Race and Baseball: Has the Game Progressed?

By John A. Poole
Updated: November 20, 2007

GLEN BURNIE, MARYLAND — In the eyes of Americans, baseball has always been America’s Game. It’s as American as “Apple Pie.” Sure, the Dallas Cowboys may have been called “America’s Team,” but when it comes to our national spirit, baseball is still the sport we choose, the sport with which we most identify ourselves. Furthermore, whether one likes sports or not, everyone still knows what a home run is — and who has never heard of Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle?

Why is baseball the “American game”?

Maybe it’s the excitement of seeing great athletes excel at a sport they love, or maybe it’s the grace of a home run swing or the beauty of a diving catch. It may be the personal attachment to the players we feel when we watch them play everyday.

Or, is there another factor at work here? Might it also be because, next to the NHL and golf (which is currently being dominated by a black man — whether or not he wants to admit to his “blackness”), MLB has the highest ratio of white to black athletes compared to any other sport?

It’s a very sensitive subject, and one many people do not touch on. It’s a situation that Spike Lee may never speak, or make a film, about. But, should it be this way? We ought to be able to speak of it the way we speak about black actors not getting enough of the top roles in movies or black executives not being able to make partner.

Certainly, dominance by whites in baseball was the reality from the beginning of the game through the 1960′s. If you ask an average person (whether or not a sports fan) who Bob Gibson is, will he or she know to whom you are referring? More than likely, the answer will be no. But if you ask that same person who Sandy Koufax is, there’s a good chance that, at the very least, he will be recognized as an outstanding baseball pitcher (or player) from the 1960′s, and a baseball fan would probably be able to spill Koufax’s entire life story.

Both players were extraordinarily talented. In fact, many white and black players were superb athletes. Yet, too often, the names that percolated into the national memory were those of white athletes, rather than black ones. We can mitigate this injustice, and level the playing field, by speaking and writing more about the efforts and achievements of the black athlete. And today, in this column, we write about Bob Gibson and Ferguson Jenkins.

How do we forget, or not even hear about, a man who, in 1968, ended the season with a 22-9 record and a 1.12 ERA (Earned Run Average)? In that same year, he also won the CY Young and the MVP awards. He was only the 2nd person ever to record 200 strikeouts in a season, 3,000 strikeouts for a career and, during one stretch, he won 7 straight World Series games. This is the same man who did not even start his career in baseball. Gibson, after he graduated from Creighton University, went to play for the Harlem Globetrotters for a year and then, the following year, went on to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Gibson, a Hall of Fame inductee in 1981, proved throughout his entire career (1959-1975) that his name was worthy of mention with the great players who have played this game over the years. Gibson’s game was a game based on strength, using his fastball to intimidate batters for 16 years. Gibson finished his career with 251 wins, a record which ranks 2nd among black pitchers in Major League Baseball.

But, a 284-win record ranks first — and it was done between 1965 and1983 by Ferguson Jenkins.

Jenkins, born in Ontario, Canada came into the league at the age of 22. During his career he played with four different teams: the Cubs, Rangers, Phillies, and Red Sox. His best years were spent with the Chicago Cubs from 1966-1973 where he amassed 137 wins and an incredible streak of six 20-win seasons.

Jenkins may not have had the record-breaking numbers that Gibson had, and he definitely was not as intimidating, but Jenkins was able to become the definition of consistency. With his streak of 20 win seasons, which included 2 seasons with 25 wins, Jenkins became the only black pitcher in the history of MLB with over 280 wins.

Jenkins and Gibson are two pitchers who have dominated the game of baseball for a specific period of time and have also made themselves a home in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. At the same time, they both seem to have dropped out of normal conversation when it turns to the best pitchers in the history of the game. It is true that there are other pitchers who have more wins, with 20 pitchers surpassing the 300-win mark. But these two pitchers helped to redefine the position and the way the game was played.

Major League Baseball was dominated by white athletes in its early years, but, over the last three decades, athletes of color have been able to show their own dominance in a game they’ve been playing for years. Players like Eddie Murray and Rickey Henderson may never get all they’re due when the best players of the game are noted. Yet, both rank in the top 3 of players of all time at their respective positions.

Let us remember the milestones that black athletes have achieved over the years in the same way we remember how great an actor Denzel Washington is or how Earl Graves has set the standards for black businessmen in America.

All these men deserve the praise offered here.