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Most Valuable (Gentleman) from Japan

4 minute read

If souls can smile, the soul of Jackie Robinson was smiling last week. Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, a slim, swift outfielder out of Kasugai, Japan, was chosen Most Valuable Player in the American League by the Baseball Writers’ Association of Americaan overwhelmingly white, male group of U. S. journalists. During the 2001 season, Suzuki batted .350, garnered 242 hits, stole 56 bases and played a fine right field, showing about as good an outfield throwing arm as now exists. Newspaper accounts were busy with statistics and with reporting Suzuki’s close run for the prize against Jason Giambi, a mighty power hitter who lumbered about for the Oakland Athletics. The larger point may sound simplistic. Suzuki is Asian. Were this 1945, not 2001, neither he nor Barry Bonds, the African-American who was just named MVP in the National League, would have been permitted even to compete in what ball players call “The Bigs.”

As no other sport, baseball enshrines its history, most notably in the bosky village of Cooperstown, New York. There, hard by the pristine waters of Lake Otesaga, one finds the National Baseball Museum, the National Baseball Library and the Hall of Fame. Within the cathedral silence of the Hall visitors meet past greats, gazing mildly from bronze plaques mounted on the walls. Gathered there are the greatest ball players ever: Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, Koufax and Mathewson. The effect is stirring; unfortunately, U.S. baseball’s racist past has been underplayed. It is as if we were reading a fine authorized biography, solid in many respects but edited by the subject, in this case Major League Baseball, Inc.

Although two black brothers from Ohio, Moses “Fleet” Walker and Welday Walker, played briefly for Toledo of the then major American Association in 1884, blacks were subsequently barred from playing big-league ball for the next 63 years. Branch Rickey, the most eloquent of baseball men, brought Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Rickey and the Dodgers’ captain, Pee Wee Reese, lent magnificent support to Robinson, the pioneer. Others did not. Several Dodgers demanded to be traded, rather than play on a fine team beside a black man.

Robinson spent 10 mostly triumphant years with the Dodgers, but baseball racism endured. Four years after Rickey left the Brooklyn organization, the black Puerto Rican, Roberto Clemente, showed great promise in the Dodger farm system. “We’re not bringing him up,” decreed Walter O’Malley, Rickey’s successor. “We have enough colored boys already.” Pittsburgh plucked Clemente, and the Hall-of-Famer slammed out 3,000 hits over an 18-year career.

Racism exploded again when Baseball Inc. decided to solemnly mark the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s major league debut. Ted Koppel invited me and the late Al Campanis, then Dodger general manager, to appear on his popular network program Nightline. Robinson died in 1972, but Koppel asked me what he might think about the state of blacks in baseball during 1987. I said Robinson would be appalled that there was not a single black manager in the major leagues. Koppel said to Campanis, who was sitting in a Houston ball park, “Is Mr. Kahn’s statement true, and if it is, to what do you attribute it?” Campanis responded that blacks lacked “the necessities” to manage. He meant intelligence. His speech was slurred. He may have been drinking. The Dodgers promptly fired him, but to this day the team of Jackie Robinson has not hired a black manager.

Racists are comfortable with nasty stereotypes. Blacks can’t think. Latins are flashy but fold under pressure. Until this season the stereotype for Japanese players suggested that they could make fine minor leaguers but the power and muscle of the American big leagues would overwhelm them.

Suzuki, a seven-time batting champion with the Orix Blue Wave team of Kobe, signed a three-year contract with Seattle for slightly more than $14 million. He had a relatively quiet spring training, batting a decent but unspectacular .308. Some quickly proclaimed him an expensive disappointment.

Ron Fairly, whose sweet swing graced the major leagues for 21 seasons, broadcast Mariner games last season. “Ichiro wanted to accomplish three things in spring training,” Fairly says. “He wanted to get ready to start on Opening Day. He wanted to learn as much as he could about American baseball. He wanted to see how American pitchers intended to go after him. Did he succeed? Try 242 hits.” No major leaguer of any size, shape or color has gotten that many hits since 1930.

Following the Sept. 11 disaster, Americans seem more openly proud of the diversity of their country. I can’t think of a better illustration than this year’s MVPs. Heck, next year we may even give some white guys a chance.

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