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Author Rob Ruck: Raceball

Posted by daniel.venn on June 4, 2016 at 1:15 PM

Authors and Authorship Part 10: Rob Ruck is one of the nation's preeminent scholars and most prolific writers on the topic of race and baseball. He has written multiple books on the contributions of African Americans to baseball and the impact of the game on their communities and on the development, spread, and consequences of baseball on Latin American countries.

Q: Baseball has undergone a dramatic demographic shift, with African American players becoming less represented on major league rosters and Latin American player populations soaring. What factors have led to and contributed to this shift?

Integration destroyed the Negro Leagues, and while ushering in the greatest wave of talent the major league game had yet seen, that laid the groundwork for the decline of African American players. After the rush of players who came up in the Negro Leagues and on sandlots in the black community reached an end, younger black players were forced to enter the minor leagues. Because most of those teams were in the South where resistance to civil liberties was reaching a violent peak, making it through the minors was a tough road to follow. Meanwhile, more colleges began accepting African Americans, at least to play football and basketball, and gave them scholarships. A college degree was a better investment than a few seasons in the minors and the slim chance of professional success. As the NFL and NBA gained greater cachet, they attracted more attention in the black community than baseball.

A few other factors were at play: a kid who wants to play football or basketball can learn the game in high school and benefit from AAU play. Baseball is the poor cousin in high school because it’s played when school is out. And while a college scholarship for football and basketball is a full ride, baseball only offers partial scholarships. Moreover, the decline of the family unit has meant that many grow up in households without a father who passes on the love and lore of the game. Nor can families without substantial assets afford to pay the fees associated with travel teams and youth coaching. Too many black families have been priced out of the game.

African American numbers began declining forty years ago, and they’re not likely to improve any time soon.

Q: What effects-positive and negative-has baseball had on African American and Latin American communities?

A century ago, baseball was considered a proving ground for citizenship, especially for sons of immigrants from Europe. The sandlots became a way for immigrant boys to become Americans and gain respect from other groups, because sport was seen as a meritocracy. Because they were excluded from that arena, African Americans were implicitly considered less than worthy for citizenship. Remember that Social Darwinian thinking was so widespread that most Americans thought African Americans were inherently inferior athletes.

But on the other side of the racial boundary, black Americans defied these notions and build a baseball world of its own. That sporting world—in the Negro Leagues and sandlots—helped black America gain a sense of community after the migration out of the South, offered a bridge to white Americans, and allowed many to gain a sense of worth. Baseball’s integration would bolster the civil rights movement’s momentum but the destruction of the Negro Leagues meant that the black community lost control of its own sporting lives. Black athletes moved center stage but played for white owners and mostly white fans. The black community lost an impressive sporting infrastructure that reinforced community and was not only about profit.

The baseball-playing Caribbean has retained greater control over its own sporting lives, but exists in a tenuous relationship with MLB, which is driven by the bottom line. Still, baseball became the story that Dominicans, Cubans, and others have used to tell their story to the world.

Q: What factors have helped the Dominican Republic become the preeminent baseball talent hot spot despite its relatively small size and the poverty prevalent on the island?

Baseball, which arrived in the DR in the late 19th century, quickly became a sport that penetrated to all regions and social classes. It became the story that Dominicans used to tell their story to the world. It was a story about people who worked hard and played harder, who endured dictatorship and two occupations by the United States military, but in the end beat the Yanquis at their own game. Baseball played a number of roles other than offering the most talented a chance to prosper.

But in the 1980s, a couple of teams began academies there, positioning themselves to cheaply sign and develop talent. Now, every MLB franchise has a year-round operation that injects resources into player development. The results have been astonishing; over a tenth of all major leaguers and 30% of minor leaguers are from the Dominican. As the island’s baseball infrastructure reached critical mass, more and more players began to emerge.

Q: You were in Nicaragua shortly after the Revolution. Did the unsteady political and social climate of the 70s and 80s limit Nicaragua's development as a baseball country?

No doubt about that. War and US-backed counter-insurgency efforts destabilized the country and prevented resources from being devoted to sport. Though a baseball-passionate society, Nicaragua was then and remains today a very poor country, even by regional standards. Baseball’s development reflects not only how people feel about the sport, but the resources directed towards its development. Nicaragua doesn’t have the capital and transportation remains difficult, especially for players from the Atlantic coast.

Q: Major league teams are always looking for new sources of talent. What area of the world/country is the next frontier for baseball?

More players are likely to come from Japan and Korea where substantial resources are being directed toward the sport (and it has a long history). I don’t know about China and Africa because I don’t know if there will be similar commitments to a sport that lacks roots. Soccer will remain the game of choice because of its heritage, cost, and adaptability.

Q: How did your interest in Latin American baseball develop?

I’ve been fascinated with Latin America since reading a Dennis the Menace comic book about him going to Mexico when I was about six years old. That part of the world carried a romantic cachet during the years when Che and liberation theology were in vogue and I was coming of age. But my first ‘baseball’ trip there was the result of working on my dissertation, that focused on the Negro Leagues and sandlot teams in Pittsburgh (Sandlot Seasons: Sport and Black Pittsburgh). I realized that black baseball was part of a transnational circuit and figured I ought to travel its routes. I wrote on baseball in the Dominican Republic (The Tropic of Baseball) and worked with Dan Manatt to make a PBS documentary about the first generation of Dominicans to make it to the majors (The Republic of Baseball: Dominican Giants of the American Game). I returned to the region for Raceball: How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game. As an academic, one of the most important lessons is to find cool places to travel to when you’re doing your research.


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