Race is the third rail of American politics, and of other areas of national discourse as well. As Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy have learned of late, to be overheard making an assertion that’s disparaging to any racial or ethnic group is to go directly to the jail of public opinion, without passing Go. The best advice to those on even the fringes of any spotlight is to follow mom’s advice and say nothing if you can’t say something good.
Whenever the subject arises I think about Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. I did a piece on him some years ago, and even though we were about as different as two humans could be we became friends. I stayed in his home in Las Vegas, and got to know his wife Joan, and son Anthony and daughter Stephanie, youngsters then. Often when Jimmy and I wound up in the same city at the same time he’d call and propose a get-together. We spent one memorable evening on Rush Street in Chicago in the company of Harry Caray and “Fabulous Howard,” a limo driver who specialized in chauffeuring the notable. Jimmy, Harry and “Fab” could hold their own in any conversational company.
Jimmy was the kind of person I loved to write about, a self-invented guy who not only created a unique persona but never stopped selling it. Born Demetrious Synodinos, he grew up in gritty Steubenville, Ohio, running bets for local bookmakers. Before he was done he’d climbed the heap of the national betting scene and established himself as a major sports-TV personality. They say that in Las Vegas the action speaks louder than words, but it doesn’t. Jimmy bet surprisingly little but talked a whole lot, and while he regarded most of the rest of the world as audience it was a willing one.
As you may recall, Jimmy got in trouble by opining in a 1988 chat with a reporter that blacks were superior athletes in part because in slavery they were bred to produce stronger offspring. It was the kind of careless remark that rattles around barrooms daily-- more a misdemeanor than a crime-- but Jimmy was Jimmy and it went viral, costing him his high-profile job with CBS’s NFL pre-game shows. Protests from friends that he was no racist (he wasn’t) availed little. He died a few years later from the diabetes he sometimes paid attention to, and sometimes didn’t.
This rather lengthy preface is to introduce my thoughts on a piece that ran in USA Today a couple of weeks ago, near the start of the new baseball season. The headline read “MLB—DIVERSITY TAKES A BIG HIT.” It was about the fact that the proportion of African-American Major League players on opening-day rosters amounted to 7.8% of the total, unchanged from a year ago but less than half that of its 1981 peak (18.7%) and the average of about 17% it maintained during most of the 1980s and ‘90s. It portrayed baseball commish Selig as being “sickened” by the numbers and vowing to reverse them. The downtrend, the piece concluded, was a big deal all around, well worthy of concern.
Like most, of course, I’d noticed fewer blacks in baseball lineups in recent seasons, but found dubious the notion that it came at the expense of racial or ethnic diversity in the game. While the number of American blacks has declined the numbers of every other national or racial group have increased to the point where 223 players (26%), from 16 different countries, wore opening-day uniforms this year. It’s a regular United Nations out there.
Every season since 2000 between 25% and 28% of Major Leaguers have been classified as “Latino” or “Hispanic,” and because people of that designation run the full skin-color gamut, figuring out who’s who racially (should one wish to) would be a guessing game. No one alleges that the drop in African-American participation has resulted from the policies or attitudes of those who run the sport. By any reasonable definition baseball never has been more diverse than it is today.
The USA Today article said that “myriad complicated” reasons underlie the trend, but, by me, they are neither. It’s just that young black men today prefer to concentrate on other sports, namely basketball and football. For the last dozen or so years the proportion of African-American players in the NBA has hovered around 75% annually, and it’s been around 66% in the NFL for almost as long. Black domination of those sports has been so well established it’s rarely noted any more, and notions of increasing their diversity are mentioned only wryly. Like baseball, big-time basketball and football are meritocracies, so one must assume that the people who qualify to play them deserve to.
Basketball’s special appeal to the big-city athlete has been well documented. While to be played properly baseball takes a lot of land, expensive equipment and the sort of strong organizing hand supplied by Little League in small towns and urban suburbs, basketball requires only a ball and a hoop and backboard, although a net makes it more fun. A kid can have a good time shooting and dribbling by himself, and instant pickup games can be had among any even number of players up to 10. A street light can permit play to continue after dark.
Basketball’s frenetic “beat” is a better fit for the 21st century than that of bucolic baseball; basketball is hip-hop, baseball is the two-step. The sport’s allure has sucked talent from many athletic pursuits; it’s common currency that many a potential world-class soccer or tennis player is knocking himself out trying to be a backup point guard in the NBA.
Further, basketball has come to play a unique role in African-American life, serving as a kind of touchstone of male status. When I was out and about as a writer I often was struck by the number of black men I’d meet—outside of sports as well as in-- who’d pridefully bring up, unbidden, their youthful involvement with “the game.” I think you can include our President in that number.
Baseball has taken steps to recruit more young black players, setting up the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program across the country to introduce them to the sport. That’s good. I hope it produces fun for many and more major leaguers. But if it doesn’t it’s no big deal. Political correctness aside, the world changes and so do the people in it.
DERBY PICKS--Favorites don’t often win the Kentucky Derby because the race always contains a lot of good horses in the early stage of their development and its 1 ¼-mile distance and big (20-horse) field create a dynamic of their own, but it’s tough to ignore the likely favorite CALIFORNIA CHROME in Saturday’s renewal. He’s won all four of his starts this year (including the Santa Anita Derby) by a total of 24 lengths and has the field’s two highest Beyer speed ratings, a 107 and 108. He likes to run near the lead, which means he’ll probably encounter fewer “trip” problems than those trailing him. It’d be difficult not to bet on him.
Trouble is, he’s the morning-line betting choice at 5-to-2, so to make money you’ll have to combine him with longer-priced horses and hope one of them finishes second or—better!—edges him for first to make good a combo bet. One horse I wanted to pair him with in my four-horse exacta box is WICKED STRONG, the impressive winner of the Wood Memorial whose late-running style might put him in position to challenge the favorite in the long Churchill Downs homestretch, but he drew post-position 20 on the far outside, which means he’ll have extra ground to cover in an already-long race, and I don’t want to buck that.
Replacing Wicked Strong as my late-running pick is DANZA (10-to-1), the Arkansas Derby winner. My friend Dave Toscano, once called America’s best handicapper, likes him, and who am I to argue? Dave and I also agree on SAMRAAT at 15-to-1, a tough New York campaigner with five wins in six starts. I like a horse up front so I’ll round out my box with early running WILDCAT RED, 15-to-1. He has four firsts and three seconds to show for his seven starts, and when he loses it’s not by much. Maybe he can’t go the distance, but he’ll try.
By post position my ticket will read 4 (Danza), 5 (California Chrome), 6 (Samraat) and 10 (Wildcat Red). Good luck to all.