Dr. Gerald Early is so accomplished as an author, essayist and culture critic, he even has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. And he has opined often about both race and baseball. At Washington University, he is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the African and African American Studies Department, of which he is the chair. And baseball fans might recognize him from Ken Burns’ famous documentary about the sport.
Early recently spoke by phone with the Post-Dispatch to discuss numerous topics regarding race and baseball. A partial transcript of that discussion is presented here:
BENJAMIN HOCHMAN: This season, the Cardinals team wore Black Lives Matter T-Shirts before a game and BLM patches on their uniforms, while management and players have also been outspoken on racial issues in America. What was your reaction?
GERALD EARLY: I think that the Cardinal organization has typically been a pretty conservative type of organization. Baseball is, on the whole, a fairly conservative sport insofar as not wanting to be involved with political matters. And so, it just goes to show with this whole thing how pervasive it’s become — how much it’s become really a part of the normal, I guess, mainstream political opinion at this point.
It’s pretty surprising that it’s happening, considering the radical nature of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s clearly a movement built on Marxist critical analysis of a capitalist, bourgeois society. ... But I think, it’s a sign of how conservatives are right in saying that liberal opinion in the United States has moved progressively left. And I think that’s true. And I think that probably what began to propel it moving left was the election of Barack Obama. I think that his being elected to the presidency has not been looked at as closely as it should be for helping to explain what’s happening now and in this moment.
And as that has happened, it’s also moved conservative people even more to the right. So I do think that what’s happened is that the center, which was always the political place everybody wanted to be, is now the place where people don’t particularly want to be, because the country has become super, super divided — and divided in a way that I think is more intense than any time that I’ve lived in. And I’m in my 60s. So I was around during the civil rights era. I was alive in 1968. I was in high school and still I saw all that happen. It was during the Vietnam War period. It was very divisive then. But I think in intensity, it’s even more divisive now.
BH: You’ve written a lot about Black culture and baseball. You once said, “Black Americans don’t play baseball because they don’t want to.” You talked about how the game isn’t passed down to generations as much in the Black community, because the old memories of the Black baseball experience aren’t always rosy. How do you feel today about Black interest in baseball and in our city of St. Louis?
GE: I still think I probably support that. And I know that Major League Baseball made overtures and in recent years to try to market the game better to Black people. I do think that number one, Black people generally feel that the game is not that relevant to them. Younger Black people particularly might also feel that the game is not as aesthetically interesting to them as other kind of sports might be. They might feel it seems white to them. And I think there are reasons for that. One is because, compared to basketball and football, there is still a pretty large percentage of whites who play baseball and who go to the games, compared to other sports. And so I think that’s also given us the image of being a white game. Also, young Black people, Black kids in school, don’t tend to play it. ... The interest isn’t there and the access isn’t there.
It’s also partly a history thing because the game was segregated for a very long time. Baseball makes a big deal about Jackie Robinson integrating the game, which baseball should. But it’s not some wonderful moment of inclusion. It’s actually an embarrassing moment about — how could this game had gone on this long and excluded people like this?
It’s actually a tragic moment in America to think that Black people have had teams, Black people had leagues, so Black people were interested in playing this game for many years — and they were excluded. So there’s a certain kind of shame attached to the game. We had apartheid baseball for a lot of years! And you go out to the baseball game, they want to give you all this nostalgia crap and all this other kind of stuff, and they don’t seem to be ashamed about that. And if you’re a Black person, and you’re looking at all this stuff about, you know, 1941 and Joe DiMaggio — the game was segregated! But baseball wants to make this heroic moment — Oh, yes, we decided to have Jackie Robinson come in and play and everything in this great historic moment. And it turns out to be heroic moments because Jackie Robinson himself was heroic! It’s heroic because of the man himself, and his ability to withstand what was happening to him to be able to play the game. It’s not because baseball was heroic at this moment and baseball suddenly was more advanced than the rest of American society by allowing, you know, this one Black guy to play.
BH: A lot of historic American organizations are having these sort of awakenings this summer about how they dealt with race over the years. Are there some things baseball could do?
GE: I know they’re trying to do things with the Negro League Museum and doing stuff to try to promote the Negro Leagues and that’s all well, fine and good. I give Major League Baseball credit for what it has done in that regard. I think that game has to be acknowledged during the time of segregation as a white game. That’s what it was — a white game — and it has to be called that. That’s what it was.
BH: You’re a pretty big baseball fan, right? Yes. So I mean, do you constantly wrestle with so many emotions watching the game you love, but also having these clear understandings of its history of race and everything that’s negative that comes along with this fun game?
GE: Yeah, you do. I think as a Black person generally you kind of have a certain kind of what has been famously called ‘double consciousness’ about your experience. Just like when I was a kid and you go see a Tarzan movie. You’re entertained by the Tarzan movie the same way your white friends are — this heroic figure going out and doing heroic things and all that. But the thing is, where you are different from your white friends is that you are looking at this movie and then you’re seeing him beating up these Africans and all this other stuff. You see these Africans being denigrated. And there are people who look like you. And so you’re coming to it with understanding subconsciously, and even consciously, that you just looked at something that was racist. You were also entertained by it as a little kid and everything. But you understood that you were looking at something that was designed to make your group look bad, whereas the white kids who went to see it did not see that. And then if you mentioned it to them, they didn’t understand why you saw that.
I think that’s always been, for many Black people, most Black people, this kind of double awareness. You’re part of the society like everyone else. And you enjoy things like everybody else. You look at movies with white people in them, and you enjoy them, like everybody else and everything — but you also understand you’re looking at a white movie. And I think in more recent years, I think white people have become a little bit more sensitive to the idea that as a minority person, you’re looking at this thing with more than one lens. And so, when I go to baseball, yeah, I love the game. I love reading books about the game. I love reading histories of the game, and so forth. In fact, right now I’m reading David Cone’s book about his career, and everything in which I find very interesting because he really gives a really, really close up view of the mentality of the pitcher. But, you know, I’m also aware when I’m looking at the field of Black players and Latino players and white players who are out there. I’m aware of the differences between those players and probably the differences that exist that those players sense among themselves in various ways.
I love the game itself. And I love the idea of the team and all these guys, these different guys working together for the objective of winning. I appreciate that. I wish we had more of a society where we could all get together like that in a certain kind of way. I also understand the differences that are there too. And I understand that, you know, people are coming to the game with different experiences. They’re coming to the game with different ways of seeing what’s out there on the field. It’s just like when you play the national anthem. I don’t mind the national anthem. I’m an American. I love my country. But I don’t always love my country, and I certainly don’t love all aspects of its history. Some of its history is pretty disturbing. I would say America is a great country. But I would also say that America has not always been a good country.
I understand the whole idea of loving your country and patriotism. But I believe Black people have a somewhat different attitude about that, you have a somewhat different attitude about hearing the national anthem, about seeing the flag, about loving your country, because your country didn’t always love you.