When “Jackie Robinson” Is Used as a Racial Slur

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What happened at Yankee Stadium is not about one incident. It’s about how Major League Baseball chooses to remember Robinson’s legacy.

The top news in Major League Baseball is not the “cardiac kid” Baltimore Orioles—three walk-off wins in four days!—or the dominant New York Mets. Instead, it’s an incident at Yankee Stadium, which is a microcosm of everything that baseball does wrong.

If you missed it, the Yankees third baseman, Josh Donaldson, called Chicago White Sox starter, Tim Anderson—one of the most prominent of the dwindling number of Black MLB players from the United States—“Jackie” several times. That’s “Jackie” as in Jackie Robinson, the legend who broke baseball’s color line in 1947. When the name-calling became too much for Anderson, the benches cleared out and the story got out to the public. Donaldson said that he was just fooling around and it wasn’t racist because he was referencing a 2019 Sports Illustrated article in which Anderson says, “I kind of feel like today’s Jackie Robinson.” No one saw Donaldson’s jab as a compliment and Donaldson himself implied that this was just good old-fashioned trash talking.

Tim Anderson didn’t see it that way. His teammates didn’t see it that way. His team’s manager, Tony La Russa, didn’t see it that way. Even Yankees manager Aaron Boone, in attempting to defend Donaldson, said, “Josh has been very forthcoming with the history of it and the context of it. So I don’t believe there was any malicious intent in that regard. But you know, this is—just in my opinion—somewhere he should not be going.” Somewhere he should not be going: That might sound like some seriously weak sauce, but a manager saying it about his own player, usually a verboten act in baseball culture, only reveals just how clearly a line was crossed.

The day after the incident, when Anderson came up to the plate, it really did feel like the dismal days of Jackie Robinson were being channeled as the Yankee faithful booed him vociferously and chanted “Jackie.” In the words of longtime sports columnist David Steele, “It’s ‘Boy Remember Your Place Night’ at the ballpark in the Bronx.” That Anderson responded to the boos with a three-hit game, including a three-run home run, ironically also echoed Robinson: succeeding in the face of a racist tidal wave by opposing fans.

There is a bigger issue here than just the morality play that went down in the Bronx. Consider the idea that Josh Donaldson actually used the word “Jackie” as a racial slur. On one level, this is shocking. Jack Roosevelt Robinson is a hero of the first order who walked through hell in a gasoline suit precisely so players—players like Anderson—wouldn’t have to endure the racism that he faced. His name should forever be remembered not only as a synonym for courage but also as a reminder that baseball—not merely “society”—was extremely racist when he attempted to integrate the sport. The problem with the way Major League Baseball celebrates and remembers Robinson is that it talks a lot about the first part—with abstract words like “bravery”—without discussing exactly what kind of athletic environment he had to be brave in. If the league does discuss context, it’s always that word again, “society,” as if racism was just something in the air—not something that baseball as an institution was actually built upon. Major League Baseball fits Robinson into a neat schema of “segregation, integration, celebration!” It’s desire for marketing and patriotism, which are really one and the same, is for baseball to symbolize “post-racialism.” This is a cruel joke, especially now, as all authoritarian thugs organize openly while the GOP cheers them on and Democrats yawn.

We need Major League Baseball to own its own problematic history more forthrightly, and speak about what it will do to change the ways that history informs its present in a poisonous fashion. As Jackie Robinson knew so well, and spoke about in his last public appearance in 1973, as well as in his posthumously published book I Never Had It Made, baseball never purged itself of its racism. We’ve seen this in contemporary managerial hires, executive positions, and the way the sport watched passively as the numbers of Black players from the United States waned. We even see it in Tony LaRussa’s vague praise of Anderson as having had a great game “under those circumstances.” What circumstances? When did racism become the weather?

The fact is that Josh Donaldson represents a lasting culture within Major League Baseball. It’s a culture in which Robinson is praised abstractly, but current players like Anderson are routinely disrespected. Alienating Black players with magnetism like Anderson has also discourages a generation of young athletes who choose not to play baseball because of how Anderson has been treated. That will cause the great sport to suffer immeasurably. The entire sport pays a price if it holds up a sign that says, “Not For You.” We also pay a social cost, beyond the generational loss of new talent, by allowing racist ideas to fester in the “national pastime.”

Calling someone “Jackie Robinson” should be the ultimate compliment. That it can be used as a slur only tells us just how much work this league still has to do to confront its own ugly past and reckon with how that past informs its present.

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