Color Barrier Still Exists In Several Areas Of Baseball, Some Players Say

By Kathleen O'Brien
Updated: September 15, 2005

Quit crying, son. (espn)

FORT WORTH, TexasWhen San Francisco radio talk-show host Larry Krueger made an on-air comment last month that he was tired of watching the Giants’ “brain-dead Caribbean hitters hacking at slop nightly,” it created an uproar, led by Giants manager Felipe Alou, that resulted in Krueger being fired.

When Dodgers outfielder Milton Bradley told reporters that teammate Jeff Kent “doesn’t know how to deal with African-American players,” it was suggested that Bradley was playing the race card.

Neither incident, however unfortunate, came as a surprise to many minority players in Major League Baseball.

“It didn’t shock me,” Rangers reliever Erasmo Ramirez said of Krueger’s comments. “You hear that kind of stuff all the time.”

The only surprise for some was that Krueger made the comments public. Said Rangers second baseman Alfonso Soriano, who is from the Dominican Republic: “Look, I know that there are people who are racist, but what surprised me was that he was so open about it. I know there is racism out there, but many people don’t express it like that.”

Race is always part of the equation for minority players, who comprised 37 percent of major league baseball rosters last season, according to the 2004 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball, produced by Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Race might often be overlooked, ignored or hush-hushed – at least publicly – but racial issues exist in baseball just as they do in society.

“I think (race) might play a little role in all aspects of the game,” Ramirez said. “I’d like to think that it doesn’t, but you’ve got to look at it realistically.”

As Cubs manager Dusty Baker said, “Baseball’s not separate from the world. (Racism) is real. Nobody wants to talk about it. You don’t hear guys talk in depth too much, especially minority guys, because you get accused of playing the race card.”

And that label can cling long after the original comment is forgotten. Perhaps that explains the common reaction many players, coaches and managers had as soon as the issue of “race” was raised. They take a deep breath, their eyes get wider, and their comments usually note how sensitive the subject is.

Several of the players approached, in fact, declined to comment about anything relating to race. Others measured their words, trying not to say anything inflammatory. And some asked not to be identified because they feared the negative reaction if they spoke frankly.

One Latin-American player said, “I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen what happens if you talk about race. I don’t want those kinds of problems. . . . But I have heard many racist comments before, bad things, total nonsense.”

Even White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, normally one of the most outspoken people in baseball, said, “I’ve learned, you can’t talk about race in this country. No matter what you say, you’re gonna be wrong.”

Guillen’s sentiment is probably true to a large extent. Comments regarding race draw a more heated reaction than almost anything a person can say. And while racism and prejudice are not nearly as overt and prevalent in baseball as when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, and when Hank Aaron and Felipe Alou played, they still exist.

“It has improved,” Yankees outfielder Matt Lawton. “Instead of the flags and cross-burning and all that stuff, I think it’s a little more hidden now.”

Mariners closer Eddie Guardado got a rude awakening when he played rookie ball in Elizabethton, Tenn., in 1991, and the family he lived with told him about Ku Klux Klan parades.

Said MLB executive vice president Jimmie Lee Solomon, who is American-born black: “If (racism) is happening, then we should do our best to stamp it out. We should be able to at least voice our opinions about things. However, one has to be certain that when one uses that word, it is correct.”

Today, racism does not mean minorities are being banned from baseball. A black player can be voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player seven times, as Barry Bonds has. A Dominican-born man can become a general manager, as Omar Minaya has for the New York Mets. And a Japanese player can be named the American League MVP his rookie season and an All-Star each of his first five years, as Ichiro Suzuki has done for the Seattle Mariners.

Shades of racism, though, still tint corners of the baseball world. It is there in off-handed comments that group all Dominican players. It is there when someone pokes fun at the accent or English speaking ability of Asian and/or Latino players.

“Sometimes, the fans and the media react very differently,” said one Latino player, “as if they think the player doesn’t want to talk, when in reality, he doesn’t know how to express himself.”

Some of that responsibility rests with the player. In part, though, it could perhaps be better addressed by teams, although most organizations have markedly increased their efforts to teach English to all players.

Many teams have an interpreter for Asian-born players. Teammates, club officials and sometimes a broadcaster doing games for a Spanish- speaking network, will help young Latino players in postgame interviews. Still, when highly regarded pitcher Edison Volquez recently made his Rangers debut, he was left to fend for himself. Volquez speaks English, but probably would have felt more comfortable in his native language.

“I think the issues start in the minor leagues; that’s where they really need help,” Twins reliever J.C. Romero said. “But I also think, as a Latin player, you have to at least put the effort forward to try and express yourself.”

Racism could be seen in scouting reports that used certain phrases or buzz words to describe most black players and white players.

“I find that a lot of (scouting reports) are very stereotypical,” Rangers shortstop Michael Young said. “For example, a white kid who grows up in the United States is `a hard-nosed player who lacks the athletic ability’, but he’s hard-nosed and he gets by there. He’s what you’d call a baseball player.’

“Whereas, you have the African-American player who’s stereotypically, `. . . a great athlete, but he lacks the fundamentals for the game.’

“People throw that label around without even seeing the player play, ” Young said. “It’s unfortunate, because nothing good can come of it. I think everybody should be judged on an individual basis.”

And maybe “hard-nosed” does describe the white player or “athletic” does fit the black player. It’s not always a cut-and-dry case where one can check “Racism, yes” or “Racism, no.”

Does subtle racism have anything to do with the dwindling number of black players in the major leagues, which fell to 8.9 percent last year, the smallest percentage in decades? The prevailing opinion is that economics is a bigger factor. Baseball is focusing its resources on Latin America, where players are not subject to the annual draft and are cheaper to sign. And baseball is often more costly for kids to pursue than football and basketball, which have attracted increasing numbers of black youths and offer a quicker path to the professional leagues.

Another question, however, is whether minority players are steered to playing certain positions or discouraged from playing certain positions the way blacks were once not considered quarterback material.

For example, 26 percent of outfielders are black, according to the 2004 Racial and Gender Report Card, and only 3 percent of pitchers and 2 percent of catchers are black. Is that due to playing preference or a bias in coaching and scouting that directs minorities towards certain positions?

The percentage of shortstops who are Latino has climbed to 64 percent in 2004. Twenty-six percent of all major leaguers are Latinos. Is it personal preference, coincidence, or is some other dynamic at work?

Some players wonder why players with similar personality traits are often characterized seemingly by race. Carl Everett is considered a head case, but Jeff Kent is aloof. Lenny Dykstra’s all-out, reckless style was admired even if it caused injuries, while Eric Davis was called injury-prone.

And why is Babe Ruth still more synonymous with home runs than Hank Aaron, who hit more?

“They talk about Babe Ruth like he’s got the home run record,” said Twins outfielder Jacque Jones. “He ain’t the home run king. He’s a good player, but he’s in second place.”

At least the playing field seems to offer a level environment. Every team first and foremost wants to win, thus the best players will play the most. Fifty percent of the 2005 All-Stars were Latino, black or Asian. The MVPs of both leagues have been a minority each year since 2001 (including Bonds four times) and 18 of the past 24 MVPs have been minorities.

“I haven’t seen it in any clubhouse that I’ve been in,” Mariners pitcher Joel Pineiro said of bias. “Never. Never ever.”

But other areas lag. Arte Moreno became the first Latino principal owner of a MLB team when he bought the Angels last year. Minaya became the first Latino general manager when MLB appointed him to that position with the then Montreal Expos in 2001. Minaya, who was born in the Dominican Republic, was hired as the Mets’ GM last fall. But he and Ken Williams (who is black) of the White Sox are still the only minority general managers among the 30 major league teams.

Managers fare better. At the start of the 2005 season, there were seven minority managers, or 20 percent. Even though the Royals’ Tony Pena and the Pirates’ Lloyd McClendon have been fired, it represents progress, since there have been only 21 different minority managers in major league history.

“There has been some progress,” said Rangers first base coach DeMarlo Hale, who has interviewed for three managerial positions. “As I look down the road, there is some possibility for me reaching that position. But also, they have to choose you. It’s 30 jobs.”

Baseball still lags in other front-office positions. According to the 2004 Racial and Gender Report Card, 98 percent of team physicians are white, as are 94 percent of public relations directors and 90 percent of chief financial officers. And all 30 head trainers were white in 2004, although the Mets hired former Rangers assistant trainer Ray Ramirez as their head trainer last winter.

“I think that our society still has some prejudice in it, and baseball is a reflection of the society in which we emanate,” Solomon said. “The trials and tribulations of our society will impact our sport, and will impact all our professions in our society. I think that we’re getting better. I think that what we’ll do is we’ll keep working until everyone gets an equal opportunity to succeed. That’s utopia.”

And utopia, defined as “an imaginary place considered to be perfect or ideal,” does not exist.

Still, the goal is to strive to make things better.

“I think there’s still racism, not only in baseball, but everywhere,” Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee said. “I think it gets better, but it’s not going to go away. Racism will always be there. The quicker you realize that, the better off you’ll be.”