Out of Left Field
Major league baseball has a long but little-known history of rebels, reformers, and radicals.
A week after his inauguration, Donald Trump signed the first iteration of his travel ban, sparking nationwide protests. “These refugees are fleeing civil wars, terrorism, religious persecution, and are thoroughly vetted for 2yrs,” tweeted Oakland A’s pitcher Sean Doolittle. “A refugee ban is a bad idea. . . It feels un-American. And also immoral.” St Louis Cardinals outfielder Dexter Fowler, whose wife emigrated from Iran, told ESPN that he opposed the executive order. In response to angry comments from fans, Fowler tweeted, “For the record. I know this is going to sound absolutely crazy, but athletes are humans, and not properties of the team they work for.”
Doolittle and Fowler’s comments reflect ballplayers’ long but little-known tradition of dissent and rebellion. Compared to their counterparts in football and basketball, baseball players have tended to be cautious about speaking out on controversial social and political issues, but, throughout the sport’s history, a minority of players — alongside executives, sportswriters, and managers — has challenged the status quo.
Baseball’s rebels, reformers, and radicals took inspiration from the country’s dissenters and progressive movements, speaking and acting against abuses both within their profession and in the broader society: racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, war, repression, corporate domination, and worker exploitation.
Dissent has played a central role in American history. Every reformist crusade since the Boston Tea Party has drawn on this legacy: the abolitionists who helped end slavery; the Populist farmers who sought to tame the banks, railroads, and other big corporations; the progressives who fought slums, sweatshops, and epidemic diseases; the suffragists who won the vote for women; the labor unionists who demanded an eight-hour workday, safe working conditions, and a living wage; the pioneers who helped dismantle Jim Crow; and other activists, who have won hard-fought battles for environmental protection, women’s equality, gay rights, and decent conditions for farmworkers.
Ballplayers and owners have often voiced skepticism and even opposition to progressive or radical movements. Hall of Famer (and Ku Klux Klan member) Rogers Hornsby claimed that “any ballplayer that don’t sign autographs for little kids ain’t American. He’s a Communist.” Ty Cobb, another hardcore racist Hall of Famer, chastised a shirking pitcher, “Don’t you turn Bolshevik on me.”
In the late 1940s, Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey condemned ballplayers’ decision to join the Mexican League and reject Major League Baseball’s stingy salaries as a “communist plot.” In the 1950s, the Cincinnati “Reds” changed their name to the “Redlegs” to escape the nation’s anticommunist hysteria. In the 1960s, San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark declared that “Any pitcher who throws at a batter and deliberately tries to hit him is a communist.”
In the mid-1970s, when ballplayer Rick Monday thwarted an American flag-burning attempt in the Dodger Stadium outfield, he was hailed as a hero. In the early 2000s, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda campaigned for an anti-flag-desecration amendment. Last March, broadcaster and former major league pitcher Curt Schilling compared Muslims to Nazis and called for Hillary Clinton to be “buried under a jail somewhere.”
The United States’ battles over race, labor, immigration, and gender have all been reflected on the field, in the executive suites, in the press box, and in the community. While we all know some of baseball’s rebels, like Jackie Robinson, Marvin Miller, and Curt Flood, many others are either forgotten or known primarily for their sports achievements. All Americans — whether or not they are baseball fans — can learn from this history.
Building the Color Barrier
The Civil War ended slavery, but, by the 1870s, segregation replaced Reconstruction’s promises. For almost a century, black Americans and their white allies fought against Jim Crow laws in all walks of life: politics, education, transportation, public facilities, and sports.
Baseball had its own Jim Crow rebels. Octavius Catto was not only a prominent activist for black education and civil rights but also a leading ballplayer. He turned Philadelphia into a hotbed of African-American baseball until a political assassination took his life in 1871.
Moses Fleetwood Walter was even more influential than Catto. Born at an Underground Railroad stop in 1856, Walker broke the color barrier as the first “open” African American in major league baseball more than six decades before Jackie Robinson broke into baseball in 1947.
Walker entered Oberlin College in 1880, where he excelled as a student and catcher on the baseball team. That summer, when the Cleveland-based semipro team he joined traveled to Kentucky, the Louisville club refused to play with Walker on the field. This prejudice — and the racist taunts from fans and players — became common. Walker transferred to the University of Michigan, where he studied law and led the baseball team to a winning season.
In 1883, Walker helped the Toledo Blue Stockings in the professional Northwestern League win the pennant, but his race remained an issue. At an exhibition game that August, Cap Anson, ardent racist and future Hall of Famer, refused to let his Chicago White Stockings play against Toledo with Walker on the team. Relenting only to avoid losing gate receipts, Anson vowed never to play with a “nigger” again. Thus began major league baseball’s exclusion of black players.
When Toledo joined the American Association (AA) in 1884, Walker broke that league’s color barrier. He faced constant abuse, including death threats, from fans, sportswriters, and other players. Injury ended his season prematurely, and Walker never appeared in another major league game. New York Giants manager John Montgomery Ward wanted to sign Walker, but the league told him he couldn’t hire a black player.
Walker joined the minor league Newark Little Giants in 1887, forming the first African American battery with pitching star George Stovey. In a July exhibition game, Walker once again encountered Anson, who insisted that he and Stovey not play. That same day, the Little Giants’ league owners voted to exclude any new black players from future contracts.
A year later, Walker moved again, this time to the Syracuse Stars. And, once again, Anson drove him from the field. In 1889, the AA and National League (NL) officially banned blacks, institutionalizing Jim Crow and driving Walker from the game.
After his baseball career was over, Walker returned to Ohio, where he bought the Union Hotel in Steubenville, purchased an opera house and theater in nearby Cadiz, and patented three of his inventions. He became a black nationalist and edited The Equator, a newspaper about black issues. Walker’s 1908 book Our Home Colony concluded: “The only practical solution of the race troubles in the US is entire separation by emigration of the Negro from America.” Anticipating Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa movement by a decade, Walker called for black relocation to Liberia.
Gilded Age Baseball
By the 1880s, a few industrialists — Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Vanderbilt, to name just three — controlled most of the nation’s wealth. Developing ruthless monopolies, these so-called Robber Barons deployed every tactic, no matter how vicious, to enhance their power and profits. They cut wages, repressed unions, and bribed politicians. This ushered in the Gilded Age: riches for the few, misery and exploitation for the rest.
A group of unscrupulous baseball club owners mimicked the industrial magnates’ strategies. At the same time that a growing labor movement was pushing back against oligarchy, baseball players began demanding more rights and better pay.
In 1875, John Montgomery Ward helped develop Pennsylvania State University’s first baseball club, where he demonstrated the curve ball, a pitch many credit him with inventing. After dropping out of college, Ward played with semipro teams in Pennsylvania railroad and coal towns that had become hotbeds of the emerging union movement. In 1877, he played for Williamsport, where, just down the road, the state was executing several members of the Molly Maguires (Irish-American coal miners) on trumped-up charges of labor insurrection.
In 1879, Ward pitched the NL’s Providence Grays to a pennant. The next year, he threw the second-perfect game in history — and the last one for another eighty-four years. Ward is the only pitcher in history to both win more than one hundred games and get more than two thousand hits. He also managed the New York Giants, played on two more championship teams, and became a successful executive with the Brooklyn Tip Tops, New York Giants, and Boston Braves.
Ward was refined, handsome, and single, which — combined with his baseball exploits — made him prominent in New York society. He courted and then married Helen Dauvray, the era’s leading Broadway star. Her Dauvray Cup crowned the early baseball championships. Ward learned five languages, became a regular newspaper and magazine contributor, wrote a book (Base-Ball), and studied political science and earned a law degree at Columbia University — all while still playing ball.
From his legal training, Ward recognized baseball contracts’ unfairness. In 1885, he organized the Brotherhood of Professional Baseball Players, the first labor union in American sports. Two years later, he published “Is the Base-Ball Player a Chattel?” accusing team owners of “wage slavery.”
Baseball magnates colluded with each other, primarily through the reserve clause, which bound players to their teams but allowed owners to release them without pay. Even after profits tripled in the 1880s, the owners imposed meager wages and extra duties — rent for uniforms, meal fees — on their workers.
Some players compared their situation to antebellum slavery. Not coincidentally, the union promoted progressive race policies. Ward had lobbied for black players during his years in Providence, and his barnstorming team hosted black clubs in the South in 1879–1880. As head of the union, Ward convinced his New York Giants to sign two black players in 1887, but the league’s Jim Crow color bar blocked his request.
The Brotherhood arose amid extensive labor-owner conflict. Industrial working conditions had deteriorated seriously, and a militant workers’ movement emerged in response. The Knights of Labor wooed the baseball union, and the two groups became loosely affiliated.
The NL and AA borrowed the union-busting tactics of other industries, including blacklists, intimidation, spies, collusion, and fines for violating curfew and drinking. In 1889, the Brush Classification Plan — devised by NL owner John Brush — set a salary scale based not just on on-field ability, but also on off-field behavior. Bosses used Pinkerton spies to monitor players, and the plan divided ballplayers by splitting them into unequal classes. In response, Ward composed the Brotherhood Manifesto, condemning the owners’ policies.
The next year, Ward organized the Player’s League (PL), the rank-and-file players’ bold rebuke to management. Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act that same year, challenging the growing power of corporate monopolies. Acting like their counterparts in oil, steel, and railroads, team owners in the NL and AA restricted trade by blocking new companies from entering the industry and employed many of the exploitative practices the antitrust laws sought to eliminate. In contrast, each of the eight PL teams operated as an industrial cooperative. Launched on Bastille Day, the new league promoted the radical idea that workers could own and run their own workplaces without the bosses.
Each club shared profits and management. Boards consisting of four players and four investors ran the teams, and a senate, in which each club had a player and investor representative, governed the league. Players owned team stock, and revenue was split evenly among the clubs. There was no reserve clause, no classification plan. Contracts lasted for three years, and trades took place only with a player’s consent.
Many stars, including fifteen future Hall of Famers, joined the PL. Three-quarters of all NL players jumped over to the new league. Ward ran the union, recruited investors and players, arranged ballparks, created the schedule, handled the media, managed the daily organization, and fought the NL counterattack — all while serving as the player/manager for one of the teams.
Albert Spalding, a ballplayer turned industrial magnate, led the NL’s response. Along with the era’s other robber barons, Spalding subscribed to a cutthroat, survival-of-the-fittest perspective often called social Darwinism. When the PL raided the NL for players and began outdrawing it in attendance, Spalding and the other owners filed suit, claiming that the jumpers had violated the reserve clause. Judges ruled the NL contracts unenforceable, vague, and unfairly biased against players.
The owners then lobbied and bribed reporters to provide anti-union and negative PL coverage. The press attacked members of the Brotherhood as “hot-headed anarchists,” “socialists,” and “ultra-radicals.” Henry Chadwick, a popular sportswriter and a Spalding employee, called the PL and its players “terrorists” in the 1890 Spalding’s Official Base Ball Guide. He described Ward as the “mastermind” of the “secessionists” — a loaded term less than three decades after the Civil War.
But Ward got strong labor movement backing. Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, pledged support for the new league. Players, in turn, showed solidarity with their union counterparts. Pitchers Marc Baldwin and Tim Keefe, for example, supported the workers striking against Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills. The players’ revolt reflected the times: the legendary Homestead and Pullman strikes were right around the corner.
But Ward’s movement stalled. The PL was run as a cooperative, but it still allowed capitalist investors. Despite the league’s success, Spalding bribed its backers with promises of new teams in the NL. The Brotherhood Union collapsed with the Players’ League, and the NL quickly killed off its rival, the American Association, to emerge with an exclusive monopoly. With unilateral power, it drastically lowered player salaries, blackballed potential labor agitators, broke long-term contracts, and commandeered the previously independent minor league teams for replacement labor.
Ward reluctantly returned to the NL as player/manager for the Brooklyn Grooms and then returned to the Giants until his 1894 retirement. Thereafter he enjoyed a successful legal career, often representing players against the NL. He became the president and part owner of the Boston Braves as well as an executive with the Brooklyn Tip Tops in the upstart Federal League.
The PL briefly established a radical business model for professional sports, where players controlled both the game and its profits. Ward wasn’t inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1964 — four decades after his death — because he challenged baseball’s status quo. His Hall of Fame plaque makes no mention of the Brotherhood, the Player’s League, or Ward’s groundbreaking fight against the reserve clause.
In 1925, the Supreme Court declared baseball exempt from the antitrust laws. It would take another fifty years for a new baseball union to overthrow the reserve system.
First Push Toward Integration
Until the 1950s, the Supreme Court not only sided with America’s corporate titans but also supported segregation. Its 1896 ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson, endorsed Jim Crow laws and the racist notion of “separate but equal.”
Black Americans responded by creating their own institutions from churches, clubs, and newspapers to businesses, schools, and universities. The black ballplayer Rube Foster, a disciple of radical scholar and activist W. E. B. DuBois, created the first Negro League in the 1920s.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the Negro Leagues provided African Americans with a source of pride and a parade of celebrity players, even as it constantly reminded them of their second-class status. Some Negro League players participated in political efforts that challenged racism. For example, Frank Sykes served as a key defense witness in the famous trial of the Scottsboro Boys, the nine African-American teenagers wrongfully accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama.
Jackie Robinson played in the Negro Leagues before breaking Major League Baseball’s (MLB) color line in 1947. This story is more complex than the usual version, which credits Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey with imposing his will on reluctant MLB executives. Rickey did not act alone, nor without considerable prompting. A decade of struggle by black and left-wing journalists and activists preceded his decision.
Beginning in the 1930s, the black press, civil rights groups, the Communist Party, progressive white activists, and radical politicians waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball as part of a broader movement to eliminate discrimination in housing, employment, and other sectors. They organized protests against segregation in the military, mobilized for a federal anti-lynching law, marched to open defense jobs to blacks during World War II, and boycotted stores that refused to hire African Americans (under the banner “don’t shop where you can’t work”). The movement accelerated after the war as returning black veterans expected the United States to open up opportunities for all Americans.
Reporters for African-American papers (especially Wendell Smith of the Pittsburgh Courier, Fay Young of the Chicago Defender, Joe Bostic of the People’s Voice in New York, and Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American), as well as Lester Rodney, sports editor of the Communist paper, the Daily Worker, took the lead in pushing baseball to hire black players. They published open letters, polled white managers and players (some of whom felt threatened by the prospect of losing their jobs to black athletes, but most of whom had no objections to integration), brought black players to unscheduled tryouts at spring training, and kept the issue front and center. Several white journalists joined the chorus.
Progressive unions and civil rights groups picketed outside Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field in New York City, and Comiskey Park and Wrigley Field in Chicago. Activists gathered more than a million signatures on petitions, demanding that baseball tear down the color line.
In July 1940, the Trade Union Athletic Association staged an “End Jim Crow in Baseball” demonstration at the New York World’s Fair. The next year, progressive unions sent a delegation to meet with Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis and to demand that baseball recruit black players. In December 1943, Paul Robeson addressed owners at their annual winter meeting and urged them to integrate. Under orders from Landis, the attendees ignored Robeson and didn’t ask him a single question.
In 1945, Isadore Muchnick, a progressive member of the Boston City Council, threatened to deny the Red Sox a permit to play on Sundays unless the team considered hiring black players. Working with several black sportswriters, Muchnick persuaded Eddie Collins, the team’s reluctant general manager, to give three Negro League players — Robinson, Sam Jethroe, and Marvin Williams — a tryout. The Sox had no intention of signing any of the players, nor did the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Chicago White Sox, who orchestrated similar bogus auditions. Nevertheless, the public pressure and media publicity helped raise awareness and furthered the cause.
Other politicians became allies. During his 1945 reelection campaign, New York City Council member Ben Davis — a former college football star, a Communist, and an African American — distributed a leaflet featuring photos of two blacks: a dead soldier and a baseball player. “Good enough to die for his country,” it read, “but not good enough for organized baseball.”
That year, the New York State legislature passed the Quinn-Ives Act, which banned employment discrimination, and formed a committee to investigate hiring practices including a task force that focused on baseball. Soon after, New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia established a committee on baseball to push the Yankees, Giants, and Dodgers to sign black players. Left-wing congressman Vito Marcantonio, who represented Harlem, called for an investigation into the sport’s racist practices.
No one played a more central role in this crusade than the Daily Worker’s Rodney. Raised in New York, the grandson of Jewish immigrants, Rodney was radicalized by the enormous suffering he witnessed during the Great Depression. To appeal to Americans, he believed his newspaper had to take sports, especially baseball, seriously. Hardnosed baseball manager Leo Durocher once told him: “For a fucking Communist, you sure know your baseball.”
Rodney was one of the few white sportswriters to cover the Negro Leagues and protest baseball segregation. Alongside editorials and open letters, Rodney interviewed players and managers, many of whom said they would welcome having black players on their teams. He helped expose the owners’ unwritten “gentlemen’s agreement” to enforce the color line.
In 1941, Rodney sent telegrams to team owners asking for tryouts for black players. The only team that responded — the Pittsburgh Pirates — invited Negro League catcher Roy Campanella to an audition the following year. But officials and other owners protested, and Pirates owner William Benswanger backed out.
Through the Daily Worker, Rodney encouraged protesters picketing ballparks and reported on integration petitions. He played a key role in ending segregation in baseball, but he also made other political inroads. In 1938, he convinced Yankee pitching star Red Rolfe to cover the World Series for The Daily Worker. His paper also helped integrate professional basketball, pressuring the Boston Celtics to sign the first black NBA players in 1950.
Many other sportswriters didn’t appreciate Rodney’s pioneering efforts. In 2009, a month after his death, the Baseball Writers Association of America honored writers who had died that year at their annual dinner. They didn’t mention Rodney.
Lester Rodney was a baseball-loving Communist who influenced the game from the press box. Sam Nahem was a right-handed pitcher with left-wing politics, a Communist who challenged his sport’s racial divide.
Nahem grew up in a family — and a Brooklyn enclave — of Syrian Jews who spoke Arabic. He pitched for Brooklyn College’s baseball team and played fullback on its football team. At the time, Brooklyn College was a center of political activism, and Nahem began participating in Communist Party activities there.
After his 1935 graduation, he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Between 1938 and 1942, he pitched for the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Phillies before serving in the military during World War II. Nahem returned to the Phillies briefly in 1948, pitching another twenty-eight games. Altogether, he had a modest 10-8 record for his major league career.
Nahem attended St. John’s University during the off-season, earning his law degree and passing the bar exam in 1941. He read literature in the dugout and bullpen and would quote Shakespeare and de Maupassant in conversations. Few of Nahem’s minor league teammates had ever met a Jew — or even a New Yorker — before. Despite these differences, Nahem got along well with his teammates.
He strongly believed baseball should be integrated: “I was in a strange position. The majority of my fellow players were very much against black ball players,” he once explained. “The reason was economic. They knew these guys had the ability to be up there, so they felt their jobs were threatened directly, and they did all sorts of things to discourage black ball players.” Nahem appealed to his teammates to be more open-minded.
During World War II, the American military ran a robust baseball program at home and overseas. President Roosevelt believed it would help soldiers stay in shape and boost morale. Many professional players were in the military, so the quality of play was often excellent. Beginning in 1942, Nahem spent two years at Fort Totten, New York. Pitching for the Anti-Aircraft Redlegs of the Eastern Defense Command, Nahem set a Sunset League record, compiling a 0.85 earned run average (ERA). He also finished second in hitting with a .400 average and played every defensive position except catcher.
Sent overseas in late 1944, Nahem served with an anti-aircraft artillery division. He ran two baseball leagues for servicemen in Rheims, France, while also managing and pitching for his own team, the Overseas Invasion Service Expedition All-Stars. Comprised mainly of ex-minor-league players, Nahem insisted on having two Negro League stars, pitcher Leon Day and outfielder Willard Brown, on his team. He led the integrated team to a victory over an all-white team loaded with professionals.
In the military’s 1945 European World Series, Nahem’s club clinched the championship in a best-of-five series, with Nahem and Day each winning a game against the 71st Infantry Division Red Circlers, which represented General George Patton’s famed 3rd Army and included seven major-leaguers. They played at the Nuremburg stadium, the site of Hitler’s epic Nazi rallies. The final military contest drew fifty thousand spectators.
After the war and another brief fling with the Phillies, Nahem practiced law and worked as a longshoreman in New York while pitching part-time for a top-flight semipro team, the Brooklyn Bushwicks. In 1947, he pitched his team to a 3-0 one-hit victory over the World Series All-Stars, a team that included major leaguers Eddie Stanky, Ralph Branca, and Phil Rizzuto. Nahem also played winter ball in 1946–47 with the Navegantes del Magallanes professional club in Venezuela, where he pitched fourteen consecutive complete games, a record that still stands.
In 1955, Nahem moved to the San Francisco Bay area, prompted in part by the McCarthy-era blacklist, which made it difficult for him to find work. He got a job at the Chevron Chemical plant in Richmond, California and remained there twenty-five years, retiring in 1980. Maintaining his radical politics, Nahem was a rank-and-file leader of the left-wing Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union that represented the Chevron employees.
Jackie Robinson also served in the military during World War II, where he was court-martialed (then acquitted) for resisting bus segregation in Fort Hood, Texas. When he broke into major league baseball, the United States was deeply segregated, and racism was overt and widespread. In 1946, at least six African Americans were lynched in the South. Restrictive covenants were still legal, barring black (and Jewish) families from buying homes all over the country. Only a handful of black students enrolled in the nation’s predominantly white colleges and universities. Congress had only two black representatives, and no big city had a black mayor.
Branch Rickey had long wanted to hire black players, both for moral reasons and because he believed it would boost ticket sales among the growing number of African Americans who lived in big cities. But he also knew that if the experiment failed, it would set the cause integration back for many years.
Rickey’s scouts identified Robinson, who was playing for the Negro League’s Kansas City Monarchs, as a potential barrier breaker. He could have chosen other Negro League players with greater talent or more name recognition — such as Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson — but he wanted someone who could be, in today’s terms, a role model.
Robinson was young, articulate, and well educated. His mother had moved the family from Georgia to Pasadena, California in 1920, when Robinson was fourteen months old. Pasadena was rigidly segregated, but Robinson lived among and formed friendships with his white neighbors and classmates. He was a star athlete at Pasadena Junior College before enrolling at UCLA, where he became its first four-sport athlete (football, basketball, track, and baseball), twice led basketball’s Pacific Coast League in scoring, won the NCAA broad jump championship, and became an all-American football player.
Rickey knew Robinson had a hot temper and strong political views, but he believed the young player could handle the emotional pressure and help the Dodgers on the field. Robinson promised Rickey that, for at least his rookie year, he would not respond to the verbal barbs and physical abuse he faced on a daily basis.
After establishing himself, Robinson unleashed his temper. He fought constantly with umpires and opposing players; he used speeches, interviews, and his regular newspaper column to challenge racial injustice. He faced criticism for being so frank about race in baseball and in society. Many sportswriters and most other players considered him too angry and too vocal.
Robinson’s political views reflected the tensions of Cold War liberalism. In 1949, Rickey arranged for Robinson to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee to publicly criticize Paul Robeson. In a Paris speech, the famous singer and activist had claimed that American blacks would not fight in a war against Russia. As expected, Robinson’s congressional testimony challenged Robeson’s patriotism, but the ballplayer also made an impassioned demand for social justice and racial integration. He warned, “I’m not fooled because I’ve had a chance open to very few Negro Americans.”
The press focused on his attack on Robeson and virtually ignored his denunciation of racism. Years later, Robinson disavowed these remarks, saying, “I have grown wiser and closer to the painful truth about America’s destructiveness.” He expressed his respect for Robeson, “who sacrificed himself, his career, and the wealth and comfort he once enjoyed because, I believe, he was sincerely trying to help his people.”
Robinson spent his entire major league career (1947–1956) with the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the 1947 Rookie of the Year and the 1949 Most Valuable Player. An outstanding base runner, with a .311 lifetime batting average, he led the Dodgers to six pennants and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1962. The dignity with which Robinson handled his encounters with racism among players and fans in hotels, restaurants, trains, and other public places drew public attention to the issue, stirring white American consciences and giving black Americans a tremendous boost of pride.
Well before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, baseball became the first major American institution to integrate, paving the way for the rest of the nation. As Martin Luther King Jr told Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, “You’ll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job.”
During and after his playing days, Robinson mentored many young black players as they too faced persistent racism. After retirement, Robinson joined picket lines and attended civil rights rallies, becoming one of the NAACP’s best fundraisers. He pushed baseball to hire more black executives, refusing to participate in the Old Timers’ game because he saw no “genuine interest in breaking the barriers that deny access to managerial and front office positions.”
Robinson recognized the paradoxes of racial progress. Shortly before his 1972 death, he wrote, “I cannot possibly believe that I have it made while so many black brothers and sisters are hungry, inadequately housed, insufficiently clothed, denied their dignity as they live in slums or barely exist on welfare.”
The Radical Showman
If owner Bill Veeck had his way, major league baseball would have integrated five years before Robinson signed with the Dodgers. In 1942, Veeck tried to buy the bankrupt Philadelphia Phillies so he could stock the team entirely with black ballplayers. He wanted to break the color barrier but also knew that Negro League players would win championships. When Commissioner Landis learned of his plans, he made sure another buyer got the Phillies.
Despite this setback, Veeck continued to participate in baseball’s civil rights movement. In the early 1940s, as owner of the then–minor league Milwaukee Brewers, Veeck sat in the “colored” section of the stands during spring training in Ocala, Florida. The local sheriff and mayor showed up and ordered him to move, threatening to arrest him for violating Florida’s Jim Crow laws. Veeck refused and threatened to pull the team’s lucrative spring training program. The local officials left him alone after that. This small gesture laid the groundwork for a broader assault on baseball segregation.
Three months after Robinson joined the Dodgers, Veeck, who then owned the Cleveland Indians, signed Larry Doby as the first black player in the American League. He got twenty thousand hate letters in response. The next year, he signed the Negro League’s greatest pitcher, Satchel Paige. With Doby and Paige on the team, the Indians won the 1948 World Series and set a record for attendance. He also hired Louis Jones, MLB’s first black front-office executive.
Veeck — who at different times owned the Indians (1946–49), the St Louis Browns (1951–53), and the Chicago White Sox (1959–1961 and 1975–1981) — was not only a maverick but also a savvy executive and showman. The son of a sportswriter and Chicago Cubs president, he saw baseball from the fans’ perspective and sought to make the game more fun. He even listed his home number in the phone book so fans could contact him.
Veeck would do anything to get people in the seats. When he owned the Brewers during World War II, he scheduled games in the morning (and served corn flakes for breakfast) so that late-shift workers at war plants could attend. He started promotional giveaways — caps, a keg of nails, bottles of soda, pizza, and even animals (turkeys, geese, pigs, lobsters, and rabbits) — to attract fans to the park.
As a major league owner, he gave female fans orchids on Mother’s Day. He staged free days for cab drivers and bartenders. He held a Greek Night with performances by belly dancers. On his first night as the Browns owner, he served free beer or soda to everyone in the ballpark. In 1959, fans were continuously booing White Sox outfielder Al Smith. Veeck staged an “Al Smith Night,” when anyone named Smith, Smythe, Schmidt, or Smithe could attend the game for free. He gave them buttons that read, “I’m a Smith and I’m for Al.”
As the Browns owner, Veeck pulled his most famous stunt. He put three-foot-seven-inch Eddie Gaedel — wearing uniform number 1/8 — up to bat in a 1951 game against the Detroit Tigers. Gaedel was walked on four straight pitches. The next day, American League president Will Harridge voided Gaedel’s contract, saying Veeck had made a mockery of the game.
Despite his eccentric reputation, baseball eventually adopted many of Veeck’s ideas. In 1960, Veeck put players’ names on their uniforms for the first time; the idea quickly spread. In 1976, Veeck had his White Sox play in shorts for several games. The idea generated a lot of publicity, but other teams didn’t adopt it.
In the early 1950s, Veeck tried to move the Browns from St Louis to Baltimore. Unfortunately, he had outraged the other owners by proposing the “socialistic” idea of sharing television revenue, so they blocked the move. Veeck had to sell, and the subsequent owner carried out Veeck’s plan, turning the Browns into the Baltimore Orioles. In that year, teams began relocating and expanding baseball to other parts of the country. Veeck’s revenue-sharing idea eventually took hold in the 1990s, helping small-market teams remain competitive with bigger clubs and their lucrative television contracts.
When Curt Flood challenged baseball’s reserve clause in 1970, only three baseball figures testified on his behalf: Former Tigers slugger and executive Hank Greenberg, Jackie Robinson, and Veeck, who described the reserve clause as “human bondage.”
Veeck idolized Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party leader who ran for president six times (and for whom Veeck voted several times); Paul Robeson, blacklisted during the McCarthy era; Abraham Lincoln, whom Veeck admired for his “strength of his character”; and Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld, who destroyed his political career by pardoning three anarchists who had been wrongly convicted of murder at Chicago’s Haymarket labor protest in 1886. With such radical views, Veeck’s enemies kept him out of the Hall of Fame until 1991, five years after his death.
Rank and File Fight Back
During the postwar boom, the labor movement gained members and strength, helping lift millions of workers into the middle class. But baseball players remained poorly paid and with little control over their working conditions. The weak and disorganized players’ union, the American Baseball Guild, had little leverage.
Then, in 1946, the MLB faced an unexpected challenger. The Mexican League, led by businessman Jorge Pasquel, began luring players away with promises of big raises. Twenty-three major-leaguers signed, including stars Vern Stephens, Sal Maglie, Max Lanier, and Mickey Owen. In response, Commissioner Albert “Happy” Chandler created a blacklist and banned eighteen “jumpers” for five years.
One of these so-called jumpers, Danny Gardella, filed suit. The outspoken and eccentric left-fielder sang opera, performed acrobatic stunts, pursued amateur boxing, read poetry and psychiatry, and quoted famous philosophers. He could also hit a baseball, as he demonstrated in his two years with the Giants, batting .267 and hitting twenty-four homers.
Confident in his skills, Gardella asked for a raise for the 1946 season. The Giants refused to pay him what he thought he was worth, so he joined the Mexican League, earning triple his previous salary. He told reporters:
I do not intend to let the Giants enrich themselves at my expense by sending me to a minor-league club. They have treated me shabbily. I have decided to take my gifted talents to Mexico.
After two seasons, Gardella returned home, but the blacklist blocked him even from minor league rosters. In 1947, he played for the Gulf Oilers, a Staten Island semipro team. Before a game with the barnstorming Cleveland Buckeyes of the Negro American League, Commissioner Chandler sent a telegram to the stadium that was read over the ballpark loudspeaker. It warned that players who joined the tour would be banned from the major leagues for life. To protect his coworkers, including black players trying to join Jackie Robinson across the color barrier, Gardella dropped out of the game.
Insulted, he filed a $300,000 lawsuit. It wasn’t the only legal challenge to MLB’s blacklist. Under the 1946 Veteran’s Act, all returning servicemen were guaranteed their jobs for at least a year after the war. Since baseball refused, ballplayers Tony Lupien and Al Niemiec sued. While Commissioner Chandler used the reserve clause to justify banning players, Gardella called it a monopolistic conspiracy to restrain free trade that violated his right to make a living.
The reserve clause bound players to their teams for as long as the owners wanted them, leaving them with little bargaining power. For decades, baseball clubs had colluded, using the clause to block players from selling their skills to the highest bidder. Citing the 1922 Supreme Court decision that exempted baseball from antitrust laws, a federal court dismissed Gardella’s case. But the appellate court questioned the exemption and ordered a trial. In 1949, after more jumpers filed suit, MLB offered amnesty to players who dropped their cases.
When Gardella refused, management turned up the heat. Although Dodgers executive Branch Rickey helped break baseball’s color barrier, he claimed that “baseball cannot endure” without the reserve clause; those attacking it had “avowed communist tendencies.” Many sportswriters echoed these views, claiming that ballplayers should feel lucky to play.
Ironically, Gardella’s desire for a free labor market made him a communist sympathizer. Owners persuaded jumpers to deny their connections to Gardella, similar to how McCarthy and his fellow conservatives required Americans to disavow their past radical affiliations and to name names.
Chandler feared that Gardella’s case would overturn baseball’s antitrust exemption, so he offered him a settlement. Warned that his case could take years to get resolved, Gardella accepted a payment, half of which went to his attorney. After a brief fling with the St Louis Cardinals in 1950, Gardella was quickly demoted and left baseball, eventually resorting to low-paid warehouse jobs. Reflecting back, Gardella claimed: “I let the whole world know the reserve clause was unfair. It had the odor of peonage, even slavery. I was no Communist for exercising my American rights.”
Over the next two decades, the Supreme Court rejected two reserve-clause challenges, but Gardella had laid the groundwork to end the practice. The formation of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) eventually toppled the exploitive practice and gave ballplayers power.
While workers in other industries had long since discovered the value of unions, ballplayers were slow learners. Several ineffectual baseball unions had come and gone in the eight decades since John Montgomery Ward’s militant nineteenth-century brotherhood.
The MLBPA was founded in 1953, and Cleveland Indians pitching star Bob Feller served as its first president. For the next decade, however, it was a toothless tiger. It had no office and no full-time staff. It didn’t collect dues, so it had hardly any budget. In 1965, the minimum MLB salary was $6,000 ($46,724 in today’s dollars). The average salary was $14,341. (The equivalent of $111,678 today). Most players had jobs during the off-season to make ends meet. Team owners routinely cut players’ salaries if they had a subpar year — and occasionally when they had a good year but not as outstanding as the season before. The league provided players with meager pensions over which the union had no control.
Players faced other indignities. They received paltry per-diem payments for meals. They had to play when injured, fearing that they would otherwise be replaced. Their travel schedules were brutal. Playing fields were often unsafe. Many stadium locker rooms were dirty and cramped.
In 1966, future Hall of Fame pitchers Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning (later a Republican Senator from Kentucky) recruited Marvin Miller, an economist for the steelworkers’ union, to become the union’s first full-time director.
Miller transformed the sport’s outdated labor relations, signaling a new era. “If at any point the owners start singing my praises,” he told rank-and-file members, “there’s only one thing for you to do, and that’s fire me.”
Just happy to be getting paid to put on a uniform, some players resisted the idea. The owners, and their hired commissioners, fought Miller and the union at every turn. Like all business leaders, baseball’s owners warned that higher wages and stronger workplace rules would destroy the industry. Most sportswriters agreed with the owners and fiercely attacked Miller for threatening the game.
His first task was to get the players to stand up for themselves. “People today don’t understand how beaten down the players were back then,” he recalled. “The players had low self-esteem, as any people in their position would have — like baggage owned by the clubs.”
Miller instructed ballplayers in the basics of trade unionism: fight for your rights to be treated as more than property, stick together against management, work on behalf of players who preceded you and who will succeed you, prepare yourself professionally and financially for life after baseball, and don’t allow management to divide you by race, income, or fame. Miller taught members about labor law and history, alerting them to their own power and training them to outmaneuver the owners during negotiations. Under his leadership, the players won a democratic voice in their workplaces and dramatically improved their pay, pensions, and working conditions.
During his 1999 Hall of Fame induction speech, Nolan Ryan reminded the audience that when he joined the major leagues in 1966, he spent the winter working at a gas station while his wife worked at a local bookstore. Because of Miller’s efforts, Ryan said, “We brought that level up to where the players weren’t put in that situation.”
The MLBPA became the most successful union in the country. In 1968, two years after Miller took the union’s reins, the players association negotiated its first collective bargaining agreement. It established players’ rights to binding arbitration over salaries and grievances. Players also won the right to have agents to negotiate their contracts. The agreement raised the minimum salary in baseball from $6,000 — the level at which it had been stuck for two decades — to $10,000. By the time Miller retired in 1983, the average salary had increased to $240,000. By 2015, the minimum salary became $507,500 and the average salary is $4.2 million. Even players who have short and less-than-illustrious careers have good retirement benefits.
The Battle Over the Reserve Clause
In his fifteen-year major-league career, Curt Flood hit over .300 six times, won seven straight Gold Gloves (from 1963 to 1969), was a three-time all-star, and helped the Cardinals win the World Series in 1964 and 1967. Had he not been stopped in his prime, he likely would have reached three thousand hits. Instead, in 1969, at age thirty-one, he protested his trade to the Phillies, and it destroyed his career.
Flood had built a life in St Louis and dreaded having to relocate to Philadelphia, which he regarded as the “nation’s northernmost southern city.” More importantly, he objected to being treated like what he called a “well-paid slave.” In a letter to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, Flood wrote:
After twelve years in the major leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen and is inconsistent with the laws of the United States and of the sovereign States.
Miller and the MLBPA backed Flood’s legal challenge and recruited former Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg to represent him. In 1972, the court ruled against Flood, upholding the reserve clause and maintaining MLB’s inexplicable exemption from federal antitrust laws. Flood paid a huge price for his crusade. Blacklisted by owners after 1970, he could no longer find work in baseball. Instead, he spent years in Europe, devoting himself to painting and writing. In his autobiography, The Way It Is, Flood looked back:
I’m a child of the sixties; I’m a man of the sixties. During that time this country was coming apart at the seams. We were in Southeast Asia. Good men were dying for America and for the Constitution. In the southern part of the United States we were marching for civil rights and Dr. King had been assassinated, and we lost the Kennedys. And to think that merely because I was a professional baseball player, I could ignore what was going on outside the walls of Busch Stadium was truly hypocrisy and now I found that all of those rights that these great Americans were dying for, I didn’t have in my own profession.
In 1999, Time magazine named Flood (who died in 1997 at age fifty-nine) as one of the twentieth century’s ten most influential people in sports. Upon Flood’s untimely death, Miller said that although he
was perhaps the sport’s premier center fielder . . . he chose to fight an injustice, knowing that even if by some miracle he won, his career as a professional player would be over. . . . He had experienced something that was inherently unfair and was determined to right the wrong, not so much for himself, but for those who would come after him.
Although Flood lost his case, it set a broader ballplayer resistance in motion that would establish free agency in baseball only a few years later — a right that soon extended to other major league sports. Miller recognized that as long as they were under the reserve clause, even star players could not negotiate better deals. To attack that system, he began by negotiating the union’s first collective bargaining agreement, which established player rights to binding arbitration over salaries and grievances. As Miller later wrote, the “new system of salary arbitration was like the difference between dictatorship and democracy.”
The average career in baseball’s big leagues lasts 5.6 years, even less for pitchers. So increasing pension payments and reducing the number of years needed to qualify for those benefits became critical issues. In 1972, the players held the first strike in major league baseball history over retirement issues. They won that fight and also gained the right to have agents help them negotiate contracts.
Having enshrined binding arbitration in the contract, Miller wanted to challenge the reserve clause. In 1975, in a case involving pitchers Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith, arbitrator Peter Seitz invalidated the reserve clause and gave them the right to free agency. This allowed ballplayers the ability to veto proposed trades, bargain for the best contract, and decide where they wanted to work. The MLBPA also won increased per-diem allowances, improvements in travel conditions, and better training facilities, medical treatment, and locker-room conditions.
In 1980, seeking to weaken the free agency system, the owners demanded that each team receive compensation for free agents. They knew this would provoke a player strike, but believed that they could outlast it. They miscalculated.
The players voted 967 to 1 in favor of a strike. After a year of negotiations, the owners refused to budge, and the players walked out in June 1981. No one broke ranks. The MLBPA kept its members informed, and they stuck together, from superstars like Dave Winfield (who lost roughly $7,770 each day of the strike) to minimum-salary players (who lost about $180 per day).
After fifty days and 712 cancelled games, the owners caved. Miller claimed:
It was the most principled strike I’ve ever been associated with. Many of the players struck not for a better deal for themselves but for a better deal for their colleagues, and for players who would be coming into baseball in the future.
Despite their courageous and pioneering efforts, neither Miller nor Flood have been elected to the Hall of Fame. While Miller was alive, the baseball establishment blocked him from the Cooperstown shrine five times. The owners and executives who control the Hall of Fame kept changing the voting rules to keep him out.
Yet baseball experts overwhelmingly agree with Hall of Fame broadcaster Red Barber, who claimed that Miller is one of the three most important figures in baseball history, alongside Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.
Flood’s fifteen years of Hall of Fame eligibility ended in 1996 when he garnered just 15.1 percent of baseball writers’ votes. He died the following year at fifty-nine, which made him eligible to enter the Hall of Fame posthumously if the Veterans Committee voted him in. There’s been no effort to resuscitate his candidacy.
Civil Rights and Vietnam
While the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum, black players still had to put up with segregated housing, hotels, and restaurants in the Southern towns that hosted minor league teams. They faced constant insults on and off the field. In addition, most teams held spring training in Florida, where public facilities, restaurants, hotels, and ballparks remained segregated through the mid-1960s. Black fans were consigned to the stadium’s “colored” sections, and black players had to stay in second-rate black hotels or at the homes of local black families rather than in the same hotels as their white teammates.
In 1961, Bill White, a St Louis Cardinals slugger, complained to an Associated Press reporter about the team’s segregated accommodations in St Petersburg, where they held spring training. The St Louis Argus, a black newspaper, picked up the story, adding an editorial comment suggesting that black Cardinals fans consider boycotting beer made by Anheuser-Busch (the Cardinals’ owner). That same year, under pressure from the Dodgers’ black players and the MLBPA, owner Walter O’Malley told local officials in Vero Beach that he would no longer comply with laws requiring segregated entrances, bathrooms, water fountains, and seating at Holman Stadium, where his team played its spring games.
After Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, many players refused to play the last few spring training games out of respect for his memory and in defiance of their teams’ owners. The following week, Commissioner William Eckert announced that each team could decide whether to play or cancel opening day games.
Players took the matter into their own hands. Led by star outfielder Roberto Clemente, the Pittsburgh Pirates players held a closed-door meeting and voted to sit out the opener. They also asked the general manager to postpone the next game, which would take place on the day of King’s funeral. Their statement explained, “We are doing this because we white and black players respect what Dr King has done for mankind.”
Players on other teams followed the Pirates’ lead. In response, Eckert announced that opening day would be postponed until the day after King’s funeral.
The baseball establishment embraced America’s military adventure in Vietnam, even as the antiwar movement grew. Major league baseball arranged delegations of former and current players to participate in goodwill tours of military bases at home and overseas, including in the Vietnam war zone. Despite this endorsement, teams arranged for many players to be assigned to the National Guard in order to avoid serving in active duty.
The sport ultimately could not isolate itself from the growing discontent over the war, but players who questioned the war were reluctant to speak out. The reserve clause was still in place at the time, and few were willing to risk the labels of troublemaker or malcontent.
For example, Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Dock Ellis, who often spoke out against racism, stayed quiet on the war. When reporters asked him about the goodwill tour he and other players took, he initially said, “I don’t want to answer questions about Vietnam. I don’t want to get political.” However, when the Nixon administration tried to get him to endorse the war, he angrily shot back, threatening to publicly describe all the drug-addicted American soldiers he saw there.
New York Mets pitching ace Tom Seaver was more outspoken. He had served in the Marines and attended the conservative University of Southern California, but he publicly opposed the Vietnam War. In 1969, when he led his team to the pennant, the Moratorium Committee asked him to wear a black armband during the World Series and to buy ad in the New York Times saying, “If the Mets can win the World Series, then we can get out of Vietnam.”
He declined to wear an armband but promised an ad after the season was over. On October 15 — Vietnam Moratorium Day, a national day of protest, as well as the fourth game of the Mets-Orioles World Series at Shea Stadium — a group called Mets Fans for Peace handed out antiwar leaflets with Seaver’s photo on them. Seaver didn’t like that the leaflets used his name without his permission but nevertheless fulfilled his promise. He bought an ad in the Times on December 31, calling on citizens to pray for peace in Vietnam. Although it was not the strong antiwar statement some had hoped for, it showed players’ growing willingness to resist the war effort.
Jim Bouton, an outstanding Yankees pitcher in the early 1960s, stirred controversy with his 1970 book, Ball Four, which included an account of his year with the expansion team the Seattle Pilots. His memoir exposed an aspect of baseball life that no other player or ex-player had written about, including the drinking binges, drug use, and womanizing as well as their disagreements with managers, coaches, and executives.
He also expressed his opposition to Vietnam with reference to a member of his Yankee fan club: “It just doesn’t seem right that a member of my fan club should be fighting in Vietnam,” Bouton wrote. “Or that anybody should be.”
Baseball’s establishment was more upset with Bouton for violating the locker room’s sanctity than for expressing his political views. He played two more years in the majors, but the controversy surrounding his book steered his career in another direction: he became an announcer, actor, and public speaker.
Pitcher Bill Lee, who enjoyed a long, successful career with the Boston Red Sox (1969–1978) and Montreal Expos (1979–82), gave new meaning to the phrase “lefty pitcher.” A rebel on and off the field, Lee was not only personally eccentric but also socially and politically radical. For this, he earned the nickname “Spaceman.”
Lee’s father played semipro ball, his grandfather had been a Hollywood Stars infielder in the Pacific Coast League, and his aunt was a star pitcher in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Lee played ball at the University of Southern California, helping the Trojans win the 1968 College World Series. He became a Boston Red Sox star, an American League All Star, and two-game starter in the 1975 World Series.
Despite being among the best pitchers in Red Sox history — with a major-league win-loss record of 119-90 and a 3.62 ERA — and despite having had no trouble with authority while in the Army Reserve, Lee routinely ran afoul of baseball management for his outspoken views and personal behavior.
He claimed his marijuana use (sprinkled on his buckwheat pancakes) made him impervious to bus fumes as he jogged to work at Fenway Park. Asked about mandatory drug testing, Lee said, “I’ve tried just about all of them, but I wouldn’t want to make it mandatory.” Lee defended Greenpeace’s environmental activism. He called Bostonians racist for resisting busing programs that brought black students to white schools in the 1970s. Lee hated the New York Yankees, calling them “brown shirts,” “Nazis,” and “thugs.”
As the Red Sox representative to the MLBPA and fiercely loyal to teammates, Lee threatened to retire when his friend, Bernie Carbo, was traded in July 1978. He wore a T-shirt reading “Friendship First, Competition Second.” After calling his manager Don Zimmer “the gerbil,” Lee was traded to the Montreal Expos. Even as the Expos’ ace pitcher, he found himself in trouble with management again in 1982 when he staged a one-game walkout to protest his teammate Rodney Scott’s release. The Expos soon released Lee, too. He claims he’s been blackballed from MLB ever since.
Despite his disputes with the establishment, when his playing career was over he agreed to make goodwill tours to China, Russia, and Cuba on behalf of major league baseball. The 2006 film Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey, documents his world travels. Last year a feature film based on Lee’s life also called Spaceman, was released.
Drawn to politics, Lee became the Rhinoceros Party presidential candidate in 1988. His slogan was “No guns, no butter. Both can kill.” In 2016, he ran for Vermont governor on the ballot line belonging to the Liberty Union Party, the socialist party Bernie Sanders once belonged to. His platform called for legalized marijuana and universal health care. “There’s no such thing as a compassionate conservative,” Lee said. “Conservatives are like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. They have little short arms that never get to their pockets.” He won only 3 percent of the vote. Last year, he endorsed Sanders’s presidential campaign.
Ballplayers Against Empire
In the 1970s, as the number of Latino ballplayers increased, some players began speaking out against human rights abuses and other international issues. Pirates outfielder (and future Hall of Famer) Roberto Clemente condemned American support for the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Pitcher Albert Williams, a native of that country, fought with the rebels to defend the Sandinista Revolution in 1977 and 1978. White Sox and Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez and White Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen, both Venezuelans, supported Hugo Chávez. In 2013, Ordonez was elected the socialist mayor of Juan Antonio Sotillo Municipality.
The most notable dissenter from American policy and its war on terrorism was first baseman Carlos Delgado, the two-time All Star who played with the Blue Jays, Florida Marlins, and New York Mets during his seventeen-year career.
Delgado, a Puerto Rican native, was no stranger to political protest. He had campaigned for years against the American naval presence in Vieques, a Puerto Rican island used for sixty years as a weapons-testing ground. Remembering older residents’ horror stories about the explosions, Delgado believed the military was waging a form of war on the tiny island.
After the Navy left, Delgado and others called for the American government to clean up the economic, psychological, environmental mess it left behind, which included high cancer rates. Rallying others, he contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the campaign. As sportswriter Dave Zirin has noted, Delgado “viewed the people of Vieques as casualties — collateral damage — from the war on Iraq because they served as guinea pigs.”
Delgado has used his Extra Bases Foundation in Puerto Rico as a platform to express his commitment to social justice. The foundation has assisted ill and disadvantaged children, promoted local hospitals, and publicized the island’s education crisis.
After the September 11 attacks, Commissioner Bud Selig required teams to play “God Bless America” at each game’s seventh-inning stretch. “After all,” he claimed, “we do have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.” For three years, Delgado joined players and fans and stood while the song played, but, in 2004, he decided to sit in the dugout instead, concerned that the song was being used to justify ongoing military intervention. Delgado claimed:
I don’t stand because I don’t believe it’s right. . . . It’s a very terrible thing that happened on September 11. It’s also a terrible thing that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. I feel so sad for the families that lost relatives and loved ones in the war. But I think it’s the stupidest war ever.
While Blue Jays president Paul Godfrey and catcher Geoff Zaun strongly supported the Iraq War, both honored Delgado’s right to dissent. But when the team played at Yankee Stadium, boos and derision showered down on Delgado. After each of his outs, chants of “USA! USA!” went up in the crowd. Some right-wing fans and commentators labeled him “un-American,” unfit to collect his paycheck, and even “a terrorist [who] should be jailed.”
In response, Delgado reiterated his antiwar message: “I say God bless America, God bless Miami, God bless Puerto Rico and all countries until there is peace in the world.” Delgado claimed that some fellow athletes supported him, but others attacked him, saying, “Go back to Puerto Rico.” He wasn’t surprised that some fans would object to his views. “I felt people booing me [but] when you do [something like this], you do it because it is the right thing to do. . . . The most important thing is to stay true to your values and principles.” According to Delgado, “athletes, who have this platform where they can reach millions of people, should use it.”
Other baseball figures have spoken out and taken actions both on and off the field. Starting in 1977, as the feminist movement was gaining momentum, Pam Postema worked for thirteen years as a minor league umpire and even umpired a major league spring training game, but MLB blocked her from working in the major leagues. She won a lawsuit for discrimination and wrote a book describing her experiences, called You’ve Gotta Have Balls to Make It In This League. Following her umpiring career, she worked as a truck driver, factory worker, and welder.
Ila Borders broke barriers by becoming the first woman to pitch in men’s NCAA baseball and then to pitch on a minor league team.
After being “outed” and driven out of baseball in 1988, major league umpire Dave Pallone wrote a book about his experiences, Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball, and became an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. After his short major league career, Billy Bean came out as gay, published an influential memoir, Going the Other Way, and in 2014 was appointed as the league’s first Ambassador for Inclusion.
During the 2016 presidential election, Dodgers first baseman Adrian Gonzalez refused to stay at a hotel owned by Donald Trump. Asked to explain his action, Gonzalez simply told reporters, “You can draw your own conclusions. They’re probably right.”
On the night that Trump was elected president, his teammate Brandon McCarthy tweeted: “Tonight’s result affects me none because I’m rich, white and male. Yet, it’ll be a long time until I’m able to sleep peacefully.” Still upset two months after Trump’s inauguration, McCarthy poked fun of Trump’s campaign promises, tweeting “Was the ‘swamp’ Goldman Sachs itself?”
Houston Astros pitcher Collin McHugh, an Atlanta resident, also slammed the president after he attacked civil rights pioneer and Congressman John Lewis, claiming that he represented a “crime infested” district in Atlanta that is “in horrible shape and falling apart.” “As someone who lives in the @repjohnlewis 5th district, I don’t think #DJT has any idea what he’s talking about,” adding “it’s an amazingly diverse and wonderful place to live.” Sports both reflect and shape American society. Since the Civil War, baseball activists have challenged the status quo in baseball and in the country, contributing to the kind of dissent that creates a more humane society.