briefly, on robert peterson and baseball conservatism

In celebration of spring training and the forthcoming baseball season, I finally read the authoritative history of Negro Leagues baseball, Robert Peterson’s Only the Ball Was White, first published in 1970. I strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in baseball and/or African-American culture and history.

There is, at one point, where the otherwise thoughtful and erudite Peterson makes a needless and uncharacteristic (relative to the rest of his text) error. Toward the end of his history of segregated baseball, he posits that Negro Leaguers themselves were not necessarily crusaders for breaking down the sport’s color barrier, as well as the fact that the concept of the color barrier was little more than nominal even in the mind of those in the Major Leagues–from Commissioner Kennesaw Landis to–obviously–Branch Rickey to managers Leo Durocher and Gabby Hartnett–by the time Jackie Robinson crushed it for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Yet, Peterson rhetorically decides that this détente was, in fact, a one-sided cold war:

“…[B]aseball’s conservatives were not yet ready for such a drastic step as removal of the color line.” [Peterson, 179]

Baseball’s conservatives.

It’s a poor wording choice for several reasons: first, baseball had no conservatives. The game itself had been formed, reformed and tinkered and tooled with the entire time. And, by Peterson’s own account, this was no longer primarily a racial animosity issue in 1946: none of the principle parties cared until Rickey brought Robinson up to the big league. And then, the floodgates opened. Now, apathy is not the absence of racism, but it cannot be the presence of it, either, lest the legends of the Negro Leagues also be considered racist, and pages 177-8 indicate ‘fatalism’ on the other side.

Secondly, and because of the first point, ‘conservative’ is a needless political adjective/pejorative inserted to uphold a dialectic that, according to the author’s own implication, does not exist. Instead, it appears that the convenient pejorative is applied with the casual–and inappropriately misleading–meaning that ‘conservative’ equals ‘racist’. The fact is that one’s political orientation–be it in the halls of government or in the confines of sport– neither inherently implies nor exempts a person from bigoted behavior or attitudes. Baseball’s ‘conservatives’ would have likely been more concerned about returning to the dead-ball era of ‘pure’ base-ball, not about the level of melanin in a player’s skin as criterion for employment. No one wanted that, and they didn’t for the prior 30 years. So what is the author really saying here?

It’s an unfortunate and unhelpful moment in what is otherwise a fine piece of writing. Sadly, these unfortunate and unhelpful moments are commonplace in today’s polarized and dialectical state of affairs. Regardless, I still recommend it.

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