The story of the first black major leaguer. Maybe. Kinda.

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Fascinating article at Slate today about William Edward White, who played a single game for the Providence Grays in 1879. The significance? White was the first black man to play a game in major league baseball.

Or was he? That’s the subject of the article (the fact of White’s lone game has been reported for over a decade). You see, White was born to a white father and a mixed-race mother who, at the time, was his father’s slave in pre-Civil War Georgia. By law and general social rules of the time, that made White black.

But White’s father and mother — who stayed together as a family and raised White — sent him north for his education in the 1870s and, as was often the case for mixed-race people of the time, White passed as white. Indeed, he did so for the rest of his life, being listed as white in his educational records, census records and death certificate. And, one presumes, the Providence Grays — who picked White up from Brown University for his single game — assumed he was white as well.

Which leads to the interesting philosophical/social/historical question of whether or not one should consider White to be the first black baseball player. On the one hand you can say it’s merely a matter of biographical/genetic information: White was partially black and, per the understanding of the times, would be considered black by all who knew his heritage, ergo he was. On the other hand, we don’t laud Jackie Robinson simply because he was able to be slotted into a demographic group when he played. He laud him for his bravery and leadership in breaking a barrier and visibly and forcefully righting a wrong. White wasn’t likely trying to do anything other than live his life and play some baseball. Which he did, based on the available evidence, while thinking of himself as a white man.

There’s a lot of interesting discussion in the linked article from historians and the like. It’s a truly fascinating conversation about identity and race and social convention. And, of course, baseball.

John Henry tries to justify the Red Sox’ trade of Mookie Betts

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Red Sox owner John Henry issued a lengthy statement to fans today trying to explain and justify the team’s trade of Mookie Betts. It’s a master class in distortion that will, in all likelihood, make no one happy.

Henry starts by talking about “challenges.” The “particularly challenging” offseason the Red Sox had, the “extraordinary challenges” the Red Sox faced, and the front office’s handling of these “challenges.” He goes on to talk about how he knows the “challenges” affect the fans and how he sees it as his job to protect the organization from these “challenges.”

There’s a lot of passive voice here, and at no point does Henry note that the primary challenge at play here was the team’s decision to cut payroll and get it below the Competitive Balance Tax threshold. It’s just a thing that happened to the Red Sox, apparently. They had no agency in this at all.

For what it’s worth, the team keeps denying that the CBT was the motivating factor:

This is laughable, of course, given that Henry himself began the Red Sox’ offseason by specifically saying the team needed top do just that. His exact words from late September:

“This year we need to be under the CBT . . .  that was something we’ve known for more than a year now. If you don’t reset there are penalties so we’ve known for some time now we needed to reset as other clubs have done.”

Three days later, Kennedy himself said it’d “be difficult” to keep both Betts and J.D. Martinez and accomplish that goal. When that all went over like a lead balloon with the fans Henry and everyone else tried to walk it back, but you have to be an idiot not to see what happened here:

  1. Owner demands team get under CBT;
  2. Team president says it’ll be hard to do that without one of the superstars leaving;
  3. Martinez declines to op-out of his deal;
  4. Betts is traded.

They can cite all the “challenges” they want, but they traded Betts in order to slash payroll and they slashed payroll simply because they wanted to, not, as we and many others have demonstrated, because of any compelling reason.

Instead of talking about that, Henry spends the bulk of the statement talking about how baseball’s financial system — free agency, basically — requires teams to make tough choices. Henry:

In today’s game there is a cost to losing a great player to free agency — one that cannot merely be made up by the draft pick given. . . . we felt we could not sit on our hands and let him go without getting value in return to help us on our path forward.”

Losing a player to free agency stinks, but nowhere in the entire statement does Henry mention that the Sox could’ve, you know, not lost Betts to free agency next November.

Nowhere does he note that the Sox had a full year to talk to Betts about a possible extension nor did he mention that the Sox — who print money at a faster rate than anyone except the Yankees — could’ve bid on him in free agency too. He simply does not allow for the possibility that a 2021 Boston Red Sox team could’ve done what the 2020 Washington Nationals did, for example, and sign one of their big, would-be departing free agents in Stephen Strasburg. Nor, for that matter, does he allow for the possibility that they could do what the 2019 Washington Nationals did with their all-but-certain-to-depart superstar in Anthony Rendon: hold on to him in his walk year and win a damn World Series. Guess it was a “challenge” to go into all of that.

Of course, as we’ve seen across baseball this past week, it’s really, really hard to explain something when you don’t want to admit the facts and accept the consequences of it all. That’s maybe the toughest challenge of them all.

The full statement: