Let’s Play Two

Part 1 of a 4 part series on baseball, culture and social change

Much has been written about the pastime of baseball and the connection that it has to national culture.  I will endeavor to add to the discourse.

I appreciate both participatory and spectator sports, I know many people might not share such passions.  Of sports, baseball, for me, singularly stands above all the others.  My experience is that if you play baseball, you learn its pleasures, which to the uninitiated, may be impossible to describe.  You also know that a baseball player is simultaneously  a spectator.  In the dugout, awaiting your turn at bat, you watch the action, as the ramifications of what takes place will impact your potential contributions to the game.  On defense, in the field, you’re found waiting and watching plays that you aren’t directly involved in.  Eight position players watch the confrontation between pitcher and batter, prepared to spring in to action in a split second.

Major League Baseball, for many, offers the best of what the sport has to offer.  It has the best practitioners, the best facilities, concessions, and perhaps the best atmosphere.  One reason the sport as a whole and MLB in particular have been significantly woven into the fabric of our culture is that it has evolved alongside modern American history from the time of its earliest introduction in the 1800s.

Here let’s touch on slavery.

Some would argue that slavery has been in existence in various forms throughout human history.  I would argue for the premise that an aspect of slavery exists within a symbiotic relationship.  The slave and slaveowner share a commonality.  The lives of both slave and slaveowner are closely connected.  They have a shared priority, that being the quality of life of the slaveowner.  Wrong or right, for worse or for better, there are potentially more damaging things than slavery.  “Racial” segregation is one.

Slavery has as a fundamental characteristic, the role of status.  The single dividing aspect between slave and slaveowner is social status.  Remove status, and you are left with equals.  I will not assert that people are basically equal, but I offer this fact, all people can be treated as equals.  “Racial” segregation, on the other hand has no such purity, for it assumes people are different, and by implication are not equal, therefore should not be treated equally.  It also assumes that these “different” people prefer to be separated from those who are “different” from them and integrated with those who are not.

Here is where it is not equal by any measure.  Segregation means you will have no part of my life.  I will have no part of your life.  You are denied the experience of everything that I contribute to our culture, and I am deprived of everything you and your’s contribute.  To the extent that people are not equal, winners and losers are born out of the denial of access that segregation causes.  What is the implication in the difference created with segregation?  If you are a slave you have value to the slaveowner’s life. If you are part of a segregated “race” you have no such value whatever.  By extension you are of no value.  If anything, you are a detriment.  Welcome to my neighborhood.  Segregation was the flawed solution to our post-slave society.

Back to baseball. 83706691-AEC5-4C8B-803F-0F1BFE89E075

Our sport existed for a time in a state of separate organized competitive leagues.  There were Negro leagues because baseball was completely segregated well into the 20th Century.  MLB is a prosperous multi billion dollar industry today.  The Negro leagues collapsed long before the first African American player was allowed into MLB in 1947.  The success of professional baseball relative to other forms of entertainment is often underestimated.

The prosperity of the nation has parallels to the expansion of professional baseball. Thirty cities house major league franchises.  That is double the number of the original 1876 league of clubs.  There are close to 240 minor league professional teams.  Their existence allows the profession to permeate throughout the country in the small towns and communities which lack the population density to fill 50,000 plus seat stadiums 81 days each year.  Revenue is generated from live attendance of games at every level. Concessions, souvenirs/memorabilia (including licensing and merchandising of same), advertising, and broadcast media involve an almost exponential income stream.  Forbes estimates the current value of the Los Angeles Dodgers franchise at $3 billion.

The first modern renaissance of the segregated MLB was highlighted by the career of home run champion George Herman ‘Babe’ Ruth who’s 1927 New York Yankees are considered by many to be the greatest team of all time.  Flash back to the the economic frivolity of the 1920’s, which culminated with the crash of the New York Stock Exchange in 1929, signaling the beginnings of the Great Depression.

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Fast forward through three wars and several economic and political crises to arrive at perhaps the historical peak of the sport.  The integrated MLB of the 1980s decade not only had the best American players but a significant number from foreign countries.  By the end of the decade close to 15% of the player pool was foreign born.  1993 reached a significant demographic milestone when the percentage of foreign players equaled that of African American players.  Today, 228 players from 13 different countries comprise 27% of the league.  While the number of African Americans has decreased to 68 players, less than 8%.  In part two of this series, I will discuss some of the theories for these numbers and try to determine what role segregation played, if any.

A film that makes you comfortably consider uncomfortable realities: First Reformed

First Reformed is written and directed by Paul Schrader. It stars Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles.

This film has religious themes. Yet at its core it is a film about the human condition. Ethan Hawke portrays minister Reverend Toller who presides over a handful of attendees in an historic church building. He is employed by mega church Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric Kyles. One of his churchgoers, Mary, a pregnant Amanda Seyfried, seeks Toller’s help with her husband whom she is desperate to keep from being sent back to prison.

The approach to the story is brutal, stark, and emotionally jarring, sensitive viewers should be cautioned about the content as some could find it too disturbing.

The style of the film is the main character. It brought to mind Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece about an aging gunslinger William Munny, in Wyoming circa 1881. The mood and the tone are clearly set as we are introduced to the fragile psychological state of Reverend Toller. His conflict is one that would challenge anyone. He has suffered loss, and in the process, betrayed his personal beliefs, with both physical and emotional consequences. Schrader manages to fill the screenplay with such a large quantity of ideas, you no doubt will miss some, but those that resonate with you will cause you pause.

The grace of this story is that from within it we can draw a relationship with scores of people who face similar issues during their lifetime. You see First Reformed, and you can consider the personal choices you have been making, even if your life looks nothing like any of those on the screen. Beyond that, it provides a polemic on the societies we live in and the world in general, by questioning who is responsible for the ills that surround us. Is it God? Is it mankind? Do our actions define what we believe? Do we have the free will to destroy the planet? If so what does that say about God?

The film will demand that you pay attention, and consider each and every nuanced aspect of the content and how it relates to other aspects of what takes place, in order to appreciate the messages. It becomes clear that this film is in some ways simple on its face, but at the same time complex beyond expectation. You could say that this is a story about religion that doesn’t preach. Or a tragic Shakespearean (sic) rendering of An Inconvenient Truth. What you cannot say is that it doesn’t deliver a powerful punch, a thoughtful story, and a contemplation of our spiritual condition.

A Story about Mom

I am in a discussion group for the book Recovering from Loss in Life, by H. Norman Wright.  I believe we have much to benefit from reading and talking ala book club like.  I even created an online book club on Goodreads.com, though it hasn’t yet come to fruition.

Have you experienced good results from book discussion groups?  If so, to what do you attribute their success?  I feel determined to pursue them out of an expectation that the effort will be well rewarded.

At this stage in my current group, I am applying one of the questions in Chapter 2 – healthy things I will do to respond to my next loss – by writing about my mother.  Her late stage dementia is a loss I want to cope with.  So, for my healing, and for her honor, I am remembering some good times that she created in my life.  I’m quite sure some fond memories will be a safe destination.

Once upon a time…

My senior year in high school, we lived far enough away that walking from home would not work.  I had a zero hour (7am) class because I played saxophone in the performance band.  As a member of the cross country and track team for the school, my team workouts wound up anywhere from 5 to 5:30pm before heading home.

We could not afford for me to have car, and I did not have a job.  What did mom do?  I drove her to work by 6:30am for her job that started at 8.  After dropping her off I would head to school in her car.  After work, she would get rides home from co-workers.

This was our routine, done with no fanfare, with no big discussion about sacrifice nor any acknowledgment that anything was special or extraordinary.  It just was.

This example reflects a myriad of the shared experiences which she contributed in our lives.  The nature of how my mother treated life and family can be imagined, I hope, from considering her role in this story.  I love you mom.