Is Selig Judge Landis or Branch Rickey?

By Adrian Burgos Jr.
Updated: July 13, 2010

ILLINOIS — Major league baseball needs to address Arizona’s anti-immigrant law.

Back in May, it hosted its fourth annual Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati. Yet the greatest civil rights issue that the game must confront today was not on the weekend’s agenda, and it doesn’t appear to be a priority for major league Commissioner Bud Selig.

But he can’t dodge the issue forever. Major league baseball is scheduled to play its 2011 All Star Game in Arizona, and if it proceeds with this plan, many players may boycott the game.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has sided with those calling for major leaguers to boycott the All Star Game unless it is moved or the Arizona law is repealed.

In a May 10 letter to the Major League Baseball Players Association’s top executive, Menendez thanked the group for publicly opposing the law, calling it “offensive to Hispanics and all Americans because it codifies racial profiling into law by requiring police to question anyone who appears to be in the country illegally.”

The Move the Game campaign poses a challenge to Selig that echoes with baseball’s historical past, specifically his sport’s place in the civil rights movement, what Selig intended to celebrate when he created the Civil Rights Game four years ago.

Will he be Judge Kenesaw Landis or Branch Rickey?

Will he decide to preside over a racist status quo, as did Landis? In the face of challenges from integration advocates, Landis infamously proclaimed no law or color line existed during his time as commissioner, from 1920-1944, when no blacks played in the league.

Or, will Selig muster the courage of Branch Rickey?

In 1945, the Brooklyn Dodgers executive chose to initiate baseball’s great experiment by signing Jackie Robinson, major league’s first black integration pioneer.

Selig’s advisers are giving him the “take” sign on this pitch, telling him not to threaten Arizona with moving the 2011 All Star Game.

He already has his bat on his shoulder. When recently confronted on this issue, he responded by citing an annual report produced by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, which gave major league baseball an “A” for race and a “B” for its gender hiring.

“Apparently all the people around and in minority communities think we’re doing OK,” Selig told the Associated Press. “That’s the issue, and that’s the answer.”

As a historian who studies baseball history, immigration and race relations in the United States and the Caribbean, I disagree with Selig.

There is much more involved here than the league’s hiring record and the sheer number of minorities working in its offices. Inclusion is just the start in the march toward civil rights.

This is what many across the country are trying to demonstrate to Selig in their protests outside big league ballparks and in their various petition drives to have major league move the All Star Game.

It’s also an insult to Latino celebrities Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and Mariano Rivera and to emerging stars such as Adrian Gonzalez, Yadier Molina, and Hanley Ramirez.

The San Diego Padres’ Gonzalez immediately threatened to boycott next year’s All Star Game, telling journalist Tom Krasovic, “If they leave it up to the players and the law is still there, I’ll probably not play in the All Star Game.

Because it’s a discriminating law.”

Baseball has a responsibility not to sit idly by. Foreign-born Latinos make up about 50 percent of all minor leaguers; together, U.S.-born and foreign-born Latinos represent well over a quarter of the players in the majors.

So the choice is yours, Commissioner Selig: Landis or Rickey?

Choose wisely.

NOTE: This article first appeared in Progressive magazine on May 24, 2010.