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This spring training, MLB should speak out against Ron DeSantis

This spring training, MLB should speak out against Ron DeSantis


There was a time when America’s pastime showed a weariness of Florida’s hostile approach to inclusiveness, which in some ways is being reconstituted by its current governor, Ron DeSantis.

It was not necessarily coincidental that the year was 1947, the same season the game allowed Jackie Robinson to be the first Black man to play in its major leagues in 60 years. The Brooklyn Dodgers, who famously signed Robinson, strategically opened spring training in Havana that year. Dodgers co-owner and general manager Branch Rickey, who directed the recruitment and signing of Robinson, wanted him to break in where Black baseball players had a more comfortable history.

But Rickey’s new peer in Cleveland, Bill Veeck, who had searched for a way to break the game’s color barrier earlier in the decade, decided to go a step further. He junked tradition. After buying the Cleveland franchise in 1946, Veeck decided in 1947 to detach the team from its Lakeland, Fla., spring training grounds, where it had been since 1922, and replant it in Tucson. He thought Arizona, which he had explored as a retirement home, would be more hospitable toward Black players than Florida. Florida was home to Jim Crow laws that made it difficult for even Black ballplayers, no matter how temporary their residency would be, to find hotels or motels for their stay, or restaurants and lunch counters at which to dine. The decrees were enforced by White vigilantes who made Florida home to three of the deadliest counties in the South in per capita lynchings of Black people.

Veeck convinced the New York Giants to join his move west, too. And that July, Veeck signed Larry Doby, orchestrating integration of the American League. The St. Louis Browns, who signed the next two Black players, briefly set up spring training in California.

Thus began the exodus of spring baseball from Florida, a sort of protest partly spurred by the state’s intransigence on race.

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If baseball is still concerned with as much, its 15 franchises that started spring training last month in Florida should consider making the annual exercise an all-Cactus League affair as long as DeSantis commands an attack on diversity. It has been the hallmark of his governorship, which many believe is a prologue to a presidential bid.

Just last month, DeSantis called a new Advanced Placement high school course in African American studies “indoctrination,” dismissed its educational value and threatened to replace the nonprofit College Board that approved it.

Earlier this year, he proposed a ban on state funding for any Florida college program that embraced the ideals of diversity, equity and inclusion, or critical race theory. The latter is the higher-education scientific analysis of race and racism in society that has been purposefully disfigured by DeSantis, an Ivy Leaguer, and others of his reactionary ilk into a boogeyman for White citizens who believe they are losing this country that wasn’t theirs in the first place. When the Florida legislature opens Tuesday, state lawmakers will consider a cluster of new proposals that would dial back college studies on gender, end some diversity programs at universities and stifle pronoun courtesies, in the charge to hegemonize education in the state.

Some public schools in DeSantis’s state directed teachers to remove or wrap up classroom libraries in response to a statewide mandate that schoolbooks be age-appropriate and “suited to student needs.” Among 176 books in one county’s crosshairs, as tracked by PEN America, a freedom of expression advocacy organization, were “Henry Aaron’s Dream,” about Black home run king Hank Aaron; “Roberto Clemente: Pride of the Pittsburgh Pirates,” about the Hall of Fame Afro-Puerto Rican outfielder who died at 38 in a 1972 plane crash while attempting to deliver relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua; and “Thank You, Jackie Robinson,” about the man whose emergence prompted the first move of baseball spring training camps to Arizona. (The Clemente and Aaron books were among those later approved for use.)

Yes, Robinson, whose number MLB retired across the majors and whom it celebrates each April as a paragon of racial progress. At least 35 percent of MLB’s players last season were men of color, mostly of African descent from the Caribbean, South America or the United States. When a wave of teams looking for more hospitable settings for their Black players started joining Veeck’s team out west in the 1950s — urged, we’re reminded in Charles Fountain’s 2009 book, “Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training,” by Black journalist Wendell Smith, who became famous for reporting on Robinson during his rookie year — those Black players made up around 10 percent of major leaguers.

And about a year ago, DeSantis signed into law the “don’t say gay” bill, so nicknamed by critics, which prohibits public schools from any teaching on sexual orientation or gender identity unless they are considered “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Yet a league that started celebrating Pride Month several years ago is deeply rooted this time of year in Florida.

The teams of Florida’s Grapefruit League, including the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach, aren’t going to pack up their bats and balls this year or even next for confines in Arizona. It is impractical. There aren’t enough facilities in Arizona, and there are contracts in Florida that would have to be breached.

Narrative of Jackie Robinson, like that of MLK, is at odds with the reality

But they could collectively, or through MLB’s front office, let their displeasure with DeSantis’s leadership, with its hints of the troubling days of yesteryear, be known. After all, so many of the issues DeSantis has made noise standing against are the same issues baseball has made noise standing for in recent years. Diversity. Inclusion. Education about the game’s (and the country’s) unsavory racial past, which merits at least a small display now at its Cooperstown, N.Y., museum attached to the Hall of Fame.

The teams could remind DeSantis of the 2018 study that estimated spring training injected $687 million into the state over a little more than six weeks.

As Robinson wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier at the end of his last spring training in 1956, despite being at the Dodgers’ special Vero Beach camp, where Rickey and co-owners Walter O’Malley and John Smith developed the housing and dining sites so all of their players could live and eat together: “To a large extent the Southerners, particularly those in politics, are to blame [for Jim Crow]. On the other hand, it’s my belief that baseball itself hasn’t done all it can to help remedy the problems faced by those playing in organized baseball. Baseball, as everyone knows, is big business. It is my belief therefore that pressures can be brought to bear by organized baseball that would help remedy a lot of the prejudices that surround the game as it’s played below the Mason-Dixon Line.”

If history is repeating itself in Florida, so, too, should Robinson’s sentiment.

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