever books are sold.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at Andscape. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B and remixes — in that order.