“If the past has nothing to say to the present, history may go on sleeping undisturbed in the closet where the system keeps its old disguises.” – Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan author
A few weeks ago, one of the best baseball players of all time, the San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds, was denied induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The main reason given by the voters was the fact that Bonds apparently used performance enhancing drugs, a charge which has not been cleared. Since he played in “the Steroids Era,” perhaps an asterisk will forever be attached next to his sports accomplishments.
Nevertheless, the word that commonly appears in the arguments rejecting his induction into the Hall of Fame, is “integrity.” As in “Bonds lacked personal integrity,” or “he trampled on the integrity of the sacred game.” A game that has been considered “America’s Pastime.”
Now, it is true that, besides his amazing home-runs, Bonds was known as being rather uncooperative with the press, a self-centered prima-donna, a rather aloof individual, “too proud” or egotistic. A Black man who defied stereotypes and proudly paraded his majestic athletic superiority. Someone whom U.S. racist history might call “an Uppity Negro.”
I looked on line for the meaning of “Uppity Negro.” In The Urban Dictionary I found the following: “a fearless black person who by social definition is “not in their place.” A Black person who is committed to reversing the crimes of self-refusal, self-denial and self-hatred that are endemic to the Black community and detrimental to the Black psyche.”
Perhaps the issue is not very clear cut. The way U.S. history is not clear cut and thus needs constant vigilance, examination and—when needed—revision or needed additions. Especially now, when attacks against the teaching of ethnic studies and critical race theories are on the rise.
We have to remember that history is always taught from the perspective of those who win.
Baseball is called the most popular sport in the U.S., although “American” football is a close second. If indeed baseball and football best define this country’s culture, the definition does not speak well of the country. Both sports share a history of discrimination of non-white players.
For many years, baseball, football…and even the now more “progressive” basketball, fought hard to keep Black Americans out of their “fields of dreams.” If you are a Black person, equal participation and respect in organized professional sports has not been part of your “American Dream.” A few examples might help to illustrate my arguments.
In the 1936 Olympic Games, held in Nazi Germany with Adolf Hitler in power and getting ready to start World War II, Jesse Owens, a Black U.S. sprinter and broad jumper, won four gold medals, singlehandedly thrashing Hitler’s home party and his racist dreams of an athletic exhibition of Aryan supremacy.
Returning to the U.S., unlike white Olympians, Jesse Owens was not invited to the White House to shake hands with then U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
There was a non-presidential reception for Jesse Owens, at the fancy Waldorf Astoria Hotel. But, even there, at the party held to his honor, Owens and his mother had to use a service elevator. “Negroes” were not allowed to use the regular elevators, as they were reserved for white folks.
Once, Owens expressed: “I’d spent my whole life watching my father and mother and older brothers and sisters trying to escape their own kind of Hitler, first in Alabama and then in Cleveland, and all I wanted now was my chance to run as fast and jump as far as I could so I’d never have to look back.”
The Negro Leagues in baseball, basketball and football were created as a response to the refusal by the White owners and many players (and a predominantly discriminatory U.S. society) to allow black players to participate in integrated competition.
Paul Robeson, in the 1930s and 40s, was not only a wonderful singer and actor, but also a great All-American football player while at Rutgers University…although his Senior Yearbook did not print this fact. Later, when he became a political activist and—as a result—was bitterly attacked for his political ideas. Kind of like when in 2020, Fox News “journalist” Laura Ingraham told the great basketball player LeBron James to “Shut up! Just dribble!”
Sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were widely punished for raising their gloved fists at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico.
Muhammad Ali, the great boxer, was jailed for his refusal to join the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and stripped of his titles.
Three years ago, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled to protest against discrimination and police brutality. He continues to be boycotted by those who own teams in the National Football League, including the 49ers.
Perhaps Barry Bonds case is not as compelling as some of the other people, but I believe that his rejection is largely due to a discriminatory way of thinking that still hurts our society.
Why such lily-whiteness? We unite in celebration when the local teams win championships, but the ugly truth remains: racism and discrimination are alive and well in this country. And that is also reflected in sports. The search for our collective integrity continues.