The Athlete as Activist: Reconsidering Baseball and Society in 1968

ClementeIs there a place for the study of the relationship of social causes and baseball? Especially, what is the role of the athlete as activist? For reasons that pass understanding this subject has largely been ignored, and what does exist has been written by journalists rather than historians. No matter how much baseball might be viewed as a distraction from “real issues,” or a method of making copious amounts of money for the wealthy, it has a level of purity and absolute joy that transcends the issues of everyday life. Baseball may be used, I believe, as a microcosm to explore valuable aspects of modern American society. Furthermore, as an individual always in the public spotlight the athlete has a rare opportunity to facilitate social change in modern American society through personal action. While some choose to remain on the sidelines of social discourse, many have stepped forward through history to lend their stature and their voices to causes deemed significant.

This paper will explore this aspect of sports and society in a single year, 1968, when American athletes as never before emerged to challenge the social order. While most of these athletes were beyond baseball, it also extended to Major League Baseball. I will investigate three episodes of athlete activism in the MLB and place them in larger context:

  • Led by Roberto Clemente the Pittsburgh Pirates players forced a delay in the opening of the 1968 season until after the funeral of the assassinated Martin Luther King. As the most integrated team in MLB, with eleven African American or Latino players, the Pirates offered this “moment of silence” as a sign of respect for King’s leadership in advancing civil rights.
  • In Detroit the Tigers ran away with the American League pennant as the city’s residents worked to repair the damage in the social fabric of a divided city after the explosive race riots of 1967. The conventional wisdom is that although the Tigers had only three African Americans on the team, the success of its championship season helped the races to find common ground in putting their differences in the past. But is the conventional wisdom correct? At some level, but the individual efforts of the African American Gates Brown apparently proved more important.
  • In addition to being one of the best players in MLB during the 1960s and early 1970s Dick (Richie) Allen was controversial throughout his playing career. Much of this resulted from his unwillingness to take racist slanders and outright assaults, fearlessly responding as an outspoken opponent of racism of any type. He suffered in Philadelphia for his response to abuse. He once famously said, “I can play anywhere; First, Third, Left field, anywhere but Philadelphia.”

These incidents fit the MLB into a larger mosaic of social change in this time. While they might be considered small in comparison, they were part of a larger response to the situation present in American society at the end of the 1960s. As a result they may be compared to the efforts of Muhammad Ali to combat racism and the Vietnam War, Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics who responded to even greater racist-inspired indignities than Dick Allen, and the silent Black Power protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic medal ceremony that affected the cause of social justice around the world.

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