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Majority of baseball brawls are between players of different ethnicities

Brian McCann Carlos Gomez

Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today has a fascinating story today. He analyzed bench-clearing brawls over the past five seasons and found that 87% of them involved clashes between players of different ethnicities, primarily white American players versus Latino players, be they from the U.S. or from other countries. All such disputes this season involved cross-ethnicity confrontations.

The reasons, which Ortiz lays out, are many of the things we’ve discussed here before: a difference in approach between white players and Latino players to the game. Different cultures. And, of course, an increase in the number and prominence of Latino players in the game today.

I agree with most of that. It’s interesting stuff and I’d be curious to know more about Ortiz’s personal views of the specific dynamics at play here. For my part, I do not believe that is a slow build with the tensions rising steadily as the demographics have changed. Rather, I feel like there has been a spike in the antagonism Ortiz describes which mirrors the way American society as a whole has experienced racial and ethnic conflict over the course of its history.

We saw this with 19th century and early 20th century immigration from Europe. We saw this as America transitioned from the Jim Crow era on through the Civil Rights Movement. We’re seeing it now as immigration from Latin America increasingly shapes our country and our culture. A process in which there is first coerced assimilation followed by an assertion of identity by the minority culture which is then followed by a reactionary backlash.

For a time there is peace of a sort, with the minority culture adhering strictly to the dominant culture’s mores. In baseball you can look back, not too long ago, at Latin players passing as white followed, in the post-integration era, with Latin players accepting the Americanizing of their name (e.g. “Bob Clemente” and “Willie Hernandez”) even if they didn’t call themselves that and carrying themselves in the same manner as white players. Looking at American history for much of the 20th century you can see similar adherence to the dominant culture in society at large by racial and ethnic minorities, often under threat of violence or other serious consequences.

Eventually, however, that kind of adherence to he conventions of the dominant culture is eschewed and the minority culture asserts and celebrates its own identity. When it does so, however, it is met with a backlash. In society at large, we saw the Harlem Renaissance followed by the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement and various periods when Latino and Chicano culture came to the fore. In all cases such things were met with panic. Overt racism. Nativism. Reactionary rhetoric and far, far worse. People were just fine when minorities kept quiet, but they felt threatened when they didn’t and they lashed out.

In baseball -- always better or, at the very least faster, than society at large in accepting different cultures -- you see a far less overt assertion of identity. Baseball is still just a workplace, not life, after all. And you see a far less threatening backlash, of course. But there’s an assertion of identity and backlash all the same.

Latin players are certainly more numerous now, but they’re likewise less likely to adhere to white baseball culture than they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We don’t expect Robertos to be Bobs, the clubhouse speakers are more likely to be blasting salsa music than country music and the manner in which a player carries himself is not the same as it was in 1955. In response: talk of “playing the game the right way” has dramatically increased in recent years, and the folks who say such things are often willfully ignorant of the fact that the orthodoxy they advocate didn’t always take the form they think it did. Stories of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale assaulting players who got out of line when, in reality, they hit far fewer batters than some like to claim. The belief that a batter showing frustration at himself is somehow anathema to baseball culture when dudes have been breaking bats over their knees in anger forever. Convenient forgetfulness that players back in the so-called Golden Age did all sorts of crazy things that would make even Carlos Gomez blush today.

In form, this assertion of “the right way to play” is no different than the reactions to the empowerment and increased visibility of minority cultures in society at large. An attempt to reestablish a hegemony and dominance that used to exist by default but now some wish to reimpose via assertion. And, as Ortiz notes, via purpose pitches and players barking at one another on the field.

And, as we can see via the words of Padres pitcher Bud Norris in Ortiz’s story, the verbiage used to reassert it is strikingly similar to what you hear from those who fear the rise of minorities in society at large:

“I think it’s a culture shock,’’ Norris said. “This is America’s game. This is America’s pastime, and over the last 10-15 years we’ve seen a very big world influence in this game, which we as a union and as players appreciate. We’re opening this game to everyone that can play. However, if you’re going to come into our country and make our American dollars, you need to respect a game that has been here for over a hundred years, and I think sometimes that can be misconstrued. There are some players that have antics, that have done things over the years that we don’t necessarily agree with.

“I understand you want to say it’s a cultural thing or an upbringing thing. But by the time you get to the big leagues, you better have a pretty good understanding of what this league is and how long it’s been around.’’

How is this any different than someone complaining about immigrants not learning English or assimilating in the particular manner white Americans want them to assimilate? How is this not the sort of nativism Donald Trump is appealing to in the electorate transplanted into baseball? I submit that it’s exactly the same in impulse and effect, even if it’s somewhat less odious in the actual words being used.

We can talk about how they play the game here versus how they play the game there. We can talk about baseball conventions and history and culture. But it seems pretty clear to me that most bench-clearing incidents are a function of white American ballplayers reacting to and, in some cases, specifically trying to regulate the behavior of Latino players. And that it’s being done out of a sense of defensiveness and insecurity not unlike that you see from white Americans who have reacted to the rise of minority culture throughout American history.

I’m sure many will take issue with this explanation, but to do so, one has to believe that sports don’t mirror culture. That sports are self-contained universes which are immune to the cultural dynamics which impact and shape the world at large. I think that’s utter hogwash. I think that just about everything that goes on in sports is a reflection or an echo of what happens in the real world and that what we’re seeing go down between white American players and Latino players in baseball is pretty much what we’ve seen go down between white people and racial minorities for centuries. It’s playing out more quietly. It’s playing out less violently. And the stakes involved may not be anywhere near as great. But it’s the same game being played out between the lines as it is outside the lines.