The Orwellian Anti-Pageantry of a Game without Fans

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Yesterday was an historic day for baseball, as a major league game was closed to the public for the first time ever, when the Baltimore Orioles hosted the White Sox to an eerily empty stadium. Watching the game that afternoon, the temptation to make this a metaphor for race relations in America was inescapable. It’s a commonplace to point out that America mythologizes itself through its national pastime, endlessly churning out pastoral fantasies of simpler and more innocent times through various baseball novels, songs, and films.

But, as the radical novelist John Dos Passos wrote in 1936, “we are two nations.” Dos Passos, a socialist activist, was talking about the American public’s refusal to feel outrage at the unjust execution of notorious anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, but his sentiment echoes ideas put forward by the African-American poet Langston Hughes in works like “I, Too, Sing America.” More recently, commentators have been prone to refer to two Baltimores in much the same sense, though to be fair, the same could be said of St. Louis or Los Angeles, or any other American city. And because the history of baseball reflects the history of America, there are also two baseballs.

We all know the baseball America likes to talk about, the one from Field of Dreams,where the virulently racist Ty Cobb doesn’t make an appearance among all the hordes of historical figures who join Black Sox players in the film’s conclusion, and where the charming James Earl Jones can present a congenially integrated love of the game with Kevin Costner. Most of us are also aware of the other baseball, of course—the one that embodies America’s history of enduring racism. The early promise and subsequent collapse of Reconstruction is reflected in the biography of nineteenth-century players like Moses Fleetwood Walker, who began playing on integrated professional teams in the topsy-turvy early days of organized baseball, only to be forced out by the racism of his teammates. The Negro Leagues begin almost concurrently to the rise of Jim Crow laws, and players like Josh Gibson,arguably the greatest offensive catcher to ever play the game, were deprived of the chance to match their skills in competition and comradery with the great white players of the era. But there’s a tendency for the baseball that America likes to try to subsume that other baseball, to turn America’s racist past into a narrative of America’s contemporary racial enlightenment.

The two baseballs converge, of course, in the national sanctification of Jackie Robinson. People enamored of the baseball America likes, such as my high school science teacher, hang massive posters of Robinson shaking an anonymous white player’s hand as he trots to home base, adorned perplexingly by a Macintosh logo and the caption “Think Different.” One America will cite this era of baseball as evidence of America’s unstoppable march to erasing racial difference and eliminating inequality. In this America—the one that writes our history textbooks—Jackie pioneered the integration of baseball, Dr. King marched on Selma, Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts, and America closed an awful chapter in its history, moving on to one where, if some disparities between the races still exist, they’re sure to wither away and die. Baseball will make us whole. But the other America persists underneath the nose of the America that writes the history books. In the other America, explicitly segregationist housing and business practices remained in place for decades after the Civil Rights Acts. In the other America, infant mortality rates approach those of developing nations, when they are staggeringly lower just a few streets over. In the other America, people of color will be punishedby police much more often than white people for committing crimes that whites commit much more frequently. Jim Crow still exists de facto in the other America, though the America of the history textbooks continues to ignore it.

Which brings us to yesterday’s baseball game and its metaphorical potential. Yesterday, the Orioles and White Sox play a game in Baltimore without a crowd. Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred says that “all of the decisions in Baltimore were driven first by the desire to insure the safety of fans, players, umpires and stadium workers.” I’d like to believe that (I grew up on the periphery of the America that writes the history textbooks, after all). But the players and umpires were there, playing. The media were there, reporting. And many staff were there, working. Someone at the park even made the rather surreal decision to have someone playing pump up music at key moments and announcing the plate appearances over the PA. The aggressive normality of the show put forward a bizarre anti-pageant, a symbolically obstinate refusal to acknowledge ugly social realities literally sitting at the gates of Camden Yards.

Players, umpires, and staff were all at the game, Commissioner. What was missing were the Baltimore crowds. And at my most cynical, it’s difficult not to suspect that the crowds are what MLB is worried about. Perhaps they were concerned that the event might be flooded by waves of protesters intent on disrupting public space as a means of drawing attention to their cause. But the gentrified color line is a few blocks away, and the protests encounter resistance before they get to the stadium itself. More probably, baseball’s leadership would be worried about an event such as this one at Busch Stadium in St. Louis last Fall, where droves of fans exiting the stadium were met by crowds protesting the death of Mike Brown, and the two Americas met in the street.

The other baseball is on full display here, where the sport once again became an occasion to tell truth to America about itself. The other baseball reminded us that virulent racism still seethes just beneath the face that textbook America puts forward, to the surprise of many in textbook America and to absolutely no one in the other America.

Despite the closing of the park in Baltimore today, a small crowd gathered at the gates, cheering on and waving signs. I could only see what the cameras showed me, of course, but I scrutinized the crowd for a non-white face and came up empty. “The loyal, the true,” the Orioles color commentator called them a few times. That’s the baseball that America likes talking. I wonder how many of those people are there for some pure “love of the game” and how many of them are there in a display of white reactionary defiance similar to those Cardinals fans, sulking over how black outrage at murder and state oppression is disrupting their fantasy of American moral superiority. No comment from the media on that one. The baseball beloved by textbook America tries to avoid letting the other baseball expose the other America.

To be fair to the announcing staff, it isn’t like they weren’t trying. They quoted a few times from Adam Jones’s moving remarks about the protests and baseball’s role in them, and they even mentioned issues of income disparity and educational inequality with surprising frankness. But they were swimming upstream against the overwhelming symbolic force of this weird display that wanted to insist that everything was okay because a baseball game was being played in Baltimore exactly as they always have been, minus the one minor detail of being attended by the people of Baltimore. “Listen. Just listen,” said one of the announcers, commenting on how the eerie quiet allowed us to hear the sounds of the game as though we were there. A few minutes later, and several times thereafter, the stadium thundered with the echoes of a helicopter buzzing by. A police vehicle performing surveillance on a population under paramilitary occupation? It seems likely, but again, I only see what the cameras show, and they wouldn’t show that.

The future belongs to crowds,” said American novelist Don DeLillo. The opening section of his novel Underworld analogizes the beginning of the Cold War through the National League Championship of 1951. DeLillo understood that baseball can be used to represent American consciousness with more critical thinking than many idyllic treatments of the sport have done. But yesterday afternoon Camden Yards was empty and the crowd was in the streets. One might be tempted to read the game as evidence of the sport’s declining ability to speak of American reality, particularly to racial reality in the twenty-first century. But I think the game today might speak volumes about American existence. For days now, mainstream media broadcasts have been filled with white anchors who express their sympathy for issues facing African-Americans, while also condescendingly scolding riots as counterproductive. These are the same anchors who have not militated in any serious way to fix these issues when African-American leaders have mentioned them through “acceptable” channels in the decades since the wane of the Civil Rights Movement. Textbook America gets annoyed when the other America speaks up loudly enough that everyone has to pay attention, and it really wishes that the other America could hurry up and scream itself out so that textbook America can return to ignoring it.

This vicious cycle was embodied by the cognitive dissonance of yesterday’s game. MLB seems to have hoped through almost Orwellian logic that it could enforce the status quo by curating a media event that went through the motions of what textbook America wants to believe about itself. It seems to have been an attempt at some bizarre atavistic ritual, where refusing to allow civil disorder to disrupt America’s pastime might sustain the fantasy of an unbroken march of American progress, erasing the fissures in that fantasy so thoroughly that they had never been. The king is dead. Long live the king. Freddie Gray is dead. Play ball. But the unnerving silence in the stadium was only accentuated by the few noises that punctuated it, and it was impossible to watch this display of what America wants to believe about itself without thinking about what was going on in the other America, right down the street. Despite efforts to the contrary, this was the other baseball on display, the one that speaks of the other America, and whether the powers that be like it or not, the sport remains telling about the spirit of our national culture.

Update: Since I wrote this yesterday, the Baltimore state’s attorney has announced that it will forego St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch’s abuse of the grand jury process and file criminal charges against six Baltimore police officers. It should go without saying that this is a refreshing development. Textbook America will surely cite this event as evidence that the system works generally because it appears to be working in this particular instance. The obvious holes in that logic should be apparent to anyone thinking more critically.

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