Branch Rickey and the Battle for Control over Baseball’s Integration Story

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

The story of Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey – the man who signed Jackie Robinson to break Organized Baseball’s longtime color line -- leads inexorably to the widely accepted story of baseball’s integration, which Baseball celebrates today by patting itself on the back via Jackie Robinson Day.  However, there can be more than one version of the tale.  And in this instance, the well-worn Rickey story may very well have slowed the integration of baseball in Robinson’s wake rather than accelerated it.  So while baseball congratulates itself once again, on the anniversary of the day it stopped doing what it should have never done in the first place, let’s take a moment to consider a man baseball seemingly can’t get enough of.  No, not Jackie Robinson, but Branch Rickey.

What is beyond dispute is that Rickey was a baseball genius.  His innovations throughout the course of his long career, spurred by his dual passions: his desire to obtain a competitive edge and his desire to do so as cheaply as possible, revolutionized the game.  His development of the farm system while running the Cardinals in the 1930s blended both passions very neatly in that the system provided the Cardinals with a perennial treasure trove of potential talent available only to them and at bargain basement prices.  This glut of talent forever on the doorstep of the Majors had the further benefit of driving down the salaries of Rickey’s big leaguers who were wary of engaging in pitched battles with him given the ever-looming threat of imminent replacement should they ever fall out of favor. 

By 1943, however, when Rickey left the Cardinals to take over the reins of the Dodgers, the farm system no longer provided such a competitive edge due to the simple fact that Rickey had been so successful with it in St. Louis that by now many teams were at least rudimentarily following his lead.  Although the Dodgers reached the World Series as recently as 1941, Rickey’s keen eye for talent recognized the reality that the team was an old one and on the verge of collapse.  What was needed was an overhaul of the entire organization.  The farm system would have to be rebuilt and restocked but that would only bring the organization so far.  Rickey realized that in order for the Dodgers to outrun their competitors in the National League on the field, he would have to outsmart his adversaries in the talent acquisition game.  The farm system no longer gave him a leg up; a rebuilt one would, at best, put him on equal footing with his rivals.  What he needed was something different, some new source of talent untapped by anyone else.

Shortly after arriving in Brooklyn, Rickey received permission from the team’s directors to start scouting Black talent.  Initially, Rickey had considered Latin American players but abandoned this idea due to the perceived obstacles faced by players who would have to overcome both a language as well as a racial barrier (although he would return to the Latin American talent pool later in his career with the Pirates).  Once his focus became clear, Rickey was single-minded in his pursuit.  “The greatest untapped reservoir of raw material in the history of the game is the Black race!” he said in 1945.  In this regard, his pursuit satisfied his passion for a competitive edge.  And, if he could convince the public that these talented Black players, currently being developed in the Negro leagues, were not under contract to their teams, they would be available to him virtually free of charge, thereby satisfying his frugal itch as well.

Although historically Rickey has been portrayed as a social reformer, in fact he was far from it, even by his own admission.  Rather, he was a sharp baseball man with an eye on the bottom line whose baseball instincts just happened to run right smack into America’s burgeoning civil rights movement.  Smart as he was (and no doubt much smarter than many of his baseball brethren), he recognized the rising tide and understood that baseball was going to have to integrate sooner rather than later – the symbolic status of the game made it such a convenient target for civil rights activists in the wake of World War II that it would have no choice.  Rickey had increasingly felt these pressures firsthand – it was the heat generated by New York’s Quinn-Ives Act (signed into law in March 1945 and which imposed a fine of $500 or imprisonment for up to one year on any employer who refused to hire anyone because of their race) that boxed him into a corner just a few weeks later.  On that morning, Joe Bostic -- a reporter for the The People’s Voice, the Black weekly newspaper funded by Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, who a year earlier became the first African American New Yorker to be elected to Congress -- arrived demanding a tryout for his players.  Rickey had no choice but to grant them one, even though he had no intention of signing the players. 

A few months later, as Rickey was working behind the scenes on his own integration plan, he learned that New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was planning on making the integration of baseball the subject of his October 18, 1945 radio address. Combined with the LaGuardia-formed Committee for Unity’s pending statement calling for all three of New York’s teams – the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants – to integrate immediately so as to comply with Quinn-Ives, Rickey’s hand was forced.  Unless he acted now, he would lose control of the integration issue and quite possibly his competitive edge as well.  Therefore, he convinced LaGuardia to change the subject of his address and hastily announced the signing of Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract on October 23, 1945. 

Faced with the impending reality, Rickey masterfully managed to maintain control over the situation: “The Negro will make us winners for years to come,” he said, once again in 1945.  “And for that I will happily bear being a bleeding heart, and a do-gooder, and all that humanitarian rot.” In the midst of the moment, Rickey maintained that his was strictly a baseball decision.  As the years passed, his story, as well as the official story, would morph into something different.

After the Robinson signing, Rickey began to emphasize reasons other than baseball for his actions.  He became particularly fond of a story involving Charles “Tommy” Thomas, a black ballplayer Rickey coached at Ohio Wesleyan in 1903. According to the story, Thomas was refused hotel accommodations when the team traveled to South Bend, Indiana for a game.  Rickey convinced the hotel clerk to allow Thomas to room with him.  Once in the room, Thomas began to sob and, according to Rickey, scratch at his skin “as if he wanted to forcibly remove the stain of its color.”  “I never felt so helpless in my life,” Rickey recalled later.  In response, Rickey liked to say that he tried to reassure Thomas by telling him that “a time would come where there would be equal opportunity for all, regardless of race.”   The story closes on a heartwarming, if dime novel, note as Rickey attempted to raise Thomas’ spirits: “Come on, Tommy, snap out of it, buck up!  We’ll lick this one day, but we can’t if you feel sorry for yourself.” 

The Thomas story was an inspirational one and one which certainly highlighted the humanitarian side of Branch Rickey, an apparent closeted civil rights advocate.  However, it is one that was not told for the first time until shortly before Rickey signed Robinson, more than four decades from the date of its alleged occurrence.  Although certainly Rickey and Thomas maintained a longstanding relationship that no doubt dated back to that time, and although it is likely that the story springs from a foundation of truth, the veracity of some of the specifics within it, particularly the most heart-wrenching ones, is open to question.  In a court of law such testimony would likely be viewed with skepticism.  As an American morality tale, it becomes fact simply because we would like for it to be.  There is a difference between being sympathetic towards one’s plight and being a crusader for integration.  Rickey was perhaps the former but boasted that he was the latter.  Because his story fit a comforting narrative, however, few sought to question it.

As the years passed and Rickey’s legend grew, Rickey also stated that if it were up to him the Cardinals would have been integrated by the mid 1930’s; it was only club owner Sam Breadon who stood in his way.  However, as with the Thomas story, no contemporaneous supporting evidence exists. He likewise claimed to have been a supporter of integration ever since the alleged 1903 Thomas incident but although he was an executive with significant input in player personnel decisions since becoming the general/field manager of the St. Louis Browns in 1913, he never once exhibited, at least publicly, any such indications prior to 1945. 

Many decades later, his children and grandchildren helped to further burnish Rickey’s socially conscious image by recalling “stirring conversations at the Rickey dinner table… about Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War, and the unfortunate, continuing effects of slavery on American Negro life,”  but with no corresponding, contemporaneous overt acts on Rickey’s behalf in the several decades in which he was a very public executive with the power to act or, at a minimum, speak out on behalf of these causes, it is difficult to ascertain how much of these such stories are fact and how much are rose-colored, sepia-toned family legend.

To many who have tried to tackle the Rickey story and legacy in print, he remains a conundrum: an arch-conservative civil rights pioneer who opposed what he termed “radicalism” in any form and in any manner save this one instance.  He despised The Daily Worker, the newspaper published by Communist Party USA, as well as the agitation of the Black press even though both were aggressively lobbying for what he repeatedly claimed was a fervent cause of his since the 1903 Thomas incident.  Later in life, even after the integration of baseball, he supported Barry Goldwater in 1964 rather than staunch civil rights advocate Lyndon Johnson.  When questioned as to his political stance, Rickey replied that a vote for Johnson would be “a step toward national degradation.”

At every turn in his very public life, Rickey stood in the corner of the socially conservative with the exception of the Robinson matter.  His actions in that one instance not only seem out of character but a direct contradiction to everything he believed in, and how he lived his life both before and afterwards.  For his biographers, it is difficult to shoehorn the Robinson episode into Rickey’s life and still emerge with a coherent narrative.  It is this riddle that causes many to throw up their hands and conclude simply that, in the end, Branch Rickey was a terribly complex man.

The possibility exists, however, that he was in fact quite simple and straightforward, at least in his actions if not always his words.  Perhaps he simply wanted to win baseball games and was willing to take whatever avenue existed that enabled him to achieve this goal at the lowest possible cost.  This simple narrative does not require the elaborate twists and turns that the Rickey story traditionally takes.  However, this narrative is hardly a symbolic one, hardly one which stands in for  both baseball and America at their best so it is not surprising that it is not as widely embraced.  Rather, the “Rickey as racial pioneer” story took hold due to its obvious appeal, infused as it was with delicious didactic potential.  Sometimes, however, a story is more than simply a story.  In this instance, the Rickey story would have a damaging effect on the integration effort in multiple ways, ultimately and ironically slowing the pace of integration in Major League Baseball many years. Initially, it distracted from and negated the integration movement that had developed significant momentum independent of him.  Eventually, it set the movement back decades.  Arguably, the paucity of Black players in the modern game suggests that baseball is perhaps still feeling its effects.

Immediately, the story gave credence to longtime baseball commissioner and segregationist Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s longstanding lie that anybody within Organized Baseball could sign a Black player if they so chose.  As such, it justified the falsehood and permitted white America to gloss over the reality of racism both within baseball and, more importantly, within the nation.  Although Landis’s lie was a naked one, the Rickey story allowed Organized Baseball to escape greater scrutiny of its racist practices because it demonstrated that, at least superficially, Landis was correct.  According to the Rickey story, one man did, after all, decide to sign a Black player and no one within the game stopped him.  Baseball could defend itself by repeating the lie that the game was now, and always had been, open to everyone.  It only took an individual with courage to make this possibility a reality.  This fabrication glossed over the deep and longstanding institutionalized racism that was truly at the core of the issue, and which remained firmly entrenched despite Robinson's presence on a big league diamond.

More significantly, the story conveniently negated and ignored the enormous social pressures that the rising integration movement – spearheaded by the increasingly empowered and determined Black and alternative presses along with progressive governmental leaders such as LaGuardia and Adam Clayton Powell – had on Organized Baseball and which, in reality, had more to do with bringing the game to the brink of integration by the end of World War II than anything having to do with Branch Rickey.  This, in turn, resulted in the tragic consequence of the story: it wrested the integration issue away from these people and put it in the hands of the baseball patriarchy -- the very people who restricted the game for years -- to be doled out on its terms and through its good graces.

The Branch Rickey story is a narrative heist that once again leaves the Black men and those in the alternative press who did the hard work to right an entrenched wrong on the sidelines, spectators to their own history.  As baseball celebrates yet another Jackie Robinson Day it might be worthwhile to ask: whose story is it really celebrating?

This essay is adapted from A People's History of Baseball 


The Last Betrayal of Dick Allen

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Yesterday, on what should have been the day after the Hall of Fame’s “Golden Days” era committee elected him for enshrinement, Dick Allen died at home in Wampum, PA.  It was the final injustice in what for him had been a lifetime of them perpetrated by the baseball establishment.

Allen came upon the scene in the early 1960s, after baseball’s first wave of integration had come and gone.  And while he was certainly a beneficiary of the struggle and hard work of men like Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and others, he was hardly handed anything.  Robinson’s autobiography may have been titled “I Never Had It Made,” but a generation later Dick Allen could pretty much say the same.

By the time he arrived large swaths of white America decided it no longer wanted to hear about baseball’s racial problem.  It had been solved with Robinson’s arrival in 1947, they liked to repeat to themselves and each other.  Baseball, as well, preferred to behave as though racism within the sport had been eradicated.

Hardly. 

Allen’s treatment in Little Rock while playing for the Phillies’ AAA affiliate in 1963 has been well-chronicled and need not be retold here but not only did it scar him, the fact that he was labeled a malcontent for merely referencing issues of racism and inequality thereafter scarred him all over again.  Nobody – in Organized Baseball or in the stands -- wanted to hear it; it made them uncomfortable, perhaps, or maybe it called into question the amount of progress actually made between the time of Robinson’s arrival and Allen’s.  Or maybe it was because people read the sports section to escape from the world and not to confront it and they resented the ugliness of America staring up at them when all they wanted with their morning cereal was the score of last night’s game.  Likely it was a combination of the above.  So they blamed Allen.  And blamed him.  And blamed him some more.

By the time his first go-around in Philadelphia had come to an end, it was just so easy to blame him for pretty much everything.  Fans who didn’t have the stomach to understand him did, writers piqued that he wouldn’t jump to attention whenever they strolled over to his locker did, and a Phillies brain trust that slopped a disaster of a lineup on the field by 1969 that had no chance to compete did as well.  Better to blame Allen for their disgrace of a franchise than look in the mirror.

Injustice all around.

Over the decades things, we enjoy telling ourselves, have evolved.  We’re better now, we like to say.  The farther removed Allen became from baseball, the fewer the injustices.  Or maybe not.  For Allen’s recent brushes with the Hall of Fame suggest that things aren’t so different after all.

After being summarily ignored by the writers when he was up for enshrinement in the 1980s, Allen’s case for the Hall gained traction in the last several years as his advanced metrics screamed in black-and-white what fans who were paying attention decades earlier could have told you: that Dick Allen was one of the greatest hitters of his era.  In 2014 he found himself on the Hall’s “Golden Era” ballot and missed by one vote (12 were required for enshrinement).  Closer examination of that vote suggested that something smelled.  One of the committee members – Bob Watson – didn’t show up and was replaced at the last minute by Dave Dombrowski.  At least according to another committee member, Jim Bunning, the entire process was shrouded in confusion and secrecy.  "Bob Watson didn't make it. They never told us why,” Bunning to the Daily News’s Stan Hochman in February 2015.  “If he'd been there, it might have made a difference for two guys, Allen and Tony Oliva, who also got 11 votes.”  Maybe Watson simply got sick.  Maybe he missed his plane.  Who knows.  Well, somebody does.  But they’re not talking.  And this -- this secrecy, this tight-lipped arrogance -- is itself an injustice.

Still, Allen missed by just a single vote and the next scheduled meeting of the Golden Era committee was scheduled for 2017.  Until it wasn’t.  When the various veterans’ committees were reformed and rejiggered, the now “Golden Days” era committee wasn’t scheduled to meet until December 6, 2020.  Until, again, it wasn’t.

Citing the pandemic, the Hall announced that it was simply impossible for the Golden Days era committee to meet in one room and hash things out.  True that, but for the fact that the rest of the world had discovered the wonders of Zoom back in March.  And but for the fact that the rest of the Hall’s business – the election of the winners of the Ford Frick Award for broadcasters and the Spink Award for sportswriters – had not been similarly postponed.  When pressed, a Hall spokesman gave a fumbling, ham-handed response to the effect that for some reason it was necessary for the Golden Days committee to meet in person.  Apparently unlike the United Nations, which had somehow figured out how to conduct its business via Zoom, the work of the Hall’s Golden Days committee is of such a delicate nature that Zoom is simply inadequate.  At this point it is suggested that you stop here and reread this paragraph over and over until the Hall’s reasoning makes sense of you.  On second thought, don’t under any circumstance do that because you’ll find yourself drowning in an endless loop of idiocy from which you might never escape.

Suffice it to say, another injustice. 

Currently the Golden Days era committee is scheduled to meet next December.  At that point there’s a reasonable chance that Dick Allen will at last be elected.  But he’ll never know it.  That he died the day after the Golden Days committee by all rights should have met and elected him is something that should weigh heavily upon the consciences of every person involved in the parade of injustices perpetrated over the past six years. 

Of course, it’s too much to suggest that these injustices were committed solely with Dick Allen in mind.  Others, such as Oliva and Jim Kaat, were similarly harmed by the Hall’s clumsy stubbornness.  But for Allen these were just the latest instances in a life replete with wrongs committed by those who should, and claim to, know better. 

Perhaps he was at peace with this, given all that had come before.  After the ceremony held in August at Citizens Bank Park to retire his #15, Allen said that as far as he was concerned, he was already a Hall-of-Famer when he was inducted into the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum’s “Hall of Game” in 2018: “That’s the real hall for me,” he said.  “They are a very elite group. They’re part of the legends. And to me, the way that it’s going, it could be a little political the way [the Baseball Hall of Fame] does things, but however, it’s beyond me. I pay no attention to it.”

Dick Allen had learned decades before not to put his faith in the baseball establishment.  He was too real, too authentic, too willing to speak his truth for those insistent on foisting sugar-coated fiction upon consumers of what was once our National Pastime.  From the beginning baseball never wanted Dick Allen.  But his greatest gift to us was that he gave himself to baseball anyway.

Mitchell Nathanson is the author of  God Almighty Hisself: The Life and Legacy of Dick Allen.

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John Middleton's Early Christmas Gift to Phillies Fans

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Ho, Ho, Ho, says Phillies owner John Middleton, Merry Christmas!  Why, it’s not even December and already Middleton and friends have blessed Delaware Valley baseball fans by giving them the gift they’ll put to good use for the next year at least – the gift of not caring about this travesty of a baseball team.

It’s hard to cut the tie, to walk away from years, if not generations, of devoted allegiance, but Middleton just made it all that much easier for the thousands of fans who have struggled these past several years to do precisely that.  Middleton, the scion of a family that made its wealth by selling cancer delivery systems to the American public, has bestowed upon Phillies fans the gift of alleged poverty – the $2.9 billion all-cash sale of his family business to a Philip Morris parent company in 2007 and the $2.5 billion, 25-year television deal with Comcast in 2014 notwithstanding.  The pandemic has cleaned the Phillies’ financial cupboard bare, he claims, to the extent of not only making it impossible to re-sign J.T. Realmuto and hiring a general manager, but to even pay his employees.  At least 80 full-time personnel – nearly 20% of the work staff -- were informed last week that their services would no longer be needed.  These furloughs, layoffs, buyouts – call them whatever you want, the bottom line is that these people will be out of work – will reportedly save Middleton about $8 million, or roughly what he paid Juan Nicasio in 2019.

Middleton has taken his share of heat for all of this but, really, he’s given us all a gift.  For his actions in the past few months have been so abhorrent that it’s now not so hard to just say to hell with all of it.  Even without Middleton baseball has been increasingly tougher and tougher to love, what with games that stretch into eternity, tit-for-tat pitching changes and defensive shifts, and outright cheating of various stripes.  But, still, baseball is baseball and if you love it you’re going to put up with a lot.  If you’re a Phillies fan, you put up with just that much more.  It’s what your father did, it’s what your grandfather did, so it’s what you do. 

Until perhaps now.

Because now, thanks to the pandemic, the Sixers and Flyers will most likely be playing through June and, who knows, maybe into July.  If Daryl Morey works his magic the Sixers might find themselves in the NBA Finals, which aren’t scheduled to wrap up until July 22nd.  The NHL will also likely hold its finals during July.  Once those champions are crowned, the summer Olympics will start and then the NFL will open training camps.  By that point all eyes around here will be where they usually are in late summer when the Phils are dead in the water – on the Eagles.  And given that Middleton has thrown up his hands and concluded that it’s nigh impossible to interview potential GM’s during a pandemic (Zoom?  What’s Zoom?) nor re-sign the best catcher in baseball given all the money the pandemic has cost him, there’s little chance the Phils won’t be a stinking fish come Independence Day.

We’re all blessed that Middleton is as incompetent as he is. That he truly believes he lost money due to the pandemic and not that he simply didn’t rake in as much of a profit as he assumed was his God-given right as a billionaire of someone-else’s making.  That he thinks the people who pony up good chunks of their hard-earned paychecks to watch his club will sympathize with his attempt to curry their favor by firing dozens upon dozens of workers just like them rather than shell out the equivalent of what he pays a journeyman relief pitcher to blow yet another lead in the sixth inning of yet another game in yet another lost season.  That he thinks the populace of this city will understand that it’s only right that when he scores a windfall he gets to keep the spoils but when a belt-tightening is called for it’s everyone else who has to inhale. 

This is the Christmas gift bestowed by John Middleton to Philadelphia sports fans.  The gift of no longer caring about him or his club.  In 2021 the Phils might not have a single day of the sports calendar to themselves and thanks to him, we can all celebrate by not thinking about the Phillies for a single moment all year.

Unlike the John Middleton Company’s Black and Mild cigars, Mitchell Nathanson’s biographies of Dick Allen and Jim Bouton don’t come with a Surgeon General’s warning that they increase the risk of infertility, stillbirth and low birth weight.

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WHAT IS MLB CELEBRATING WHEN IT CELEBRATES JACKIE ROBINSON DAY?

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Because baseball missed out on its annual opportunity to pat itself on the back on April 15th it shrewdly pivoted and made today, August 28th, “Jackie Robinson Day.”  Rather than celebrate the day Robinson walked out to first base at Ebbets Field in 1947, putting to an end the ban on African Americans in Organized Baseball that baseball itself enforced for a half century, MLB has decided that the day in 1945 that Brooklyn Dodger President Branch Rickey signed Robinson, then with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues, to an agreement to join the Dodger organization, was the next best option.

Well enough.  But what, exactly, is MLB celebrating here?  Of course, Jackie Robinson must be remembered and nobody associated with American sports should be ignorant of all he had to overcome just to take a big league field, but why the “celebration”?  And why is the collective that banded together for a half-century to bar an entire race an opportunity afforded to White American ballplayers seemingly as a matter of course celebrating their forbears’ decision to stop doing what they could have stopped doing for years if only they cared enough to stop doing it?

The recent announcement that MLB is considering reclassifying the various “Negro Leagues” as Major Leagues only amplifies the absurdity of baseball celebrating itself for putting a putative end to its very own marginalization of Black baseball.  Of course the Negro Leagues were Major Leagues, as they were bursting with players who no doubt would have excelled in the National and American leagues of the first half of the Twentieth Century if only they were permitted the opportunity.  No more proof of that is needed than this: by the end of the first decade of integrated big league ball (1956), a Black player had won six Most Valuable Player awards, seven Rookie of the Year awards, and the first Cy Young Award (Don Newcombe in 1956).  On an organizational level, the two clubs that rushed to integrate first and pepper their rosters with Negro League players (the Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians), quickly became dominant in their respective leagues. 

There will be obstacles in the effort to integrate the Negro League records into Organized Baseball’s, with some of them insurmountable.  There were multiple “Negro Leagues” and record-keeping wasn’t what it was in the National and American leagues.  Top-tier Negro League clubs would play other top-tier clubs but also lower level and ragtag outfits as they barnstormed across the country looking for any and all ways to fill their coffers sufficiently to keep the lights on in the ballparks and gas in the buses.  How to deal with incomplete records and statistics along with the sometimes disorganized nature of Black baseball?  Nobody knows.  But this is a problem Organized Baseball created and because of it, we’ll never really know how truly great so many Black ballplayers of the first half of the Twentieth Century were.  Celebrating yourself for ceasing to inflict a harm you never should have inflicted at all strikes a discordant note in the symphony MLB likes to play for itself.

Moreover, the arrival of Robinson and a select few of his contemporaries hardly ended Organized Baseball’s racially-motivated standards and practices.  The next decade-plus saw an influx of Black stars but beyond them, roster spots were reserved primarily for White players.  MLB could use Jackie Robinson Day to shine a spotlight on that somber reality but because that narrative doesn’t bathe Organized Baseball in sunshine it chooses to ignore it instead.  The Robinson story MLB prefers is the one where one of its own – Rickey – beneficently “allowed” Robinson to join his Dodgers, a story that slyly shifts the focus from Robinson to Rickey, thereby permitting MLB to slather itself in glory.  But doing so strips Robinson of his own voice in what is his story, not Rickey’s.  Robinson recognized this and in his 1972 autobiography wrote as much:

There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands.    Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first World Series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I  cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made. (emphasis added)

On this Jackie Robinson Day, as with all of the ones that came before it, baseball is celebrating Branch Rickey’s drama and not Robinson’s.  It can do better.  It should do better.  It must do better.

Mitch Nathanson's biography of Jim Bouton is out now.


SCOTT KINGERY IS THE FRIGHTENING TRUTH OF COVID-19 WE’RE AFRAID TO FACE

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

We do it all the time, whenever we’re confronted with the bare facts of a reality we’d rather not confront.  Did you see Uncle Phil?  Wow, he looks terrible.  He really let himself go.  Man, he got old.  What a shame.  That’s what happens when you don’t take care of yourself.  And on and on. 

In fact, old Uncle Phil, if he’s old enough, represents something closer to the best-case scenario rather than the worst.  At least he made it that far along in life, not succumbing to illness or fatal injury before reaching his golden years.  Really, we ought to celebrate old Uncle Phil rather than denigrate him, no matter what he looks like now or what shape he’s in.  For in the grand scheme of things he won.  We should be so fortunate.

But we don’t because we struggle to accept the cold realities of aging, of life, of the world as it affected and pummeled poor old Uncle Phil.  We prefer to think that the world can’t touch us if we’re strong enough, if we’re vigilant, if we don’t let it.  We won’t get old, we like to tell ourselves.  We won’t end up like poor old Uncle Phil.

It’s that sort of pretzel logic that helps us make it through our days -- the belief that it’s in our power to remain forever untouched.  It’s comforting to believe this, even though deep down we know that it’s nonsense.

It’s also why we’re so quick to want Scott Kingery out of our sight right now.  His current stat line suggests that he’s earned a ticket to some serious time on the bench.  As of this morning he’s batting .071 with only two hits all season.  Following up on his second half slump in 2019 he appears to be a bust.  After getting all that money – six years and $24 million guaranteed, $66 million if all the options are picked up – he looks like a failed experiment.

And maybe he is.  But right now it’s impossible to tell because Scott Kingery is still, weeks later, dealing with the debilitating aftereffects of Covid-19.  He’s still struggling to breathe as freely as he once did after a particularly brutal battle with the virus that left him – a heretofore healthy 26-year-old world-class athlete – unable to get up and off his couch for three weeks. 

If Covid-19 can hammer someone as young and healthy as Scott Kingery, what can it possibly do to the rest of us?  Worse, once it’s ravaged the system and “recovery” has taken place, what damage might remain?  The possibility that Kingery might never fully recover from his infection is downright frightening.  We can comfort ourselves by saying that he didn’t die from having contracted Covid but it’s far less comforting to consider that he might battle it for the rest of his life.  Truth is, we just don’t know.  And that’s absolutely scary.  Scott Kingery’s reality is the reality we’re all confronting right now – the reality of the terrifying unknown.

So it’s no surprise that we’d prefer to focus on something else.  That the guy had a poor second half and that the Phils would have been better off keeping Cesar Hernandez around rather than entrust second base to the likes of Scott Kingery.  Clearly, we prefer to reassure ourselves with the notion that this is his fault.  He, and he alone, is responsible for his dreadful play up to now.  If he were a better player last year he’d be a better player this year as well.

Again, that may be true.  But, given all we are just starting to understand about Covid and its aftereffects, we're just guessing.  True, young, previously healthy people tend to survive their infections and far fewer of them require hospitalization than unhealthy and/or older victims.  But beyond that we have no idea what the lingering toll of Covid might be. 

It may very well turn out that despite everything we do, Covid can not only touch us but beat us into submission.  Maybe not immediately but eventually.  Scott Kingery is a red-pinstriped representation of that cold, hard reality staring us in the face.  As young as he is, as strong as he is, it took him out and continues to batter him even though we like to tell ourselves that he’s fully recovered.  In fact, he may never recover.

We ought to celebrate the return of Kingery to a big league ballpark.  Just to make it back given what he’s been through and continues to battle is, like poor old Uncle Phil’s, closer to the best outcome rather than the worst.  He “beat” Covid but even so remains at war with it.  This is, as we understand the virus today, the significantly less exhilarating definition of “winning.”

But we’d rather he go away.  We’d rather believe he just isn’t very good.  We’d rather tell ourselves this is just about baseball, nothing else.  Because if it isn’t, it's a helluva lot more difficult to get up in the morning.

Mitch Nathanson's biography of Jim Bouton is out now.  Stay home and read it.


SOME GOOD COULD COME FROM THIS YET

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Safe to say that things in baseball haven’t gone as planned.  The Phils played all of three games last week and it’s still unclear when and if they’ll play a fourth.  The Marlins?  Well, they’re the Marlins.  You knew that if this were going to happen to anybody it would happen to them.  Still, they’ve so disrupted everybody else in the eastern divisions that right now both of them are complete chaos.

And yet.

And yet. 

If we’re looking for positives in this 2020 baseball season here’s a big one: the fever grip of stubborn intractability that has had a death grip on the game for over a century has loosened.  Substantially.  It’s had to.  Desperate times call for desperate measures, and all that.  Who knows what will happen once things return to normal.  But maybe now baseball has been freed to fix itself at last.

For decades the game remained obstinately opposed not only to grand change but to even the smallest tweaks.  This is part of its charm but also a large cause of its downfall from its peak way back in the 1950s.  While the NFL’s competition committee meets every year to recalibrate its game, sometimes substantially, baseball has been content to put the same game on the field in perpetuity regardless of whether game action is up, down, or non-existent.  Baseball’s last major change – the designated hitter – is nearing the half-century mark and we’re still debating it. 

The pandemic has made a mockery of that sort of mindset.  It was just a few months ago that baseball was hard-headedly working to figure out a way to somehow shoehorn 162 games into a world that had fundamentally changed overnight.  For the longest time Rob Manfred, Tony Clark, and everybody connected with the game acted like baseball didn’t really exist within the world the rest of us were struggling to adjust to; that despite the fact that toilet paper had become a scarce commodity the Red Sox were going to play a full season no matter what.

That mindset was absurd back in April but you couldn’t convince baseball of that.  Today, however, it’s a radically different story.

Baseball came kicking and screaming to the current 60-game season, moaning about this, that, and the other thing, but now that we’re here it’s much more open to experimentation and change.  Rescheduling series on the fly and seven-inning doubleheaders weren’t changes made because baseball wanted to make them but because it had no other choice.  And the world didn’t end as a result.  Thinking back over the past few weeks it’s clear that changes are being implemented now after much less hemming and hawing.  Let’s hope this continues going forward.

I’m as much of a traditionalist as anybody but some of these changes have me interested in the game in a way I haven’t been for a while.  It took only those three nightmarish games against Miami to remind me of all that has annoyed me about baseball as it had existed prior to the pandemic – long, boring games, little action outside of home runs, a dearth of strategy.  Now, however, we’re going to get seven-inning games every once in a while.  Finally, I’ll be able to make it from start to finish without turning off the set to head up to bed.  (True, I’ll only get to see one of the two scheduled games but I’ll take it.)  The game’s still pretty boring but if we make it to extra innings we’ll see a runner on second to lead off the 10th – a situation that begs the team at-bat to play situational baseball rather than sit back and wait for the long ball.  It’ll baseball as it was played in the 1970s and ‘80s.  I can’t wait.  Throw in the stirrups and sanitary hose and I’m in heaven.

And the season itself – 60 games, 53 games, whatever – gives each contest a sense of urgency it never had before.  Sure, once this all ends baseball will undoubtedly return to its traditional 162 game schedule but maybe it might be open to breaking up the season into segments or pausing the season for a round-robin tournament of some sort. Who knows.  There’s more than one way to play 162 games.  Who says they have to be played the way they’ve been scheduled since 1962?  Baseball says, I guess.  Or at least that’s what it’s said up to now.  But maybe going forward it will be open to looking into how to put a little more excitement, a little more life, into its schedule.

The likelihood is that baseball, being baseball, will refuse to learn from the laboratory experiment that the 2020 season is going to be and will stick its head back in the sand in 2021, returning to us the game we’ve been increasingly dissatisfied with for years now.  But maybe it won’t.

Baseball should have learned once Barry Bonds passed Hank Aaron on the all-time home run list that numbers are just that.  They don’t mean all that much in and of themselves.  They’re not what gives the game legitimacy or provide it with integrity.  In fact, its all-time home run leaderboard, populated as it is with the likes of Bonds, Sosa, and ARod, suggests the opposite.  Once we’re comfortable with the fact that the numbers, as numbers, don’t tell us all that much, we’re freed from the strictures of the game’s historical structure.  Then we can focus on making the game fun and exciting rather than simply the same. 

Mitch Nathanson's biography of Jim Bouton is out now.  Buy it and read about a guy who stirred baseball's pot in his own way, breathing life into the game when it so badly needed it.


MLB Tried. It Failed. Let's Learn From It

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Hey, we all wanted it to work.  And if any institution is going to figure out a Covid workaround it will be one of the professional sports leagues, given the financial investment and potential economic devastation if they can’t.  I wrote in this space back in May about how we should all applaud MLB’s attempt to return in the midst of the pandemic because, let’s be honest here, somebody’s got to give it a shot.  Rather them than my kid.

If MLB, the NFL, NBA and the NHL can’t make it work then how the hell is my kid’s public school district -- perennially cash-strapped and understaffed as it is, and seriously lacking the financial incentive to instill costly best practices -- supposed to?

Continue reading "MLB Tried. It Failed. Let's Learn From It" »


I MISS THE VET AND YOU SHOULD, TOO

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

In 2003, the final year of Veterans Stadium, my third base field level tickets cost 26 bucks apiece.  By that point it had become fashionable to call the Vet a dump because, well, it was.  The place was falling apart, it smelled, it was hit-or-miss whether the bathrooms worked (and when they did they stunk of urine because plenty of times it was the fans who missed), the parking lot was dangerous.  Everybody seemed to agree that it was time for it to go.

In 2004 the Phillies moved into beautiful, state-of-the-art Citizens Bank Park.  My Vet seats were swapped for comparable seats in the new digs and they were very nice.  At $40 a pop.  Today those seats will run you $70.  In a moment of timing so perfect that were it to have occurred in the stock market I’d be a millionaire right now, just weeks prior to the pandemic I informed the Phillies that I was done -- $70 was finally the bridge too far for me.  So those are no longer my seats.

With baseball starting back up I feel I am a fan adrift.  And so it hit me: I miss the Vet.  And not because I miss the smell of urine.  I miss it because the fight for the hearts and minds of Phillies fans to support its replacement marked the beginning of the end of accessible baseball for so many of us.  When the Vet imploded the Phillies won and Phillies fans lost.

We lost because the battle over a new stadium wasn’t really a battle over location and construction costs, but a battle over whether the Phillies would be able to delude their fans into fighting their fight for them – to so thoroughly overwhelm the club’s most ardent and diehard supporters with a stink bomb of a stadium in the old Vet that they’d beg the city and the club to build a palace at any cost.  A cash machine disguised as a palace, really, that Hoovered every penny out of their pockets from the parking lot to the final pitch. 

You see, the Vet was only a dump because the Phillies purposely made it so. Over the course of its final several seasons, as the club was simultaneously lobbying for new digs, it picked a series of fights with the city over who was responsible for this or that, and refused to perform all but the most bare bones maintenance on the place because, ultimately, it benefited the club if the Vet went to hell.  And so it did.  The Phils could have stepped up to make the necessary improvements, to fix this or that, to work more amicably with a city government that seemed perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy.  But they didn’t because they knew that if they could only get the fans to fight their battle for them they wouldn’t have to.

In the process the fans lost as the Vet deteriorated and became not only unsanitary but downright dangerous.  Not to worry, the Phillies said, we’re working on getting – for you! -- spectacular new digs, where the concessions will be amazing, everything will be clean, and everyone will feel safe.  The thing is, though, the club didn’t have to put its fans at risk at the Vet.  Through malicious neglect, animus towards the city, and with an eye toward lining its pockets in the process it chose to do so, though.  And that should tell you something.

It should tell you that the Phillies, like all professional sports teams, don’t give a crap about you.  They do give a crap about your wallet, however, as a tour through any of the wave of stadia built since the early’90s stadium boom demonstrates.  And they’ve managed to convince enough of their fans that whatever the Phillies want is what they should want as well.  This is how they won and we lost.

Somehow those within baseball (management AND players) have managed to co-opt the rest of us to do both their bidding and their dirty work for them.  The same way the movie industry convinced moviegoers that the weekly grosses were in any way relevant to their enjoyment of a film, baseball has made what’s important to its bottom line seem important to baseball fans.  And so just as we now care about who was number one at the box office each week (remember box offices?) we seem to think it’s important that the Yankees, Red Sox, and even the lowly Marlins wind up each season not only in the black but comfortably so. 

Baseball talks a lot – even now, in the middle of a pandemic where most people are struggling simply to keep their heads above water -- about “growing the game” and this talking point is repeated mindlessly by those who cover the sport as if it were an inalienable right.  But how does “growing the game” benefit fans?  Growing the game means increasing the money coming into baseball, adding revenue streams, wringing every last dollar out of your pocket for what is essentially the same experience you had a generation earlier at a fraction of the cost.  None of this inures to the benefit of the dwindling multitudes who, before the pandemic, bought tickets or tuned in to watch the games.

And the multitudes were dwindling precisely because baseball’s mindset – as neatly and effectively packaged and presented to you via your favorite columnist or media outlet – is killing the game by shaking down everyone who loves it. 

What if baseball didn’t grow?  What would happen then?  What if, instead, it shrank?  Somebody once said that one should never let a crisis go to waste and right now there exists an opportunity to seize the current one and push for a scaling down of the big business that is Major League Baseball.  After all, forgetting the owners and players for a moment, this would clearly benefit the fans.  A scaling back might lead to a decline in revenue and, accordingly, salaries.  In the process, and given the trending decrease in demand, ticket prices might even decrease, or at least hold relatively steady.  We might see clubs working a bit harder to maintain their now aging stadiums (Camden Yards is now only five years younger than the Vet was when it was imploded) rather than actively work to destroy them in the hopes of getting a gleaming replacement that will only bleed fans dry more efficiently. 

It sounds blasphemous to even suggest – shrinking the pie rather than growing it.  But that’s only because we’ve become inured to follow the whims and wants of big business.  There’s no gravitational or natural law that says we have to.  There’s not even any written law.  We, as a culture, simply decided to, when we weren’t paying attention, when we were distracted by shiny new things such as faux brick baseball malls.  Perhaps now we should start paying attention.

Was the Vet a jewel of a ballpark?  Hardly.  But neither was Brooklyn’s fabled Ebbets Field.  Dodger fans didn’t love Ebbets Field because of the amenities (there were none); they loved it because that’s where their Dodgers played.  Period.  For fans, that’s really all that matters.  But baseball and its attendant scribes enjoy going to great lengths to convince you that that’s not the case. 

As fans and readers of our favorite sportswriters and talking heads (not all, of course, but far too many) it’s pounded into us that we have strict sight-line requirements, insist upon numerous food and beverage options, and relish “premium opportunities” (whatever the hell those are).  But while some of that might be nice, we really don’t need any of it.  Particularly when the associated costs render the game less affordable overall.  After all, you didn’t have any of that before CBP and if you were old enough to remember the Vet as it existed before the mid-90s you loved it anyway, even if you may never have thought about your affinity for the concrete bagel in precisely that way.

CBP is nice, for sure, but every inch of the place is designed to sell you something you don’t need or, really, even want.  Astroturf may have sucked but the Vet’s outfield walls were gloriously free of signage, as was most of the stadium.  On balance, even with the Astroturf, attending a ballgame at the Vet was a purer baseball experience than anything at CBP could ever hope to be. 

Baseball is fun when it’s accessible and affordable.  When it ceases to be those two things it becomes little more than a revenue stream unto itself.  And that’s not fun for anybody without a financial stake in it.  The Vet was this city’s last vestige of accessible, affordable Major League Baseball.

I miss the hell out of it.

Mitch Nathanson's biography of Jim Bouton is out now.


Does Anyone Know What a "Phillie" Is?

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

Whatever name the Washington football club decides upon going forward we can agree on at least two things: 1) some people will be upset regardless; and 2) no matter the name, if you think hard enough about it you’ll come to the conclusion that it’s stupid even if it isn’t offensive.  Because, really, can you think of a single team name that isn’t? 

Anybody know what a Phillie is?  Or a Seventy-Sixer?  I know what a flyer is, but I’m assuming the Philadelphia hockey team was named after something other than a pamphlet often utilized to advertise something like plumbing services or cut-rate lawn care.  Or maybe it was.  Either way, it’s ridiculous.

Continue reading "Does Anyone Know What a "Phillie" Is?" »


BY ALL MEANS, YES, LET’S GET THIS CRAP SEASON STARTED

By Mitch Nathanson, Historical Columnist 

50 games, 70 games, 65 games, whatever. Let’s get this nightmare of a season started, if only so we can all shut up about it and get it over with.  Sort of like the rationale behind leaving for Aunt Rose’s Goulash-infused apartment every few months or so when you were a kid.  Get in the car already so we can all get back in it sooner rather than later to go back home.  There seems to be no better motivation to get things moving on the baseball front that I can see.

Whether it’s 50 games, 60 games, or 70 the season’s going to be a sham no matter what.  Nobody’s going to consider the winner of a division consisting of teams that aren’t even in your team’s division to be anything other than a lamentable stain on baseball’s history anyway so, yes, by all means, MLB, do whatever you have to do to get this show on the road so we can park it back in the driveway as soon as possible. 

Remember when the Expos “won” the NL’s Eastern Division back in the split-season of 1981?  That was exponentially more legitimate than anything baseball might think up in 2020.  And that wasn’t legitimate by a country mile.  Ask the ’81 Reds and Cardinals before you disagree. 

So, sure, put ads on the uniforms if you want.  What the hell does anybody care anymore, anyway?  Everybody’s already angry at Rob Manfred, Tony Clark, the owners, the players, and probably even the poor schmuck with the flags who tells them where to park their cars.  Can there be even a smidgen more animosity between those who put on the game of baseball and the shrinking multitude who still watch it?  I think not.  So go crazy. 

Which was probably behind the decision to go with the universal DH this season.  Hey, almost nobody who watches National League baseball wants it so why not give it to them?  Makes about as much sense to me as anything else baseball has done recently. 

Here in Philly a crap season might be even extra crappy, what with a crap Phanatic to go along with everything else.  Yes, the current plan (wait, there’s a current plan?) does not call for mascots to roam the empty bleachers (insert Miami Marlin mascot wisecrack here) but perhaps baseball can make an exception for the nightmare the Phillies trotted out back in March in order to subvert their legal obligations to the creators of the costume. 

That crass abomination, created – no joke – under the tutelage of a bunch of lawyers, set the tone for the 2020 season before the coronavirus could even take hold.  As soon as you saw that thing in Clearwater you knew 2020 was going to be ugly.  You just didn’t know how ugly.  Now you know.  New Phanatic ugly.  That’s how ugly.

But wait, it gets uglier.  Now comes the news that at least five Phillies training in their Clearwater complex have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 20 more still awaiting test results.  After positive tests came back in some other camps, MLB shut them all down.  Temporarily, they say.  Just like the uniform ad patches and universal DH will all be temporary.  Soon the world will be righted, baseball would have us believe.  And when it is, the ad patches, universal DH, expanded playoffs, and everything else baseball has bungled in an impressively short amount of time will be righted along with it. 

I’ve got a crime scene of a Phanatic that says otherwise.

Mitch Nathanson's biography of Jim Bouton is out now.