Race, Baseball, and Third Base Coaches

Racism didn’t end with Robinson’s entrance. African-American players still faced segregated hotels, discrimination from their own teammates and fans as well as the same from other fans, and barriers to other front office jobs. The situation improved, however, to the point where there are no segregated hotels or restaurants, teammates largely accept their teammates and opponents no matter the race, and minorities have greatly expanded access to upper-level jobs. Individual racism in baseball, like in most areas of life, is gone, but structural racism still exists. Players still face stereotypes. Latin Americans (who used to have to Anglocize their names—Vic Power was Victor Pellot before arriving in the US— even before Jackie Robinson and cannot be forgotten in this discussion) usually receive the stigma of being lazy or emotional (or in Yunel Escobar’s case, both), and stigmas are difficult to drop. African-Americans and Hispanics have to be “toolsy” players, usually with speed, to differentiate themselves. White players don’t need to be as “toolsy”, but they are expected to have intangibles. Different things are expected of people who look differently, and that’s the definition of discrimination, though it’s not overtly hateful. These things were established a long time ago, but because they aren’t necessarily hateful, they are harder to get rid of. And when they are confirmed (because the odds are that no matter what you expect, there are probably a few in the hundreds of prospects that will reaffirm those expectations), it makes it difficult to get rid of those stereotypes. But how does this work against minority coaches?

Stereotypes tend to carry over into other areas. It’s a fairly well-known tendency in sports (basketball seems to be the lone exception) to have white people in crucial decision-making decisions (remember the intangibles thing?). Quarterbacks, head coaches, and general managers tend to be overwhelmingly white. Now, but what about third base coaches? Third base coaches have a little more responsibility. Seen occasionally as heir apparent to the head coaching position, they give signals and are “responsible” for runs being scored. The perception of white people in power colors the perception of people. Now, here’s where individual and structural racism diverge. Individual racism would have the GM pick the white person simply because he was white. Structural racism has influenced the GM to pick the white person because the white person seems “managerial”. It’s a subconscious perception much in the way one might perceive a teenage boy who wears his shorts below his butt. It is not the only factor going into the decision, which would make it individual, but it may influence the decision, making it structural. The racism is tougher to see because it’s not overt or conscious. It’s not as clear as a bathroom sign saying “Whites Only”. It’s a shade of grey, and we’re not sure of the mixture. The person committing the act of racism may not even realize that they are, which makes the situation more frustrating. That’s why structural racism is dangerous—it’s not really an enemy you can see; you have to read the signs.

Stereotyped for speed, it also makes sense (stereotypically) to put the people chosen for speed at first, where they can use their knowledge of stealing bases to help guys on first. Now, I want to make this clear. I don’t think anyone intentionally does this. These stereotypes were put in place a long time ago, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Players from 20 years ago (now coaches) were picked because of certain attributes, and because they do have those attributes, they do have specific knowledge for that spot. Again, I don’t think it’s intentional. As I said, it almost seems to make sense. Guy who was fast and stole bases should be a good first base coach who helps other fast guys (probably black or Hispanic) run and steal bases, but it’s false logic. Older scouts who picked the now coaches were taught and/or influenced by even older scouts (who, due to the time period, were probably racist to some degree), and because the even older scouts were successful, the protégés continued the process, leading to today’s problems. The continuation wasn’t strictly racist in nature, instead a desire to be a successful scout, but it still exists.

But the situation is not so simple. It’s not only stereotypes and structural racism that create this difference. As Rob Neyer noted, two or three more minority coaches at third, and we wouldn’t be having this discussion. With 30 jobs, two or three would make the percentages look quite different. Also with 30 jobs, random variation plays a role. Sometimes, people lose out on jobs, and sometimes, they just aren’t the best people for those jobs. The race of those people may tend to fluctuate. However, a 67 to 30 difference is a fairly large one, and it is one that I think merits discussion, which is why I’m talking about this now. But I think we need to be careful of how much we ascribe race to be the reason. Correlation does not equal causation, and even if it is part of the reason, it doesn’t have to be the only or even the most significant reason (yes, I realize I have given racism some credit and then said it may not be a factor, which seems contradictory but is actually an indication of the complexity of the issue).

Could time be also be a factor? We talk about the fact that the MLB is 40% non-White right now, but what about 20 years ago? It was 30% non-white, and I imagine, though I can’t find for sure, that it was a few percent less 10 years before that. It takes time to become a major-league coach. You have to play through your playing career and then work your way through the minors as a coach. It takes time to get there, and if you go by 1990, the third base coaches accurately reflect racial composition. I’m not trying to be an apologist, but I am trying to provide reasons for the discrepancy, with this being possibly another part of the equation.

Racial composition of the minors may be another aspect. 40% of the majors are non-white, but 48% of the minors in 2009 were born outside of the country, almost all being Latin American. I wonder if teams don’t employ more minority coaches in the minors in order to make the transition for minorities, especially Hispanics, easier. If so, does this take some of the possible talent out of the pool for major-league positions?

We like to think we, as a society, are past race issues, but we’re not. Our reluctance to talk about it speaks more to the pain and guilt we still feel over the issue. By not talking about it, we let the feelings simmer under the surface, waiting to emerge later. By talking about it, we can confront the issues and work through the problems, though it means more immediate discomfort. That’s why I liked the New York Times article. It didn’t really contribute much to the actual discussion of the race issue, but because of its enormous readership, it began the dialogue by simply asking the question, which is harder than it sounds (people these days don’t like talking about race, and I’m sure the paper saw some backlash for the article). Race may not actually a significant reason for the difference in the hiring of base coaches, but talking about it is essential regardless. It forces us to reassess all parts of baseball (and life), which we should do on a regular basis anyway. It forces us to take a look at this specific issue. If it’s not a part of the hiring process, then we know it definitively by looking at it honestly, and if it is, we have the opportunity to correct a problem that had been going unnoticed and would have continued being so. Avoiding tense and controversial issues isn’t a good way to sweep it away because it doesn’t. It’s just cowardly. We can have civilized discussions about these things. But it means that we may have to admit we were wrong. It means that we may have to admit that, despite our best intentions, we didn’t give everyone a fair shake. It may mean admitting that heroes in the past weren’t as much of a hero as we thought they were. There’s no shame in admitting we were wrong, but there is shame in continuing the wrong. We are constantly evolving as humans and as a society. We have made mistakes and will continue to do so. The key is to constantly question ourselves, our motives, our feelings, and our perceptions because that will stop our harmful acts more quickly and even prevent some. Anything less is unacceptable, in life and in baseball.

5 thoughts on “Race, Baseball, and Third Base Coaches

  1. Same causes, same effects. In Canada, where hockey is what baseball is for the U.S., Quebec hockey players are discriminated. In a book published in 2009, an ex-Washington Capitals player, Robert Bob Sirois, found that 42 % of the Quebec players who played more than 200 games have won an individual award from the NHL. Which means that only the super nifty French speaking hockey player can make a career. In Quebec, a French speaking hockey player aged 15 to 17 has one chance over 618 to be drafted. If he is an English speaking hockey player (same age), he has one chance over 334. And, needless to say, French speaking coaches are a rarity even if they speak English. From my point of view, it is racism, be it conscious or inconscious (the French speaking hockey players are emotional, lazy, same kind of stuff, really). By the way, thanks for your piece about such a difficult subject (as you said, people do not want to think about it).

  2. Discrimination comes in many forms–racial, gender, ethnic, sexual, age, etc. In any form, it’s unacceptable. I don’t know much about hockey in Canada so I can’t speak to that situation, but thanks for bringing it up as a reminder that discrimination takes other forms.

  3. I’ve always found it, (laughable?  outrageous?  silly?) that people act like we are even mostly past racism being a major factor in this country when you take a look at the average life situation of a young black male in this country
    Poor… like a 1 in 4 chance of being in prison or on parole… limited options, racial profiling, the utterly disingenuous “war on drugs”… its mainly meant to keep young black males down and without wealth or power..
    Obviously discrimination and bias come in many forms and affects many different types of people, but nobody gets it worse than young black males, it’s just a fact

  4. You wanna talk about third base coaches….  I wanna talk about how to this day, men get pulled over at least once a month for DWB… driving while black
    Also happen to think that in this economy, when most people white, black, latino, etc.etc. are struggling, there isn’t much sympathy.

  5. I tend to be a bit less harsh on the intentions of the system than one might expect. I think most of the problems are the children of past ones, and the people in control now who still perpetrate some of these crimes (pulling over a black man in a nice car) are just byproducts of how they grew up (statistics say black men commit more crimes, but the policeman doesn't understand why that happens and how the system works against minorities. He focuses on blacks, not because he's "racist", but because the stats tell him that a certain person does this). Some people are obviously bigots, but I think most people see the statistics and superficial analysis. The thing is that we need to dig deeper to find the root of problems and not just what the stats tell us. But I do agree with most of what you said.