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Baseball Was Political Long Before Bruce Maxwell Knelt

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Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

“There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

---Jackie Robinson, in his autobiography I Never Had It Made (emphasis mine)

By kneeling during the National Anthem on Saturday night, Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to join the growing protest against police brutality and institutionalized racism in the United States. His action, specifically, was born in response to comments made by President Trump, who called football players who kneel during the National Anthem “sons of bitches” and called for NFL team owners to “fire” players who were protesting.

Many people supported Maxwell and his decision, and expressed it was time Major League Baseball joined in on the protests. Many people also strongly objected to Maxwell and his decision, stating that, whatever his declared intentions were, a protest during the National Anthem is tantamount to disrespecting the military and the nation itself, and should never be tolerated under any circumstances.

In the middle, many people supported Maxwell’s right to protest, whether or not they agreed with his reasoning, but simultaneously lamented the convergence of politics and sports, the latter often acting as a fun distraction from the political questions that follow people around daily.

This sentiment is misguided. Baseball is political. It always has been. It always will be.

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The sport was formed during the most divisive era in the history of the United States, to put it lightly. Baseball was long-rumored to have been created by Abner Doubleday, a Union Army general who fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter at the outset of the Civil War, and who also played a decisive role in the Battle of Gettysburg later on.

This has long been proven false, but the Civil War did play a role in popularizing “base ball” across the nation. After being confined to only New York in the beginning, travelling soldiers and prisoners of war helped to spread the rules and regulations of the game, and in the years after the Civil War ended, the first professional baseball teams were formed. It was a useful tool for the entire nation, newly re-formed, to move forward together despite hostilities on both sides.

However, baseball remained segregated, black Americans barred from participating in 1863, with an unofficial color-barrier fully in place by the 1890s. In the earliest years of the National and American Leagues, player contracts were often disregarded entirely and there were constant labor disputes between the two leagues. Players were essentially property of the team that held their contract, bound to their employer with little say in their future or wages, thanks in large part to the now-dead reserve clause. Athletes would often attempt strikes in an effort to establish more rights for ballplayers, but those who spoke out against injustices committed against fellow players often found themselves without a job, and those strikes ended with little success.

Baseball, from the very start, was both an escape from the hostile politics that literally tore this nation in two, but also itself riddled with political questions and issues. Even today, athletes who speak out against injustices find themselves jobless, despite their qualifications.

* * *

Politics were never more at the forefront of the sport than they were in the 1940s, when Jackie Robinson became the first black man in Major League Baseball. Robinson’s journey to the major leagues was a highly deliberate one, with Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey looking to make a political statement with the “right man.” Not only was Rickey looking to sign a talented black baseball player, but a player who had the nerve to quietly withstand the inevitable extreme backlash that racial integration was bound to stir up. By virtue of simply existing as a black man in a white man’s sport, and by challenging the norms of 1940s America, Jackie Robinson became a controversial political icon.

Jackie Robinson’s presence brought America’s racial issues right to the forefront of everyone’s minds. Of course, there were plenty of those who supported Robinson and the long-overdue integration of America’s oldest sport, but there were plenty more who opposed him with vitriol. From receiving near-daily death threats from those who felt threatened by Robinson’s actions, to the physical and verbal abuse he had to cope with on the field of play, there was nowhere Robinson could turn without facing the extreme consequences for his peaceful protest. But Robinson never backed down, and within a couple of months of his debut, Larry Doby made his own entry into the American League, and the floodgates for minority athletes to play in the majors soon opened.

Robinson didn’t fix racism. Plessy v. Ferguson didn’t die after Robinson defied its disgusting “Separate but Equal” doctrine. But as a man of color, assuming a position of power that was earned, and not given to him, he sparked dialogue. He forced every American to take a deep look inward, and ask themselves if a racially segregated society is what they wanted. He inspired future protests, and became simultaneously a symbol of hope and progress, and of the culture’s declining values and traditions. No one can deny Jackie Robinson’s immediate political and social impact on the game, all stemming from a peaceful protest.

Each and every year, decade, era of baseball has been significantly impacted by the politics of the country at the time. They cannot be ignored. They need to be understood.

The 1950s saw the gradual process of integration, a dramatic restructuring of the minor leagues and how they operate, the establishment of the Players’ Association, and MLB’s western expansion. The 1960s saw a major effort to reestablish parity in the big leagues. The 1970s saw players’ union rights expand significantly as the result of player protests and strikes, starting the path of increased player wages that accurately reflect their unique talents and entertainment value, as well as the creation of the free agency system.

The 1980s, despite all the radical changes preceding it, saw league attendance and interest grow each and every year, setting attendance records left and right. In the 1990s, baseball saw more union strikes, and more expansion. The 2000s saw the implications of the steroid era in the 80s and 90s, with the United States’ federal government getting involved with the scandal, leading to a 400-page Mitchell Report naming players who used steroids and making recommendations for baseball’s drug prevention and treatment program. And the league is making more money than ever.

You can see it on a local level as well. The A’s long and tired quest for a new stadium, which has greatly impacted how the team operated for more than a decade but looks to finally have an end in (distant) sight, is almost entirely due to local Northern California politics. All of these topics — unions, globalization, wealth inequality, ethics, drug abuse, and more — mirror issues we face elsewhere in our own lives.

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Bruce Maxwell is not the first person to kneel before the flag during the National Anthem. That particular protest was started by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who’s been effectively blackballed into free agency by the NFL. During the 2016 football season, Kaepernick knelt, as opposed to standing with his hand over his heart, prior to every football game while the National Anthem was being performed.

Kaepernick was clear in his intentions, stating, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick changed his protest from sitting to kneeling, specifically, because he did not wish to disrespect current and former members of the United States military. His protest, its timing, methodology, and purpose, has become a highly debated topic across the sportscape for over a year and counting.

Kaepernick, along with now dozens of more players across the NFL, is kneeling during the National Anthem because black people are disproportionately killed by law enforcement officers more than any other race of people, and very often the police face little-to-no consequences for their actions. But his protest has since been distorted, due to its nature, and due to its timing, as a dramatic stance against the American military, and American values in general. It is this distortion, along with ideological opposition to the political organizations such as Black Lives Matter, that led to the President of the United States calling athletes who knelt before the flag “sons of bitches” who should be released and jobless, like Kaepernick currently is.

Bruce Maxwell’s gesture is both in solidarity with Kaepernick’s original reasoning — police brutality towards people of color and its lack of consequences — as well as a direct response to President Trump’s insulting and childish rant. Before making his decision to kneel, Maxwell consulted with the Oakland Athletics’ front office, and also met with his teammates and management, to explain his reasoning and field concerns from any and everyone. While he was the only player who knelt during the anthem, Mark Canha placed his hand on Maxwell’s shoulder and embraced him afterward, and the A’s organization released a statement in support of Maxwell’s decision to protest in whichever manner he pleases.

But, again, due to the nature and timing of the protest, many people take offense. Kneeling before the flag is a slap in the face to the men and women who serve the country, they say. Kneeling during the National Anthem is insulting each and every American who is proud to be from one of the most powerful nations on the globe.

But the nature and timing of the protest is supposed to make people uncomfortable. It is supposed to take onlookers aback, to make them question why the protester is doing whatever it is that they’re doing. People protest in ways that cannot be ignored, so that a dialogue about an important issue can begin. So that real, substantial change can follow. Protesting is annoying, or disrespectful, or blood boiling by design — protesting is drawing out a reaction, so that those who feel unheard or talked over can force their voice into the discussion. The fact that kneeling before the flag during the National Anthem draws such a strong response in people on all sides of the political issue is proof of how effective the protest is and how important it is to the people making it.

While in a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King wrote the following, in regard to people’s reactions to protesting:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”

Bruce Maxwell, Colin Kaepernick, and many, many more athletes in America are sick and tired of the negative peace. If one could call the current state of affairs peaceful.

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Especially in today’s political climate, and with the world’s daily stresses, finding relief in the realm of sports is a relatable and worthy endeavor. But to pretend that baseball, and the realm of sports in general, is free of politics and real-world issues is simply wrong. And anyway, to those being oppressed, there is no opportunity to simply escape at will.

Athletes are people given the incredible gift of a platform, and it is entirely within their right to use that platform however they choose. Maxwell, an American citizen, half-black, the son of a veteran, and born on a military base in Germany (though none of that should be relevant), felt what he felt. He thought long and hard about how to address his feelings, consulted those whom it would impact the most, and then chose to protest in the way he did. While taking a knee, he proudly faced the flag and placed his hand over his heart. Maxwell, like so many ballplayers before him, chose to use his platform to try to instigate positive political change amidst significant racial issues dividing the nation.

He is simply perpetuating the best tradition in baseball’s long and storied history, and it should be embraced, not swept under the rug.